School principals across the country—particularly secondary school principals—are being asked to lead their school communities in a close examination of classroom assessment and grading practices. In particular, their focus targets policies and practices that maximize accuracy, consistency, and student achievement—and for good reason. W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies in Los Angeles and an expert on school improvement, identifies increasing educators’ assessment literacy as “the single most cost-effective way to improve our nation’s schools.”

But schools are in different places on this journey and operate in different contexts. A one-size-fits-all approach to improving classroom assessment and grading often strikes principals as being insensitive to their school community’s particular needs and therefore susceptible to the kind of pushback that can stop improvement efforts dead in their tracks. An approach that offers a school flexibility in charting its own course toward best practices in classroom assessment and grading is one that engages the school community in research and discussion around what to stop, what to start, and why it matters.

What to Stop

The research is clear regarding the negative effects of several counterproductive practices common in American secondary classrooms. For example, if we want grades that accurately reflect demonstrated performance of academic standards—rather than a mixture of academic performance, work ethic, behavior, and extra credit—we have to stop throwing points for both academic and nonacademic factors into one pot to be converted into grades. We have to stop assigning points for work unrelated to identified course academic standards—points for a “cute” poster when the unit standards exclusively address only content-specific learning targets, or points off for not putting a name on the assignment.

If we want grades to encourage students to be persistent and to continue to improve their work, we have to stop giving students zeros in a 100-point (percentage) grading system, which punishes students so severely for missing work that many give up. If we want students to be risk-takers, we have to stop including formative assessment scores, i.e., homework, in course grades and put an end to policies that do not allow students to turn in late work. And if we want grades to encourage students, we have to stop averaging grades within standards and instead use a grading system that reflects where students are on a particular standard at the end of instruction, rather than an average of their performance throughout instruction.

What to Start

Successful principals will know when the school community is ready to expand the classroom assessment and grading discourse. For example, research supports the idea that student achievement improves significantly when teachers and students are clear about intended course learning outcomes and their related indicators of success. Define these parameters: What will students need to show they know and can do, and at what cognitive levels, to convince the teacher they are proficient or exceed grade-level expectations on a course learning outcome? This entails going well beyond traditional course syllabi and more than just writing the day’s learning target on the board.

Leveled scoring scales or proficiency rubrics (e.g., no evidence of mastery = 0, partial = 1, basic = 2, proficient = 3, and advanced = 4) for priority standards or measurement topics in each course are becoming increasingly common in K–12 classrooms as a means of clarifying student performance expectations. An examination of well-developed scoring scales on a variety of standards or topics, along with an analysis of how teachers clarify expectations for student performance, can lead to the development of course-specific (not teacher-specific) scoring scales. (The development of scoring scales and the accompanying 0–4 scoring system addresses many of the problems identified in the “What to Stop” section of this article.)

The most powerful tool at teachers’ disposal in improving student learning is the frequent use of formative assessment. Exploration and analysis around the purposes and uses of formative assessment provide the catalyst for improvement in the quest to increase student learning. Susan Brookhart, an independent educational consultant who works with schools doing professional development and consultation, is an excellent resource for starting this work.

It’s also important to analyze assessment tasks and instructional activities/resources to ensure that the stated curriculum, standards, and scoring scales match the assessed curriculum and are tightly aligned to the taught curriculum.

According to the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, “Validity is … the most fundamental consideration in developing tests and evaluating tests.” Validity can be defined as the accuracy of test-based inferences about the test-takers, or for practical purposes, the extent to which the test measures what it purports to measure. If the latter is not true, judgments teachers make based on assessment results misrepresent student learning. Construct validity is used to ensure that other variables have not been calculated in the results.

Numerous studies that attempt to align assessment tasks with learning outcomes reveal significant misalignment. At the school level, have teachers exchange assessment tasks and intended learning outcomes for a study unit with a colleague who is familiar with the course content and skills in order to evaluate construct validity. A knowledgeable colleague should be able to match all assessment tasks with intended outcomes without assistance from the author of the unit.

Principals who are intent on improving assessment literacy and best practices may want to start ensuring assessment tasks are aligned with intended outcomes. None of us would expect to hold students accountable for content and/or skills that were never taught. Also consider conducting a formal analysis to ensure instructional activities and resources are identified for each indicator of scoring for the unit’s standards or measurement topics. How, for example, can we expect to hold students accountable for a particular skill listed at the “proficient” level on a scoring scale if we have not identified any activities or resources designed to enable them to learn that skill?

A simple table with unit standards across the top and proficiency levels down the side (see above) can be used to identify instructional gaps (empty cells) needing to be filled.

What to start? Instructional alignment—the stated curriculum, the tested curriculum, and the taught curriculum.

Why It Matters

Do the grades we assign truly reflect students’ learning? Are we accurately communicating to students their readiness for postsecondary education through the grades we assign? Does the same body of student work receive the same grade across teachers of the same course in a school? A district? A state? Do our current assessment and grading practices encourage persistence and continued learning? According to experts, the answer is “not always.” Does it matter? Yes!

For more than a decade, we have been deluged with reports decrying the plight of students, many with GPAs of 3.0 and above, who must take remedial coursework in college for which they must pay tuition and for which they receive no credit toward a college degree. We know that only about 1 in 4 such students will ever graduate. It matters.

Anyone who has ever been a student, a parent, or an educator knows that course grades, and thus GPA, class rank, college admission, scholarships, and athletic eligibility, can depend in no small way on the teacher whom the computer schedules to teach a student, even when the quality of student work is constant. It matters.

Anyone who has been in a classroom for any period of time has witnessed the frustration, the hopelessness, and the disengagement of students who have given up because of assessment and grading practices that punish early mistakes and discourage continued effort. It matters.

Do classroom assessment and grading practices matter? At two schools I worked with long enough for research-based assessment and grading practices to become accepted routine, the scores on state tests improved dramatically. James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, HI, a large urban school, attributes its gains to the implementation of several initiatives, including changes in assessment and grading. Kohala High School in Kapaau, HI, a small, rural school, identifies the move to standards-based grading as the primary improvement factor.

Engaging a school community in exploring what to stop, what to start, and why it matters is a way to chart a course to assessment literacy. And it matters.

Tim Westerberg is a retired high school principal now working as an education consultant. He is author of the ASCD book Charting a Course to Standards-Based Grading: What to Stop, What to Start, and Why It Matters.