The challenges of a gradebook

Our school division has done some amazing work. Everyday I am proud and excited about how learning experiences are changing for our students. I see shifts in learning environments.


I see classrooms engaging in “Invitations to Learn” and inquiry.

Up to April 2012 176

I see students and teachers embracing digital learning.

Up to April 2012 140

I am proud that we assess according to curricular outcomes. I am excited to see children reflecting and goal-setting. I hear the term pre-assessment a lot in school visits. I could go on and on about the amazing things that are happening.

Up to April 2012 150

But we are stuck. One thing is occupying a great deal of time and energy and is inviting us to linger a little too long in places not so related to teaching and learning. We are caught up in the world of reporting.

Now, I am not even remotely suggesting that reporting is a bad thing. It is important because it opens one line of communication with families. It is a prescribed (in our Division) way of sharing a child’s progress with parents and guardians. We have gone one step further and opened our gradebook to parents, which is also an okay thing…as long as it is, indeed, communicating something. And that is where we are stuck. I am not sure what we are communicating and I am not sure we (as an entire societal education system) know what parents are wondering either.

In order to explain my own thinking on this (and it is my own…I would not presume to speak for anyone else), I have to travel back in time to the earlier years of my career. Way back then, I had a gradebook handwritten in the back of my day planner. I proudly filled it with numbers throughout each of the three terms. When the time came to calculate marks, I simply added everything together and divided by the total. When I got a little more sophisticated, I would group the numbers into categories (assignment, tests, etc.) and weight them before adding and dividing. The most important point in all of this, though, is that when a parent (or student) had a question about a mark, my explanation for the mark sounded something like this:

Well, you received the mark you did because I took 25 and added it to 14, 36 and 21. That gave me 96 out of a possible 120. I divided the 96 by the 120, multiplied by 100 and your mark was 80%. That was on your assignments, which I weighted at 75%. This gave you a 60 out of 75. On your final exam, you got 80%, which was 20 out of 25. Add those two together and you received 80%.

Clear as a bell right? Math magic I call it. Notice that not once in this explanation did I talk about learning. I did not refer to the outcomes (objectives in those days). Not once did I talk about how the student demonstrated learning, the feedback they received, the goals the set, the learning experiences they engaged in. I just explained how I calculated the mark. And in my recollection, no one ever questioned it. These kinds of explanations have been going on for years. Parents seemed to get the answers they were looking for from the information I gave.

So, flash forward to now. We construct learning experiences through the UbD model. We assess the outcomes. We offer constructive feedback. We even have a spot in our new gradebook for formative assessment. Our classrooms have changed. Learning has changed. But we are trapped in parts of the old paradigm and the message we are sending parents is convoluted. As educators, we have to be clear about the things we do in our own hearts before we can ever hope to clarify understanding with our partners. Lately, I have been wondering if a gradebook is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong…I think our gradebook is great. We designed it ourselves and it does amazing things. It organizes learning according to curricular outcomes. It takes into account most recent evidence as well as most consistent. It focuses on learning outcomes and allows us to document behaviour separately. It is great. I think the problem would exist with any gradebook because the notion of a gradebook in and of itself, holds connotative meaning for many people.

The gradebook, for many, represents the old paradigm of math magic and assessment of learning and the mixing of the old paradigm with the new has us confused (and I include myself in this because I spend much time considering it). I think it is possible that we are still using the gradebook to simply create a report card. It is also possible that we spend a great deal of valuable time trying to make the gradebook say what we want it to but I am not sure we are clear about what we want it to say. Maybe we still just want it to explain the math magic behind scores (even though we use alpha codes K-8). When given the option of making an assessment formative or summative, we may choose summative because that is the score that “counts”, and the more scores that count, the better. This is an old paradigm.

What I have been wondering is if it would help to think of learning and assessment like this: all learning is formative and all assessment is formative until one of two things happen: 1) a student reaches the outcome (and I would even argue that because learning will still continue, so should formative assessment but let’s simplify for argument’s sake) 2) it is report card time. Otherwise, shouldn’t all assessment be formative? Isn’t all learning continuous?

Now, I don’t want to sound too pie-in-the-sky and impractical. I hear the chorus of arguments that say: Sometimes there is an end to the learning because we run out of time or Sometimes I want to measure learning once and for all…what you suggest isn’t practical. I am inclined to entertain discussions about pragmatics for sure…there are aspects of our education system that challenge most arguments any person could present about almost anything. After all, learning is messy.

But I return to my original story – if we are spending inordinate amounts of time trying to manipulate a gradebook, or calculate a mark or justify the result we finally share, then we are sacrificing time we could be spending on formative assessment and feedback. Further to this, if we are afraid of sharing the variety of assessing we are doing to reflect the progression of learning (formative, pre, summative), then we are missing out on a conversation that is so important. I am not suggesting that every single thing we do needs to be entered into a gradebook – this isn’t practical. But, how can we use all the information we have to engage in conversations with students and parents?  How can we use it to adjust our instruction? How can assessment be part of the learning? The complexity of these questions is compounded when the conversation about learning is continuous with parents; when they have access to the gradebook at all times. We have to be clear about the formative nature of learning and be aware of how we share this process with parents and what we need them to know. We have to think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. Because, at the end of the day, schools should be about learning and not about marks. And the things we should be sharing are the images of amazing things that happen inside our schools each and every day. We have a lot to be proud of and so do our students.

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