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Teaching All—Reaching All: Achieving Mastery (New Article Series!) “Grading For Learning”

Grading For Learning

What is a grade? A seemingly easy question is actually quite complicated depending on the perspective of the person answering it. If I’m a teacher, a grade should give me some indication of what my students know and are able to do with respect to what I am teaching. If I’m a student, a grade might help me get into college or on the honor roll. If I’m a parent, a grade might help my son or daughter get a scholarship or a discount on car insurance. Ultimately, however, a grade is a symbol that has been used since the inception of education as a communication tool. So if a grade is intended to be a tool for communication, what is it communicating and who is the audience?

The traditional system of grading has its roots at Harvard and Yale in the early 1800s. The system was devised to sort students into various groups according to their academic achievement versus the previous system which sorted students by social class. By 1877, Harvard had established a ranking system using a 100 percent scale. In 1897, Mount Holyoke College devised a system assigning a letter to each percentage range which became the foundation for the modern A, B, C, D, F scale of grades. Despite the seeming consistency in the traditional system, colleges, universities, and K-12 schools have various percentage ranges associated with each letter. For example, an A may equate to 90-100 percent, 95-100 percent, 93-100 percent, etc.

When Iowa adopted state standards in 2008, the primary purpose for doing so was to ensure that all Iowa students, regardless of where they live and go to school, have access to a high quality education that will prepare them for success in college and/or their chosen career. Iowa has enjoyed great success and a long tradition of excellence in education, and the addition of state standards has added a level of consistency in classrooms across the state. While teachers are still free to collaborate locally to determine how students will be taught, the content and skills they are teaching are consistent throughout the state. Through regional partnerships and sharing agreements, even students in the most rural and remote areas have access to innovative educational opportunities with high standards of learning.

There are multiple ways to assess students to ensure they are learning the standards being taught in their classrooms. Assessments vary across a continuum from classroom/teacher-directed to external standardized tests (figure 1). By using a variety of assessments, teachers are able to determine a student’s level of understanding as well as examine strengths and opportunities for improvement in instruction.

Figure 1 – Assessment Continuum

Classroom Assessments Common Assessments District-Level Assessments External Assessments
 Frequency  Daily to Weekly Unit Month to Trimester/ Semester Annual
 Use of Data from Assessment  Most Formative – used by teacher to make instructional decisions and differentiate for students based on their performance  Somewhat Formative Somewhat Summative  Summative – determine percent of students proficient
 Highlights -Developed by individual teachers
-Frequently identify level of student understanding
 -Collaboratively developed by UCSD teachers
-Identify level of student understanding of learning objectives
-Externally developed
-Identify groups of students by score
-Used for screening, entrance/exit criteria, etc.
-Externally developed
-Determine percent of students proficient
 Outcome of Assessment  -Make instructional decisions
-Differentiate for students based on needs
 -Feedback to students and teacher
-Systematic instructional changes
-Differentiate instruction/ re-teaching and grouping
 -Identifies systematic program strengths and opportunities for improvement
-Determine trends in performance and understanding
 -Identify program strengths and opportunities for improvement
-Accountability to federal and state regulations
 Examples  -Anecdotal notes/observations
-Performance Tasks
-Running Records
-Sample work
 -Unit tests
-Progress monitoring
-Performance tasks
 -FAST (elementary literacy)
-Benchmark (elementary literacy)
-Measure of Academic Progress (MAP)
 -Iowa Assessments
-Smarter Balanced (not currently used in Iowa)


Classroom assessments and common assessments have traditionally been used by teachers as evidence of student learning. These assessments should be the most closely aligned to the standards being taught in the classroom at the time the assessment is given. By examining a student’s performance on these assessments, a teacher can clearly communicate to parents and students what a student knows and is able to do with respect to the standards being taught in the class.

Now that standards for learning are consistent across classrooms, it makes sense that the tool (grade) used to communicate student learning of standards be consistent as well. Beginning in 2017-18, UCSD students in grades K-5 will be evaluated using a consistent four-point scale (figure 2).  This scale has been developed by a team of UCSD teachers and administrators to create consistency when interpreting student evidence of learning. Each set of standards has been clustered into related reporting topics. Students will have opportunities to demonstrate their learning for each reporting topic using a variety of classroom and common assessments.  Teachers will consider the collective evidence for each student and provide parents with a progress report at each trimester. Because standards represent end-of-year learning targets, these progress reports will keep parents informed as to how their son or daughter is progressing in each topic. This more detailed view of a student’s grade will also give students, parents, and teachers feedback as to a child’s areas of strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Figure 2 – Four-Point Scale Descriptions

Score Level of Performance/ Understanding Description*
4 Exceeding grade level standard In addition to completing all of the 3.0 statements, students also demonstrate in depth inferences and/or applications of the reporting topic.
3 Meeting grade level standard The student consistently and independently demonstrates understanding of all information and skills – simple and complex – that were taught in class and represent grade-level standards and expectations for learning. This level represents thorough student understanding of target learning goals for the grade level.
2.5 Partially meeting grade level standard The student’s performance reveals partial understanding of grade level information and skills though he/she makes intermittent errors.
2 Approaching grade level standard The student independently demonstrates understanding of simpler information and skills taught in class and expected in the grade level. Though there are errors with more complex information and skills, the student is beginning to understand and apply key concepts, processes, and skills as defined by grade-level standards.
1.5 Partially approaching grade level standard The student’s performance reveals partial understanding of some key grade-level concepts, processes, and skills, but he/she needs assistance to consistently demonstrate understanding of minimal knowledge and skills.
1 Beginning The student demonstrates insufficient progress and limited understanding of grade-level information and skills. Concepts, processes, and skills need repeated practice and frequent guidance from the teacher. Student-created evidence of learning is inconsistent. The student shows basic understanding of minimal knowledge and skills for the grade level.
IN Incomplete The student has not attempted to complete an assessment or assignment showing evidence of their understanding of the standard.
0 No evidence At the end of the grading term (year), the teacher has no evidence of student understanding of the grade level standard.
NA Not assessed This content was not assessed during this reporting period so no grade is listed.

*The above scale represents a generic description of student understanding. Standard-specific language is included in the scale for each reporting topic at a grade level and aligns to the levels of understanding described in this scale.

It is important to note that standards represent year-end expectations. It is expected, therefore, that most students will not fully understand and demonstrate the depth-of-knowledge expected in the standard on the first or even the second trimester progress report. Additionally, there are some standards for which students may be ready for advancement in the form of applying and transferring the knowledge they have to new and unknown situations. In this case, “advancement” does not mean skipping ahead to the next grade level. Instead, the depth-of-knowledge can be increased for students who have mastered the standard as written. It is through the collection of evidence that teachers will be able decipher what students know and are able to do so that they can plan instruction appropriately.

Teacher teams have been busy diving into the standards for various courses and grade levels. Though this is time consuming work, it will ultimately help all teachers, students, and parents more fully understand what a grade means in terms of student learning. In 2017-18, the UCSD curriculum team will be working closely with K-5 teachers to implement this system of grading for learning in mathematics and writing for grades K-5. Further, curriculum work to prepare for future grading conversations has already begun. A timeline showing additional grade levels and content areas slated to make the transition to more consistent and aligned grading practices is listed in figure 3.

Figure 3 – Grading for Learning Implementation Timeline

Grade Levels 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
Elementary (K-5) Mathematics
Social Studies
Speaking/ Listening
Middle School (6-8) None Mathematics
Social Studies
Industrial Tech
Family/Consumer Science
High School (9-12) None None Mathematics
Social Studies
Industrial Tech
Family/Consumer Science

Grades are an important feature of the K-12 educational system. Ensuring grades are fair, accurate, specific, and timely is the goal of revising the grading practices in UCSD. Our students deserve to know their learning is accurately reflected and communicated.

Crista Carlile
Director of Teaching and Learning
Urbandale CSD