Rethinking Grading and Assessment Practices – Part 2 – Co-Creating Solutions with Your Community | Canada Varsity

Rethinking Grading and Assessment Practices – Part 2 – Co-Creating Solutions with Your Community



In Part 1 of “Rethinking Grading and Assessment Practices,” I shared my thoughts on the question, “Why do we need to rethink how we assess and grade in schools today?”

This is an important question to address, as changing things for the sake of change is never a good strategy.

As I shared in part 1, I am only trying to add and initiate conversation, and by no means do I have all of the answers.

Yet, when I say I am trying to initiate a conversation, the question is, with whom?

If educators move forward on this alone, the pushback to change could lead to one step ahead and multiple steps back. But when we can walk with many, the progress might be slower, yet the distance we can go together will be further.

Hence the reason why today, I am addressing the following question, “How do we bring communities together in the process of shifting our assessment and grading strategies?”

If people feel this is done with them rather than to them, they are more likely to move forward and become your biggest advocates.


What assumptions do we need to address?

In Part 1, I share the goal of this work: “To help every learner find a pathway to success that is meaningful to them.”

I believe that this is a common goal amongst educators, parents, and, most importantly (hopefully), students.

Now the goal might be shared, but our belief in what it means can differ for many. For example, many parents, along with many students and educators, believe that college is the way to find that success. Although that is not my interpretation of the statement, I also understand that. What is essential in rethinking our assessment practices is that we open more doors, not close them. I would not want any student to lose out on a scholarship opportunity or access to college because of a shift in assessment and grading practices. As obvious as this may sound, it still needs to be said and addressed.

The biggest concern for many is that doing things differently in school could lead to fewer opportunities outside and after a student’s K-12 experience. It is essential to leave all doors a student wants to walk through open for today and their future.

With that in mind, I think it is essential to address a common statement I have heard in education circles for as long as I have been in the profession.

“Parents want school to be the way it was for them as a child for their own kids.”

This is false.

My belief (and being a father myself) is that parents want what’s best for their child, but if they know no other school experience other than the one they had as kids, they will often default to what they know versus what they don’t.

Understanding this is essential if we are going to bring our community into the process.

So how do we engage and empower parents, caregivers, and communities in a new way of thinking about assessments and grading practices?

Years ago, as a principal, we had looked as a school of having our students create their own digital portfolios (there will be a lot on this topic, specifically in part 4 of this series) to capture their learning in a way that would not only help them self-assess their own learning, show evidence of growth to their families and teachers, but also have a tangible product they could share with the world when they left their school experience. This portfolio was something that they could use to apply for jobs, start their own business, apply for college, and build a digital footprint in a way that opportunities would not only open up for them but find them.

For example, you are reading this on my portfolio that I started all those years ago to lead this initiative to better help my students. It has helped people find me, and I have had opportunities I couldn’t even imagine existed when I started this process. That happened accidentally, but through my experience, I wanted to help students intentionally open these same doors for themselves. To teach it effectively, I had to learn it first.

As I went through the process of starting a digital portfolio, I realized that doing this through a blogging platform (WordPress) was the best way to go about this process, as it allowed me to have one space while having the ability to bring in multiple mediums (writing, audio, video, images, and whatever else you could capture and create) to share with the world.

But the thought of students having a “blog” was daunting to many, especially parents and caregivers. So instead of saying, “Surprise! Guess what we are doing?!?!!” and scaring everyone away from the process before we even began, I started hosting community nights where the adults could start with their own learning and create their portfolios for whatever they were doing in their own lives.

As they went through the process, saw the benefits, and explored some of the negatives that needed to be avoided, they became more comfortable with the process and excited about the possibilities for themselves and, ultimately, for their kids. The lightbulb went off for me on how valuable this process was of having parents experience something different when one of them said, “This is SOOOO much better than when I was a kid in school.”


If knowledge is power, then providing opportunities for the community of adults to build it for themselves through this process would be beneficial.

Are communities a part of this conversation, or are they being told what is happening after the process is put in place?

I remember hearing about a school district that wanted to shift from a traditional grading practice toward more standards-based assessments. Initially, this was communicated to be a “pilot,” but the full intention was that this would happen district-wide. The process had begun, and the community received some communication from the school that it was while it was happening. At first, there were a few complaints, but once the report cards came out and looked nothing like what the adults had received when they were kids, the few negative interactions turned into many.

After that, it turned into a massive back-and-forth on how this process was terrible for kids and would hurt them long-term as they would lose out on opportunities such as college. There were also comments that the new report card had adopted an “everyone gets an award mentality” that would only cause issues for kids in the future.

Was that true? Not according to district officials, but often, perception becomes reality.

After a ton of pushback and a few years of tweaking the report card “after the fact,” the district basically returned to what they were doing before.

A piece of feedback I provide for schools when doing something new and different from the norm is always to overcommunicate rather than share too little.

The educators had the intention of genuinely helping students, and their focus was on the right place, but when initiating massive change, you need to bring people into the learning process, not just tell them what you will do, especially when it comes to their kids.

As an administrator, a simple thing we did as we shifted some of our teaching and learning processes was inviting community members into our professional learning days. We couldn’t invite everyone, but we always asked different people each time and thought of having voices from various perspectives involved in the day, from those excited about the initiatives to those that weren’t.

As an administrator, I would debrief with the community after and get their thoughts on what they thought about the initiatives and their perspectives. I did not just “listen” to what they had to say and then go on to do what I wanted to do later. I took their feedback, and as a school community, we tweaked and changed things to find new solutions that the community co-created. I have done this for years, and at the older levels of K-12 schools, we also have invited students to professional learning days to get their feedback.

What is significant about this process is that when you include a diverse range of people in creating the solutions for your school or district together as a community, they also become the most prominent advocates for those solutions. If you do not want the community to know about the initiatives in your schools, then you probably shouldn’t be doing them.

One of my favorite quotes on education is from Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf in “Lead Like a Pirate,” where they share that “People are less likely to tear down a culture that they have helped build.”

That is true for any initiative you are pursuing in your schools.


(Truly) Learn Alongside Your Community

If you had asked me when I first started teaching if I thought getting rid of awards would be a good practice, I would have ignored you completely. But as an administrator, that happened in the school I was lucky enough to lead as the principal.

My thought process was that awards were the driver of people striving to exceptional heights and that if you didn’t win an award, that was just a part of life that we need to learn from, as uncomfortable as it may feel. To this day, I think that we can learn from winning and losing in competitions that we place ourselves in.

But notice the last words of the above sentence; competitions that we place ourselves in.

Many students didn’t ask to be in the school award chase, yet they are placed there anyway. Something wasn’t sitting right with me in the process.

As I started to read and blog about what I was learning, research showed that the process demotivated many students who didn’t win awards. That didn’t surprise me at all.

What did shock me was how award ceremonies in schools also had unintended negative consequences on the students who had won them. As we were really focusing on our students doing deep learning and developing creativity and innovation as a norm in our schools, many students had been conditioned to look at school as a checklist and find what things were necessary to check off to get the award.

They weren’t focused on learning but on how they could win an award. Would this serve their best interests in the long term?

Whether you agree with me or not is moot to the point I am trying to make. But please do recognize that no kid in kindergarten walks into school wanting an award for their fingerpaintings; they are often conditioned to that.

My learning and transformation on this topic were made public through my blog. As I was exploring this topic myself, I wrote a post on “The Impact of Awards,” To this day, I have received more emails and messages on this blog post than any other one I have written in the nearly 2000 posts from the last 12 years. My “struggle” with this topic was shared globally (through my digital portfolio, nonetheless), but it was something that our community, educators, and parents were reading together.

But it wasn’t just my open blogging that had made an impact. It was also the sharing of articles outside our organization (sometimes people are more willing to listen to the views of someone outside your organization than within as it provides a different perspective) with my community that made a difference. It was the continuous conversations we had with them in both formal and informal settings.

In one particular meeting, we asked our community, “Do award ceremonies benefit our students?” We were also open to our own learning on this process. We didn’t go in with a set direction, but through our learning together, we figured out a path forward together. Community members were not only struggling with this concept but so were many of my staff. As we moved further into the conversations, readings, and research, we decided, as a community, that awards would not work for our community at this time and that authentic and real-time acknowledgment of our students daily was more conducive to deep learning.

There is still one conversation that sticks out to me more than others.

A parent who was nervous about sharing her perspective spoke up and shared that as the younger sister in her family, she remembers how embarrassed she was that her sister would always win the awards and that she wasn’t deemed as bright as her. As she shared her embarrassment from a grade 2 ceremony almost 30 years earlier, she broke into tears as that moment still haunted her. I applauded her courage and was so proud she was vulnerable enough to share her story. What had the most significant impact was that many community members who were staunch advocates of keeping the award ceremony in our schools saw what this process had done to an adult multiple decades later. They wanted no part of that for their own children. That story from a parent did more to move our school forward than anything I could have said or done.

Understanding that our community is often an untapped resource in moving our schools forward is crucial if we want to change how we view our grading and assessment practices.

Moving Forward

As I started this series, I first wanted to discuss different ways of theory and practice of how we can change grading and assessment, but when I asked for feedback from my professional learning community, one of the barriers they shared was how they bring adults along in this process. I probably wouldn’t have written the first two posts of this series on these topics without tapping into my own educator community.

When we are open to learning from our community and with them, we might not ultimately end up with the solution that we initially sought, but one that is more likely to be sustainable in the long term and better than what we were doing prior without the collaboration.

In the next part of this series, I will look at different ways of thinking about assessment and how we could move away from traditional grading to a practice that focuses on developing great learners today and in the future.

Questions for Consideration

1. What are some opportunities for bringing parents, caregivers, and students into conversations about changing our assessment practices?

2. How do we make our learning and growth visible in the rethinking grading and assessment practice?

3. As we shift our learning on this topic, how do we ensure more doors and opportunities are open for students?

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