Civics is taught in eighth grade. No, that’s fifth grade in our school, actually, and sixth grade is ancient cultures with seventh grade focusing on the mid-1800’s through the modern era. And what’s 8th grade, you ask? We decided to turn that into a personal finance and college/career prep course. And what about math? Well, 6th grade is shoring up exponents, geometry, measurement, the metric system, critical thinking, fractions/decimals, with some early pre-algebra ideas, then 7th grade is pre-algebra, and 8th grade a dual enrollment Algebra I course. Then, we –
And on it goes, all of it very arbitrary. We try to be logical about these sequences, but we can be unnecessarily protective of specific subjects taught at each grade level, then get judgmental when students don’t master material in its assigned year. What’s wrong with these students, we wonder, or their previous teachers? There’s an uncomfortable hint of self-righteousness here, and none of it serves students.
We’ll discuss another time who should have the strongest voices in creating meaningful and helpful curricula at any specific grade level, but for now, let’s remember that many of our students are operating at significantly different levels of readiness as they enter each school year. What’s more, this readiness can fluctuate throughout the year and from unit to unit. Our students come from a variety of backgrounds, interests, languages, experiences, previous teachers, cultures, proclivities, and identities – yet we put them in the same academic chute and demand uniform proficiency from all on the exact same date? This is something we do for clerical ease, not student success.
What matters is that students learn the material and grow individually, not that we’ve maintained orderly adherence to the school calendar or particular manner of learning. And, what if we have students who don’t fit the fixed template of our general education structures and practices? Some of our students have specific and non-specific learning differences that require something separate or modified from the general education learning experience. They have IEP’s, 504 Plans, are Dual Language Learners, or they are classified under Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support as Tier 1, 2, or 3. They get this intervention here, but not that one over there, but then later, they need these three other interventions, but then, if we think about it, we could have done those things in the whole class lessons at the beginning. And if we did, we wouldn’t have to remediate here. And good golly, are we slipping into a deficit mindset? Augh!
Now it’s time to assign grades to these students using arbitrary standards assigned to the grade level and subject under the false notion that everyone learns in the same manner, at the same pace, to the same level of proficiency and long-term retention, and while navigating the same family, personal, and cultural dynamics, along the same, uneven path of young adolescent development.
Whether or not we teach general education, special education, or both, we must focus on grading practices that create the most constructive maturation and academic learning for all students. It’s not only a good use of time, it’s actually going to keep our work accurate, ethical, and equitable, even helping us remedy occasional injustices and keep within the spirit and intent of current school law. Let’s look at grading students with special education needs, especially if they are included in general education courses.
Perspectives and Mechanics that Help Resolve Grading Issues
Practical solutions flow from principled policies. So, as we resolve grading challenges when it comes to students with special education needs, including ML and ELL needs, always begin by identifying the operational tenets involved, then move to what those tenets mean when put into classroom practice. Of course, some operating principles run counter to current school policies, but that’s the perfect moment for open and thoughtful discussion on the need for change and to begin dismantling, revising, or removing ineffective policies that don’t serve diverse students. Scary stuff for some of us, I know, but remember that real students and their families are significantly affected here, as are our profession’s integrity and efficacy. We need to get this right. Let’s do it.
For each of the 12 statements of equitable, accurate, and ethical assessment and grading below, I include what it invites and, in some cases, requires, us to do if we’re in alignment with its intent while working with students with special education needs. The goal is to bring clarity and substance to the concerns, thereby providing a path forward.
- The general education teacher is the one who ultimately determines the academic grades for all students in their classrooms.
What This Means in Classroom Practice: There is no equivocating here. For students with special education needs enrolled in general ed classrooms, we do not treat this as a divorce situation, declaring, “You grade your special ed kids, while I grade my general ed kids.” It works much more effectively when both teachers accept that all students, including those with special education needs, are the students of the general ed teacher.
Of course, the general ed teacher has the responsibility to heed the expertise of the special education teacher or case manager as to how to successfully teach these students, as well as how to assess them on content to truly see what students have learned. And, if evidence of proficiency is found in the student’s work done with the special education teacher, it’s legitimate evidence.
The special education teacher may recommend a different format for the test, a different timeline for demonstrating mastery, breaking up complex tasks into a series of individual ones, using a different medium to learn or assess, or maybe working on two standards right now and finishing the remaining three at a later point. The specialist may suggest reading something aloud with proper vocal inflection so a student understands the word problem and can apply proper math principles in its solution, or perhaps letting a student use a focusing device to keep track of thinking, or indicate that three math problems done well are rigorous and sufficient enough evidence, equal to the evidence from the five problems requested of the general ed students. None of these practices weaken the meaning of the grade. The high grade achieved through these methods is just as legitimate as other high grades in the class.
- Fair isn’t always equal.
What this Means for Classroom Practice: We provide what students need to maximize their learning and achievement, even when it differs from what we do for their classmates. “Fair” does not mean equal, similar, or same treatment. It refers to what is developmentally appropriate for that moment in an individual student’s progress. So, yeah, take more time with some students, provide a separate methodology for learning, provide different types and degrees of support along the way until they are competent (arrive at proficiency), and do so without a single qualm. Remember, the grade is what you know at journey’s end, not how you got there.
So, the important question here is whether or not the student learned the material and to what degree he did so, NOT whether or not he took the test, or did the project, or learned in same manner or pace as his classmates. And the next time a colleague or parent says it’s unfair to do something different in grading one student versus another or the whole class, remind them that we’re focusing on evidence of learning, not uniformity of development. We teach all students, not just the ones that find the classroom a friendly, trusting place to learn.
- Grades report what students know and can do at journey’s end, not how they got there.
What This Means for Classroom Practice: How or when students learn something is irrelevant to the final grade report of student learning against the standards. All methods to get to the standards can be reported (graded, if you must do this for some reason), but they are reported separately from the final academic grade report as they are not indicative of final proficiency in the academic standard. “Maintains a learning log,” is not in any academic standard, for example. The data drawn from these formative experiences represent only momentary stations along the way to proficiency. Final, academic grades report only what students know and can do at the end of the learning process.
So, “Do not grade” activities would include any activity a teacher asks of students that are part of the coming-to-know portion of learning, such as:
- Labs (unless used for final demonstrations of proficiency),
- Writings (unless used for final demonstrations of proficiency),
- Early drafts of anything,
- Early practice experiences,
- Group projects,
- Exit slips,
- Band practice minutes,
- Reading logs,
- Online practice modules,
- Note-taking, and
- Class discussions (unless they are summative demonstrations of discussion skills).
These are all methods for learning, but none of them can be used for summative judgement, i.e. report card grades, regarding proficiency in academic standards.
Because students with special education needs often need such services because the general education methods don’t serve them as well, this principle comes as great relief. Stumbling or incomplete attempts at activities others find easy doesn’t keep the student from receiving full credit for mastery at journey’s end. My challenges, they realize, will not be held against me in the final accounting of my learning. Yes, the student has made a mess of his lab book, but does he understand stoichiometry? The standard being assessed here is whether the student understands the relationship between reactants and products in chemical reactions, not whether he was organized. Report organization skills separately from the academic grade through another section of the report card or an addendum.
Ultimately, then, there is no conflict between differentiating instruction for students as warranted and the ultimate accountability of a grade as long as students demonstrate the expected evidence of the standard.
- Principle: Academic progress is relative to developmental readiness.
What It Means for Classroom Practice: If a student is doing well academically with standards that are near or far from grade-level standards, we can still claim that they are doing well academically, i.e. they are in good academic standing, for sports, robotics, Lego, and other competitions. This means we can record a high score or grade because the student is doing well with that material, stipulating that it is in reference to a modified, adjusted, or alternative grade level standard. And before I get emails, yes, IDEA legislation and the Office of Civil Rights declare this acceptable. This also means that we are wise to disaggregate the scores into specific standards. See below, for more ideas on this.
- Disaggregate according to standards.
What this Means for Classroom Practice: When taking courses that average grades, students with special education needs realize very quickly that, academically, they are only as good as the composite scores of their weakest areas allow to be reported. They hope they can get credit for the gold inside them, referring to the content for which they are on grade level and proficient, but realize that the averaged grade reports mix weak performance areas with reports of strong areas. So why bother?
One of the best ways to create hope, and far more accurate grading, for such students is to disaggregate grade reports into standards or, at least, standard categories. If there are seven standards in a project, for example, and a student is performing below-grade-level on four of the standards but are on-grade-level or higher for the remaining standards, separate that report into individual standards so the proficient areas see the light of day.
This means that our assessments must be revelatory, in that they “reveal the story” of the student’s proficiency. So, put the standards at the top of all assessments and record a score or evaluation for each standard. That test on the Spanish-American War focusing on five social studies standards, for example, would be returned with a, “4.0, 2.5, 4.0, 3.0, and a 3.5” written at the top, with each score corresponding to a separate standard. This is the end of writing “Spanish-American War Test: 86%” in the gradebook. Instead, we post the standards in the gradebook, recording under each, respectively, the evidence of proficiency from different assessments. There is hope here for students and, just as important, a far more accurate description of learning.
- Grades are temporary positions along a continuum at best.
What this Means for Classroom Practice: Grades are not set in stone. They can be changed later in the school year, given evidence on later assessments indicating a different level of proficiency. So, if we test students again after a period of properly learning material once deemed unlearned, their grade goes up.
Just as significant, the most recent evidence of learning is the most accurate report of achievement. If our goal is accurate reporting, recent scores and evaluations outweigh, or even replace, earlier ones. In this approach, a quiz is merely a status check. It cannot be averaged into the final report card grade because it is not evidence of final mastery. Instead, it informs the student and teacher on where the student is in relation to the academic goal. If a student scores poorly on a quiz, uses that quiz data and feedback to correctly learn the content, and then demonstrates mastery of those same questions on the unit test, they get full credit for proficiency. Student digressions in the course of learning are never averaged into the report of final proficiency.
- We report student learning in terms of how their performance aligns with evidence for proficiency in a standard, outcome, or learning target, not the degree of compliance with the assigned format or vehicle used to deliver that evidence.
What it means for Classroom Practice: If we’re grading against standards, it is completely irrelevant how students demonstrate proficiency (unless we are literally assessing their proficiency with the test format itself). So, yeah, that student clearly understands the concept of, “reciprocity,” but defined it by creating an interactive art piece and successfully critiquing others’ definitions of the concept. In both, they provided clear and robust evidence of every element required for proficiency. They get full credit here, not partial credit because they didn’t do it the way the rest of the class did it.
To be clear, if we’re assessing writing, the student needs to write, not do a Tik-Tok dance on the history of writing. If we’re assessing proficiency with a lab technique or pronouncing certain words in Spanish class, students need to demonstrate the lab technique and use those words with proper inflections. If we’re assessing flexible thinking with a math concept, the student must demonstrate that flexibility by applying the concept in an agile manner across different situations that satisfy the evaluative criteria for excellence – but that doesn’t mean this can only be done via a traditional math test.
If this mindset makes you hesitate, may I gently nudge you toward building your assessment repertoire? When teachers are asked to focus on evidence of learning, they may initially worry that there are only one or two ways to demonstrate specific content or skills in their courses. When teachers open the door to students expressing content and skills in a variety of ways, they not only enjoy the excitement of chasing evidence of learning over compliance, they know they are truly holding students accountable for their learning. This could include artistically, metaphorically, kinesthetically, through alternative media, or through non-linguistic methods.
Just a reminder, too, that this approach is also a great step toward student agency, which is key to student engagement and maturation.
This principle means that we don’t care if students take our tests, write our assigned papers, do the assigned demonstrations or culminating projects, so much as that they demonstrate evidence of learning. When colleagues say a student received a low grade because they didn’t do the work, worry. Doing the work (taking the test, writing the paper, doing the project, etc.) is a report of compliance, not of what students learned. No academic standard in any grade level states, “Does stuff assigned by the teacher.” Now, if the student wants a higher grade, they don’t clean lab equipment, put a cover on their report, turn in missing homework assignments, or complete three book reports instead of two. Instead, they demonstrate the evidence required of higher level performance.
For students for whom the general education classroom does not allow them to accurately express content and skill proficiency, alternative methods are found. As long as we are looking for students’ evidence of learning instead of blind adherence, students with special ed needs have hope and teachers have accurate grade reports. Let’s remember that hope is very demanding as it makes things possible and compelling. When there is hope, there is no choice but to forge ahead and commit to the effort. When we remove hope, there’s nothing left to lose and we can more easily rationalize our way out of accountability.
As educators, we are morally and professionally obligated to change assessment formats if we know the one we’re using will not allow certain students to accurately express their proficiencies. This is not up for debate or for if we’re in the mood, as we cannot knowingly falsify a grade. This is a form of lying to students, their parents, and ourselves and is unacceptable to professional educators.
- Anything once declared as summative judgment can be turned into a formative assessment from which to monitor progress, get feedback, and improve learning.
What This Means for Classroom Practice: The most common reason we don’t allow or require re-do’s on final exams, projects, writings, lab, code, demonstrations, and such is because someone sets that policy, not because it’s instructionally sound. It is not. Additionally, some schools deny re-learning and re-assessing because they lack commitment to student learning and achievement, or they hold false notions of how we instill self-discipline and personal responsibility in students.
If a student does poorly on the final “something,” turn the summative label into a formative one. The assessment world accepts the premise: Everything is formative until it’s not. One and done rarely creates competency. So, yeah, get into re-learning and re-assessing (re-do’s and re-takes) without hesitation: They are actually the way most professionals, let alone students, learn. See “Re-Learning & Re-Assessment: Practical Tips” for more.
- We do not succumb to arbitrary, uniform timelines from a school or district’s master calendar or schedule.
What This Means for Classroom Practice: We are willing to facilitate a completely different timeline for learning, including multiple learning-assessment iterations and proficiencies demonstrated after the year is completed.
The 36-week school year is completely arbitrary. It has no relationship to the number of standards general education students must master, nor to the developmental nature of young adolescents, let alone to the needs of those the general education classroom does not serve. We teach so that children learn the material, no matter how long it takes. We don’t hide behind the uniform nature of the school calendar and curriculum sequence to justify removing opportunities, methods, or timelines for successful learning.
Remember that legally, for all state and federal agencies, the “report card” refers to end-of-year transcripts only. What we send to parents and students every quarter, trimester, or semester is a, “progress report.” This means the grade book is cumulative for the whole year. Any time a student learns something, whether that student has special ed needs or not, the student is given full credit for the learning if they provide the evidence for such. We don’t decrease students’ grades because they didn’t learn it on the same timeline as classmates. We might place a temporary, “Not yet,” in the grade book, or an, “F,” or, “0,” if we have to, but these are completely replaceable – in full, given new evidence later in the year.
One thing to consider: digital portfolios carried over several years. Students can maintain science, Spanish, CTE, physical education, math, or other subject portfolios across all three years of 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. When we do this, it doesn’t matter what summer or school year a student learns the material, they get full credit for competencies as demonstrated. It’s deeply unrealistic to demand the entirety of one year’s overstuffed curriculum to be learned by even the most accomplished of students, let alone by any student who learns differently than the majority of their peers. If we think the curriculum is important enough to teach, then, let’s do it – even when it takes a different timeline than we imagined.
- Remain attentive to unaware bias.
What this means for Classroom Practice: @IntrovertProbss, a Twitter contributor who advocates for introverts, posted this on Dec 18, 2022:
“I’m an introvert. I’m not shy. I am a thinker. I’m an observer. I’m not stuck up. I’m not anti- social. I treasure my solitude. I’m not a fan of small talk. I prefer a few close friends. I am reserved, until I’m not. I appreciate true connection. If we connect, you matter to me.”
In many schools, we overuse characteristics of extroverts to judge the healthy and positive behaviors of all students, even those who are introverts and uncomfortable with those processes or expressions. This can diminish their capacity to demonstrate competency in many units of study. In addition, most schools are overly dependent on linguistic (talking and writing) representation of intellect and proficiency when non-linguistic representation is just as valid.
Lack of language proficiency does not mean lack of content proficiency. Students from other countries or with learning disabilities or speech and language challenges may know the content, but can’t express it due to lack of vocabulary, fluency, sentence construction, or cultural context. Too often, we equate halting English with uncertainty or lack of preparation, when really it was just a moment of embarrassment and frustration for the student. Our bias is getting in the way.
So, let’s be vigilant: Is the assessment format the clearest and easiest way for this particular student or group of students to accurately portray true competency? If not, let’s summon the ethical stamina to change the format so it does.
- Avoid getting lost in classifications and accounting.
What this means for Classroom Practice: Differentiation, Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS), and Response to Intervention (RTI) are much more botany and farming than they are classification and accounting. Some teachers see that students are identified for one level of intervention in their learning, so they limit those students to just those actions and activities identified for that one RTI level. Or they claim the student needs something beyond what they can provide, such those found in Tier 3, so that’s for a specialist to handle.
What the what? No. Classroom teachers facilitate all levels of intervention, and if something is beyond our skill set, we get training or ask for assistance. And, if we’re working with Level 2 students, we may justifiably draw from Level 1 and 3 menus of options. We don’t back off from an intervention with, “He’s not identified for that level,” when it’s clearly a good choice. That’s hiding behind the classification to justify our lack of creativity and ineffectiveness. We are all pragmatists, and the pragmatist credo is, “Whatever works,” followed quickly by, “Don’t let the label get in the way of the child’s learning.”
This requires a diverse, responsive, and competently applied repertoire of instructional tools, pedagogical understanding, growth monitoring/adjustment, and ceaseless advocacy for individual students. We’re professionals who can do these things and not succumb to indifference or deficit thinking. Let’s be mindful of the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who said, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”
- Avoid worshipping at the math altar and the 100-point scale for grading credibility.
What this Means for Classroom Practice: Grading is far more an analysis of student performance against evidence of standards than it is a mathematical tabulation, used predominantly because it provides a false sense of objectivity and discernability. What’s the difference between an 89% and a 90% when it comes to understanding gravitational waves caused by massive objects in space? Absolutely nothing; this within the statistical margin of error, in fact. Yet, one is a B (almost mastery) and one is an A (mastery) because we thought we could discern a difference.
Dr. Tom Guskey, Susan Brookhart, and other grading researchers often point to an unsettling truth: The tiny levels of difference in massive grading scales like the 100-point scale create more subjectivity than do smaller scales, actually, and they create widely varying scores, teacher to teacher, especially when we don’t calibrate evidence needed for each proficiency level with our subject-like colleagues. Wait, though, here it comes: And, more students in special education programs that are in general education classes are misclassified in terms of needs and receive ineffective instructional responses from their teachers as a result.
So, what’s a better choice? Smaller scales with fewer levels to define. When defining each proficiency level, evaluative criteria for each level are easily discernable from the levels above and below. Students are given ample opportunity to compare/critique examples from each level so as to clearly understand the evidence of proficiency levels for themselves. This means moving to rubric size scales and dismantling the 100-point scale as soon as possible, again, better serving diverse students.
Returning to the premise: Pure mathematical calculation of grades on the assumption of its objectivity doesn’t always create an accurate grade report. This means that we analyze student products (assessments) looking for evidence of evaluative criteria required for proficiency, determine the level of performance in relation to the standard(s), then choose the symbol from our scale that corresponds with that level of proficiency. Purely tabulating the number correct out of the total possible is easy. But for students with special education needs who think and express content differently, it may distort what they actually demonstrated or render their real competence invisible.
Most of these practices are appropriate for general education students as well. Some of the most helpful instructional strategies in all the years I was in the classroom came from two sources: 1) special education teacher colleagues who shared insights on modifications, accommodations, and advocacy, and 2) a clear-eyed look at ethical, equitable assessment and grading with the commitment to follow through on each element, confronting hypocrisies as I went. We’re facing increasing stress as a profession, but how we teach and grade special education students is a steady lifeline to professional practice. All we have to do is grab it.
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His newest books are Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Second Edition, and Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition, co-authored with Dedra Stafford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @rickwormeli2, and at www.rickwormeli.com.