Category Archives: Assessment

More Than a Grade: Cultivating Intellectual Play in Students

This post is written by student member Danah Hashem.

Educators know the dreaded question well: Will this be graded? Subtext: As a student in your class, the impact this assignment has on my report card matters more to me than the potential learning experience it offers; how much should I care about my performance on this?

This simple but familiar and frequent question encapsulates a larger issue impacting classrooms around the globe. It is not a new phenomenon for students to give in to the temptation to trade mindsets of intellectual play, exploration, and growth for the reductionist, quantifiable goal of high grades. However, in the face of increased standardized testing and global competition, today’s students are chasing the grade more than ever before. And who are we to blame them? Increasingly, the systems in which they are asked to operate measure and assess them based on these numbers, awarding opportunities, status, and identities accordingly. More and more our students are viewing grades as the reason and the reward for their learning, and it’s not always difficult to understand why.

This leaves us as educators with some difficult questions of our own. What are we doing that is communicating to our students that grades are the final goal and ultimate achievement of learning? And how do we stop? What can we do to shift the culture, reframe the goals, and revive the elusive spirit of intellectual curiosity in our classrooms?

While the answers to those questions are complex, systemic, and extend well outside the walls of our own classrooms, I believe there are some concrete, achievable steps we can take to support, encourage, and mentor our students in their very real struggle to understand the importance of personal education in a grade-driven culture.

  1. Value process along with—and perhaps even over—product. A strong summative writing assignment requires work that is completed in stages, a few of which should include brainstorming, exploration, experimentation, drafting, and revision. We can communicate the importance of these stages to students by dedicating class time to them, giving detailed feedback on them, holding reflective conversations regarding them, and potentially weighting those stages more heavily than the finished product when grading. This tells students that you care more about the journey they went through to create and understand their final product than the final product itself.
  2. Allow revision. Particularly on larger assignments, I always allow my students to resubmit their work for a higher grade, deducting no penalty points for wanting another try. This shows students that my primary concern is their personal struggles as scholars wrestling with challenging tasks and concepts.
  3. Integrate single-point rubrics. As helpful as a well-crafted holistic or analytic rubric can be, the goal of these rubrics is essentially to standardize and quantify intellectual creation, which can encourage ranking, comparison, and fixation on teacher-direction in order to target a specific grade. The single-point rubric is a grading option that describes what proficiency should look like in each of the outlined categories, making no attempt to anticipate where and how students will succeed or fall short. Structuring rubrics in this way allows more subjectivity and invites educators to reflect on both strengths and weaknesses in each category. Grades can still be assigned with clear explanation; however, there are no predefined levels, limits, or categories for success. This rubric stresses descriptive, personalized feedback over the numerical grade.
  4. Encourage self-reflection. In order to actively demonstrate that the grade is not the capstone of intellectual pursuit, spend time reflecting on assignments before, during, and after the grading process. These reflections can be structured as journal entries, large-group discussions, or partner conversations. Guiding questions can encourage students to think deeply about what they gained from the process. Questions that encourage this kind of thinking include
  • What was the most difficult portion of this assignment for you?
  • How did you overcome those difficulties?
  • What do you think was the strongest aspect of your project and why?
  1. Highlight intellectual courage. Educators can encourage student identities that operate outside of the grading system by highlighting exemplary work that does not necessarily reinforce the culture of grade-based status. Taking class time to promote a student’s work as innovative, courageous, or explorative can subvert the grade-based status system while also gently fostering the confidence students need to engage in intellectual play.

Ultimately, if we must grade, our grades should support, complement, and encourage real learning. This makes the job of an educator more nuanced and admittedly more difficult; there are no effective ways to standardize and quantify the authentic intellectual pursuits of individuals. However, before we can ask our students to internalize this reality, we ourselves must be willing to take clear and definitive steps to make that reality evident in our classroom culture. It can be difficult in our grade-saturated culture, but change always begins with initial steps.

Danah Hashem teaches tenth-grade world literature at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, MA, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, Middle Eastern literature, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog,

Note: NCTE has a variety of resources to support teachers looking to approach grading intentionally and generatively in their classrooms. For additional information on assessments and grading, visit the following position statements: Resolution on Grading Student WritingFormative Assessment That Truly Informs InstructionWriting Assessment: A Position Statement

Fewer Texts for Deeper Understanding

by Lorna Collier

In their new book, Beyond “Teaching to the Test”: Rethinking Accountability and Assessment for English Language Learners, literacy specialists Betsy Gilliland and
Shannon Pella explore ways teachers can provide a more equitable education for
English language learners.

Using fewer—but high-quality—texts can work better than using many texts, say Pella
and Gilliland. The benefits are varied:

Rather than having to struggle to keep up with the basic idea of many texts, ELLs only need to master the content of a few texts or even a single text before working on understanding the language structure and other textual elements.

“If you have one really good text, first they figure out what it means, but then they can access and start thinking about how it is constructed,” says Gilliland.

“Kids become experts on specific texts. They can tell you not just what it was about,
but how it was made and why it was made that way.”

Grammar can be taught in terms of its functionality within the text being studied,
says Gilliland, as opposed to saying, ” ‘here’s a rule, memorize it and then we
hope it transfers into your writing.’ ”

“Teachers might be surprised how much farther you can go with a single text in
teaching a variety of different things,” says Pella, who taught secondary school
English for 15 years. “That was one of my biggest ‘a-has’ as a high school and
middle school teacher.”

The pace of teaching slows when students go back again and again to just a handful of
texts, “taking time to really unpack and analyze them,” Pella says.

She believes this makes the learning experience “much more thoughtful, with more
depth,” than what occurs when teachers use rigid pacing guides.

And when ELLs develop awareness of text features, they can access the same grade-
level material their mainstream peers are using, Pella and Gilliland point out—which
provides equity.

Learn more about this new book.

Lorna Collier is a writer and editor based in northern Illinois.

Read more in the article “Flipping Accountability on Its Head” in the September 2017 Council Chronicle.

Read a sample chapter or order the book.

Agents of Accountability

by Lorna Collier

Literacy specialists Betsy Gilliland and Shannon Pella offer a variety of insights on how teachers can provide a more equitable education for English language learners in Beyond “Teaching to the Test”: Rethinking Accountability and Assessment for English Language Learners, their new book from NCTE.

The progress ELLs make can go unrecognized in the face of low standardized test scores, so Pella and Gilliland recommend bringing these achievements to the attention of administrators and others within the school system, as well as to parents and community members.

“What I’m hoping is that teachers see themselves as the agents of accountability,” says Pella.

“When we take accountability into our own hands, we’re collecting and analyzing a variety of types of classroom assessment data in order to track and understand how well our English learners are growing.”

These data can help teachers explain to parents and the school community how well English learners are progressing, she says, which is “a totally different narrative than what the school may be able to show in one isolated test score.”

Some of the ways teachers can spread news about ELL student progress to parents and the community include:

  • Keeping parents updated through websites and monthly newsletters, translated if needed;

  • Calling parents, using an interpreter if needed (but not the child, in case there are matters you want to discuss confidentially);

  • Inviting the families to bilingual family nights, where parents, siblings and other relatives can see what the students are doing and participate in activities that show off the child’s abilities, such as creating a bilingual book in English and the student’s home language; and

  • Encouraging the school to host online or in-person events open to the community to share student work and achievements.

Read more in the article “Flipping Accountability on Its Head” in the September 2017 Council Chronicle. 

Read a sample chapter or order the book. 

Lorna Collier is a writer and editor based in northern Illinois.


What Happened in Your State This July?

During July, seven policy analysts published reports about what occurred in California, Florida, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Higher Education

California: Daniel Melzer explained the Bill to Prohibit Standardized Placement Exams in California Community Colleges introduced in the state legislature. High school GPA and coursework would replace standardized tests.


California: Laurie Stowell described a New Free App for California schools that shares school data with parents, students, and the community.

Florida: Margaret Gardineer examines Florida’s Request for Waivers from ESSA with regard to assessment and placement of ELL students. Margaret notes that Florida had sought a similar waiver in 2014, prompting Margaret to conclude, “Florida’s current waiver request appears to be part of a policy pattern to extend its flexibility in assessing and implementing entitlements for its significant ELL student population.”

Maine: In Proficiency-Based Education: Innovation for Improvement or Servant of Standards, Susan Stires grappled with Maine’s instituting proficiency-based diplomas in the four core subjects by 2021.

New York: Derek Kulnis reported that the “New York State Legislature granted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a two-year extension on mayoral control of the city’s school system.”

Washington: Barbara Ward listed webinar dates for the public to provide comments on Washington’s ESSA plan.

Both PreK–12 and Higher Education

Pennsylvania: Aileen Hower shared an article from the Philadelphia Tribune regarding Community College of Philadelphia and Philadelphia School District teaming up for school that offers associates degrees.

Mrs. Stuart Goes to Washington: Policy Brief, Assessment and Back to School

Project: Policy Brief

Oh, the wonderful world of writing policy briefs. This week was spent working on a piece for the National Council of Teachers of English. We are trying to uncover who is teaching English and how these educators feel about a range of topics. There is data on teachers in general, but not a lot on teachers of English specifically. As an organization, we wanted to learn about this critical group of educators. Here are some questions that arose during my research:

  1. What might the race and gender of our teachers tell us about the ways we connect with our students?
  2. Why is it important to look at the levels of education a teacher has achieved?
  3. In a post–Common Core world, have levels of job satisfaction changed?
  4. What are the professional learning needs of teachers of English?

The most glaring fact so far has been the lack of current research on teachers. The U.S. Department of Education is set to release the next set of data end of summer/beginning of fall.

You know what they say about assessment …

I took a break from writing and research to meet with Miah Daughtery, the Director of English Language Arts and Literacy at Achieve. A fellow Wolverine, Miah and I discussed everything from ideas for getting kids to read—The Reading Minute by Kelly Gallagher—was new to me! to understanding why standardized assessments are so long (if you don’t know what a psychometrician is, then you probably don’t know the answer). One thing that was suggested in my district was that we write our own district-wide benchmarks. It was such a casual comment to our little department of 10 teachers that it seemed like a simple idea. Miah and I discussed how complicated writing assessment is, especially if it is assessment that you are going to use to make claims about student achievement. Miah has a presentation called “The Top 25 Ways a Test Item Can Be Flawed.” There are more than 25? The moral of the story is, folks, we need to revisit our benchmark plan. Miah suggested checking out the assessments from Achieve the Core, so I’m going to start there.

Oh and I’m back in the classroom on Monday

When my eyes got tired of looking at data, I turned my attention to my classroom. I have 6th and 8th graders reporting to me, excited yet sleepy, Monday. As most teachers do, I have grand plans for the year. These include, but are not limited to

  • infusing global education in all of my units, and building a website for my students to interact with me while I am on my study abroad, probably on Facebook or a page on my personal site
  • getting my kids to enjoy reading (also, getting them to actually read)—this means getting my classroom library in order, which terrifies me
  • doing daily read-alouds and maybe the Reading Minute
  • pairing contemporary texts with my mandated curriculum

I’m open to ideas!


Seriously, need to get it together! What a mess.