If you grade it, it’s not formative assessment

Having a bit of a crisis of confidence.

Canadian teacher and education reformer, Joe Bower tweeted the title of the post this morning. That’s not right I thought, I can provide formative feedback on a piece of work which helps students make progress whilst also giving them a grade as a useful signpost to measure their progress against. I took it upon myself to tell Joe as much.

He sent me a link to Education’s Rotten Apples which summarises Ruth Butler’s research which shows that the damage of giving grades trumps feedback. It says, “What happens when states offer performance-based assessments, but in the context of “accountability” systems—basically, extrinsic pressure—to improve the results? In a word, the former are destroyed by the latter.”

OK, that seems clear enough. Case closed? Well no. Andrew Chandler-Grevatt weighed in with this: Stephen Gorard did a study in Welsh classrooms – claimed the opposite to Butler… Messy. In his 2005 paper entitled ‘They don’t give us our marks’ The role of Formative Assessment in Student Progress, he claims that in the school where he conducted his research found that “the students felt that not receiving marks prevented them from discussing their progress in school with their parents” and that “any feedback that was provided was often poorly understood by the students and did little to enhance the learning process. Where comments were made, they appeared to focus upon enhancing self-esteem or self-image rather than on what needed to be done to improve and how the student might go about making any improvement.”

Clearly the problem here is woolly, meaningless ‘formative’ comments that will in no way help students to make progress. Obviously, this is to be avoided which is why I wrote about using mark schemes to make formative assessment more purposeful and rooted in something ‘real’.

So, who’s right? I think Butler would definitely be against my approach because it depends in some part on the grade bands in the mark scheme. Gorard also says that even though the students they interviewed said they would prefer to receive a mark and a comment, it doesn’t produce any clear improvement in performance: ‘when students get marks and comments, they first look at their own mark and then at their neighbour’s. They hardly ever read the comments’ (Wiliam & Black, 2002)

Should I just accept that grades are an inevitability and that it’s how they’re used that should be important? How would Mr Ofsted respond when asking a student in my class whether they’re achieving their target grade to be told that I didn’t let them know what grade they were? And, if I believe that giving grades undermines student progress should I give a monkeys what Ofsted think? The other issue is the effect grades have on mindsets. Formative assessment encourages growth mindset whereas grades (especially target grades) encourage students to have fixed view of their intelligence and potential.

Would be grateful for any advice or thoughts on this.

15 thoughts on “If you grade it, it’s not formative assessment

  1. Great post, David. I’d been thinking of this last year when it seemed pressure from both ‘camps’ seem to be causing confusion. What I had intended for this year was to comment only but put a grade perhaps every third or fourth piece of work. I’m thinking that might ‘train’ students to look at comments first and start a dialogue on how they can and are improving.

  2. I’ve taken a similar approach in the past: my school has a comment only approach to marking whilst at the same time asking fro grades to be posted home 3 times a year. Joe Bower on his blog For the Love of Learning talks about weaning students off grade dependence & the fact that this is hard but worthwhile…

  3. I have started to use a working portfolio with my Honors Bio students this year and I really think it’s working. They work in small groups on the assignment and I can walk around the room and interact with each small group multiple times to check for understanding – this is the formative part, but the comments are oral. Then at the end of the chapter they turn in portfolio for completion grade and take summative test. After reading this I think I should write my comments down each day to struggling students. Thanks for the reflective post!

  4. Any assessment should have a formative side, or else, what for?… In my opinion, only the graduation assessments cannot have this characteristic- at least, not in the same proportion. First, any assessment is a learning opportunity for the student. Second, graded or not, any assessment results should be discussed. The common errors- with all students. The individual errors- individually, of course. Why to assess, if you do not offer to students the opportunities to correct erors? Students need grades because they do not receive the appropriate feed-backs of their progress. Still, grades give them the satisfaction for their competitive side and by that the motivation to aspire for more. Nevertheless, in my opinion there is no formative assessment if you do not put the right questions. Instead asking what grade, teachers and students should pay attention to: What errors are commited? Why? Which is the right answer/sollution? What should student learn/revise/exercise to avoid that error in the future? If not correcting, in what way will influence the future progress in learning achievement? Feed-back!!!

  5. Thanks Elena. Clearly everything you say about formative assessment is spot on. But, I might take issue with your comments about the satisfaction of grades. Great post by Joe Bower on the aftershock students feel when you take grades away and why this is a good thing: http://www.joebower.org/?m=1

    Thanks, David

  6. Please forgive me, but I think that you’ve got your wires crossed on ‘formative assessment’. If you think of formative feedback instead perhaps you will come to a different conclusion. As a teacher, when I give feedback I generally ask questions which help clear or redirect the student’s thinking. I do not advise or say where one is right or wrong, but rather help the student to think through his/her work.

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  8. Ray, thanks for drawing this distinction. Are you saying that the points I’ve made are valid to formative feedback but not to formative assessment or the other way around? I’m not entirely clear on this.

    I think you’re right about the idea of using dialogic questioning to give feedback but I wasn’t aware that I had contradicted this practice? I’ll have to have a read back through and see if I ca work out what you’re referring to.

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  10. I think that you are co very right to object to what you call formative assessment. The trouble is that few people recognise the Latin root of ‘assessment’ (assidre) meaning to sit beside, ie to get to know and understand the student and to be able to converse with him/her. For almost all of my teaching career I have worked on the principle of ‘Forget the grades, let’s just enjoy the learning.’

    Yes, you quote sources that complain about the failure of ‘intermediate grades’ to be of any constructive use to the learner. That’s the whole point, if the ‘assessment’ is given as a take-it-or-leave-it matter of fact statement it is of little constructive use! If the feedback is truly formative it will help the student to explore other areas, extend arguments or even change direction, not because the teacher instructed but because the feedback actually helped.

  11. Ray – we seem to be getting our wires crossed – let me clarify: I do not object to formative assessment – it is, I believe, the most important thing any educator should be doing. However, it seems we have some semantic differences: what you refer to as feedback I see as part and parcel of formative assessment (or AfL).

    In principle, there is nothing else you say with which I could argue. The problem comes, as I see it, from using summative assessment techniques (grading) and expecting tit to have an impact on student progress. It doesn’t.

    The Latin root for assessment for assessment is an interesting aside but has little bearing on the modern English meaning. The latin root for pedagogue which the slave who took his master’s children to school – I think we would agree that things have moved on considerably.

    Thanks, David

  12. I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit lately after your blog post and i’ve come back a few times to read it.

    If you are to check an assessment against outcomes and therefore grade it, why not make it not about the final mark i.e. A-E or 20/20 but change the marking schema to a checklist that the student is either competent or not, and therefore has not only achieved the outcome but it then doesn’t become about the “Oh I got 70/100”. Just a thought.

  13. Thanks Justin. I think that we’re on the same page here. My concern with giving grades or marks is that in so doing we are in danger in ‘fixing’ students’ mindsets and encouraging them to rely on their teachers’ judgements. Anything that prompts learning conversations is a good thing.

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