In the Classroom
Grading Students on Growth
April 15, 2018
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Rachel Turner

Iwasn’t born with the natural ability to ride a bike. Luckily my parents bought me one anyway and taught me, over time, how to ride. The first few times, I crashed and burned. I still have a scar on one of my knees from a nasty fall. But my parents were so patient and kept encouraging me to try again. Over time, I progressively improved my bicycle riding skills. While I never mastered this skill well enough to enter the BMX World Championships, I learned it well enough to survive while riding down the road!

Lately, I have been talking with many teachers about the importance of providing rigorous, TN-Ready aligned assessments in their own classroom in order to prepare students for the state assessments and equip them with the critical thinking skills necessary to be a successful adult. A common response that I have heard some teachers say is “our students can’t do that.” The truth is, no one can do anything without practice. We all had to learn how to eat solid foods, how to put our clothes on, how to drive a car, etc. We learned these skills over time. Assuming that our students can never be capable of doing the work is an injustice to our students and our communities. Students may not master these rigorous tasks on their first try (or second or third), but if teachers are patient and persistent, students will gradually learn the skills needed to perform well on the state assessments. More importantly, they will learn to be resilient critical thinkers, a skill that will help them beyond their academic careers.

Many teachers are afraid that providing assessments that are designed like the TNReady tests will be too hard for their students, causing them to fail. The truth is, most Tennessee students will fail the TNReady tests at the end of the year. In 2017, only 34% passed the English III state assessment. Worse yet, only 31% of Tennessee students passed the US History exam and only 24% passed the Algebra II exam. So it should not be too alarming if most of your students fail your assessments. In fact, if a majority of your students are passing your exams, there is a good chance that it is not rigorous enough and does not reflect what students will encounter on the state exam.

One valid concern from many teachers is that, if they are giving hard tests and students are failing them, parents will begin knocking down their classroom doors wanting to know why their child, who has never failed a test before, is failing every test. Administrators will certainly begin calling them into their offices, asking why the majority of students are failing the teacher’s tests. Students’ egos will be bruised as a consequence of failing test after test, and they may possibly give up on trying altogether.

Do not let your fear of having a large number of students failing your tests hold you back from preparing them for what they will see in later months. Students who are not accustomed to these types of questions will surely be shocked on the state assessment day and may very well “shut down” and give up on trying on the state assessment. Instead, continue designing tests that resemble TNReady, help your students understand these types of questions, build grit among your students, and find unique ways to grade students’ performance so that you are not failing them.

Teachers can provide rigorous activities and assessments without failing students. A technique I used to use was grading my students on growth rather than raw achievement. After all, TVAAS grades teachers on growth, so why shouldn’t we be grading our students on growth?

Looking at the 2017 TNReady results, it is obvious that most students will struggle with passing the state assessment. If your test looks like the TNReady tests, most of your students will fail it, also. Even after the fifth or sixth test, a lot of students will fail. However, their grades will have probably improved over previous tests. Grading students on growth will reward children who never receive a passing achievement score for their growth, which incentivizes them to continue to try to do better on each test. Grading students on growth will also keep administrators and parents from knocking down your classroom doors.

Remember, I never made it to the BMX Championships but I can still ride a bike decently! Try grading students on how well they performed compared to the last test instead. Here is a simplified example of how I graded my students on growth that can be tailored for your own needs:

+8 Points or More From Previous Test 100/A
+3 Points to +7 Points From Previous Test 92/B
Within 2 Points (+/-) From Previous Test 84/C
-3 Points To -7 Points From Previous Test 74/D
-8 Points or More From Previous Test 69/F

Rachel is the Social Studies Lead Teacher for Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She currently serves as a fellow with the Hope Street Group of Tennessee and as a steering committee member for UnifiEd’s Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) Committee. She is a former SCORE fellow, America Achieves Fellow, Teaching American History Fellow, PEF/HCDE Leadership Fellow, Fund for Teachers Fellow, Gilder Lehrman Fellow and NEH Fellow and was awarded the “Outstanding Educator Award” by Humanities Tennessee in 2017. She received her B.A. in History from East Tennessee State University and her M.A. in Education from Lee University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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