Grades and Assessment are NOT the Same Thing

I recently read some teachers interchangeably using these two phrases: “how I grade” and “how I assess." These phrases were in response to a question regarding authentic assessment, so I was confused as this was not a discussion that had anything to do with grades.  My guess is that there is a misunderstanding of the two.  

The overemphasis on test scores and school grades, coupled with our own learning experiences probably contribute the most to this confusion. They make us hungry for grades—a one-time evaluative shot—as opposed to assessment, which is far more long-reaching and entails a greater degree of effort on the part of both the assessor and the assessed.

It’s actually the goal of each concept that makes the difference.  Carnegie Mellon’s (n.d.) Eberly Center site for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, asserts that “the goal of grading is to evaluate individual students’ learning and performance…the goal of assessment is to improve student learning.”

So, why the confusion?  Particularly when our ultimate goal is to improve student learning?

It seems to boil down to a habit or possibly a culture of grading. I don’t think that teachers want grades to be the driving force in their classrooms, not at all. However, the shift in mindset from grading to assessing is definitely not so easy to make. Students rebel. Parents rebel.  Districts require this or that many (arbitrary) grades. 

Further, it’s difficult to get used to NOT putting a grade on a student paper or homework submission and, instead, determine where that student needs to move forward in his/her learning.  Further, students are used to seeing grades as a way of understanding their performance. 
Once we understand the difference, we'll accomplish so much more!

Many of my English teacher peers can relate to the attempt to distinguish between assessing and grades as they would painstakingly work through a student paper, noting where the student needed to revise. However, far from using those notes as a tool to aid in learning, the student would find the nearest trash can to throw that work in.  Probably an hour or so of teacher work, pitched with LeBron-esque precision into an institutional bin. 


Helping students understand the difference between grading and assessment will make a huge difference in their motivation to use the advice and suggestions we offer. They can then actually USE what we do if we make assessment the goal, not the grade. 

My AP Lang students used to go bonkers with their paper revisions because I wouldn’t grade them until they’d mastered the concept we were working on.  These are the kids who thrived on grades, so you can imagine the backlash.  Their parents were none too happy at first, either. I did have to do some explaining, but once I assured them that (eventually) their children would receive a grade and probably one that actually reflected something, they were pleased.  The end result was that the students’ writing expanded into something far more in-depth and meaningful. 

Understanding the difference between grades and assessment is a crucial first step into helping students become lifelong learners. 

Hold your ground.

Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.) What is the difference between assessment and grading? Retrieved May 23, 2014 from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/grading-assessment.html


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