From the Compost Pile: Grading & Progress Reporting

One of the richest sources of potential growth as educators can come from our mistakes, struggles, regrets, less-than-satisfactory performance, and failures. According to Carol Dweck hard work can lead to success and failures and setbacks are opportunities for learning and growthFrom the Compost Pile posts chronicle some of these growth potentials from my own career as a teacher.

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As a teacher, I very much wanted all my students to succeed.  I was willing to go to great lengths to provide them with opportunities to encounter success in my class.  While my motives were sound, my execution was sometimes less beneficial for students in the long run.  I believe this stemmed from my misconception about (1) the definition of success and (2) how to best help my students attain it.

I had a very grade-based view of success.  “Good grades” = successful student.  I ran into challenges with this view at the end of my very first quarter of teaching.  You see my first students were middle school students.  At this age they are very much transitioning from elementary students who are often monitored and prompted by their parents daily to middles school students with a developing sense of autonomy and responsibility.  In addition to seventh grade math, they were learning how to be responsible people and do things like turn in their assignments, study for tests, and bring necessary materials to class.  I went the well-worn route of most teachers: larger assignments were worth more points and a failure to turn in assignments led to zeros in the grade book.

As you may imagine, by the end of the quarter there was a mad scramble to bring grades up by students who wanted to emerge from the parental “time of reckoning” with allowance and personal freedoms intact.  And so I offered extra credit opportunities.  Some had little or nothing to do with the content we were addressing in our class (e.g. extra points for attending the drama club performance of which I was the sponsor or extra points for bringing in something for the school-wide food drive).  I did other things like offer homework passes as rewards for students who successively turned in a set number of homework assignments on time to encourage student responsibility and more.  Admittedly, this struck a something-is-not-quite right-chord in my teacher brain, but I didn’t really press beyond also offering extra support or tutoring in my classroom several afternoons or lunches a week.

My thinking began to dramatically shift when I began my master’s program and was introduced to Tomlinson’s work on differentiation.  My professor (thank you Sara Lampe!) had us to read several of Tomlinson’s books.  And when she told us that extra credit actually did a disservice to our students because it muddied up our understanding of what students were really learning, I had a major “aha!” moment.  I began to make significant changes in my practice.

First, I got rid of extra credit.  If my grades were to reflect what students had learned,  I needed to eliminate unclear variables.  Thus, I also began to allow students to make up assignments or retake tests after they came to a set number of after school tutoring sessions with me.  After leaving my classroom for the doctoral program, I discovered Thomas Gusky and his “three Ps” of grade reporting: Product (or performance), Progress, and Process.  His work, and Tomlinsons & McTighe’s suggestions in Integrating DI & UbD, presents compelling reasons for how to approach grading in the classroom that support student learning and growth.  Below are four steps I would take to report student grades in ways that support their growth.

  1. Create a reporting system that reflects the “three Ps.”

Using Gusky’s “3 Ps” reporting system communicates student growth in three areas: performance, progress, and process.  Students’ official grades should report information about student performance. This should be criterion- and not norm-referenced.  This requires that (1) clear learning goals are developed and articulate what students should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of a period of learning, (2) student performance should be assessed relative to those goals and (3) only those results should be used to calculate the official grade.  Eliminate things like missing assignment penalties and extra credit if they interfere with the report on student performance.

More importantly, student growth or progress should be documented and reported.  This requires a strong system of assessments relative to the aforementioned learning goals that includes pre-, formative, and summative assessments.

Student habits of mind and study should be documented and reported.  This considers factors such as student responsibility (e.g. coming prepared to learn, completing assignments) as well as scholarly habits (e.g. reviewing feedback and correcting work, asking for help when needed) and habits of community learning (e.g. not distracting other learners, contributing to the thinking of the class), or the process of student learning.


  1. Clarify and articulate my goals for assignments and assessments. Determine how these goals are connected with the “3 Ps” reporting system.

Using this system hinges on clearly articulated learning goals for assignments and assessments.  Not everything that is reviewed, evaluated, or assigned belongs in the gradebook.  This doesn’t mean work should be assigned and thrown out.  It means being intentional about what is assigned and how it is used.  Assignments meant for student practice, to collect information on student needs relative to goals, or for final evaluation will all be reviewed by the teacher.  Yet that information should be reported in different ways.  It is important to be clear on if the assignment or assessment is to help diagnose student needs, is a means for student growth, or is a measure of student learning relative to learning goals in order to effectively report on student performance, progress, and process.

  1. Meet with students and parents to get everyone on the same page with the progress reporting system.

I think it is important to not only communicate your reporting system clearly to parents and students, but also to build buy-in. Communicate in as many means as possible with parents and students about how this approach is meant to support maximum student growth and success.  On a back-to-school or meet the teacher night, you might pose a scenario to spark discussion and thought, such as:

Imagine two students.  Student A enters our fifth grade classroom reading at the third grade level and Student B enters reading at the ninth grade level.  Student A works hard to read challenging books, asks for help from the teacher when stuck, reads every bit of feedback on his reading journal logs and applies that feedback to future endeavors.  Student B selects books that are easy and quick to read, scribbles down a few sentences in the reading log, and chooses not to read or respond to feedback.  They both take an end-of-semester test for reading comprehension.  Student A scores at the fourth grade level at the end of the first semester of fifth grade.  Student B scores at the ninth grade level at the end of the first semester of fifth grade.  If you could only award one student with a special treat, which student would you say is most deserving of the reward and why?      

Most parents and students would suggest that Student A is the most deserving due to his hard work and progress.  Ask parents to help support their students’ growth and learning by rewarding student progress and process rather than performance.  Tell students that you will be celebrating progress and process in the classroom over performance.

  1. Determine and implement classroom management techniques to make sure the responsibility for monitoring and reporting was shared between the teacher and students.

Finally, the teacher ought not be solely responsible for this reporting system.  If our aim is to develop responsibility and autonomy, then students should be enlisted to goal-set, and keep records of, and reflect on their habits of mind and study as well as growth. Some of the ways this can be accomplished is through portfolios with samples of non-graded student work, goal setting records, charts to track preparation and participation, and periodic reflections on personal growth.  Establish routines that give students space and guidance in taking ownership for their own growth and learning.  These can also serve as helpful documentation to use in meetings and communicating with parents.

As we reflect on our mistakes, remember that a diet primarily full of healthful, nourishing foods can survive a little junk food.  If we strive to give our students the best, we strive to learn and grow as professionals, and we can use our past mistakes to make us more intentional and thoughtful about our future decisions, then the students will thrive in spite of the occasions where we missed the mark.  May we never arrive at the place where we don’t feel we have areas in which to grow, past choices we want to improve upon, or weaknesses we ought to strengthen.


Stay tuned for more ideas in the next post: Grade Reporting for Student Growth

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