Doing Things Differently

GDS professional development brings evidence-based, equitable grading practices to the Middle School.
Prior to the opening of the 2018-19 school year, Middle School faculty laid the groundwork for sustained, in-house action research exploring equitable assessment practices. Middle School Principal Debby Previna engaged author and education consultant Joe Feldman, who guided the team through a process of examining common grading practices.

“How and when students are given feedback on their learning reveals much about an institution’s enacted pedagogical beliefs,” Debby explains. “Unfortunately, most schools, including our own, rarely scrutinize the alignment between grading practices and their school’s philosophy, mission, and values.”

When asked how this work supports the GDS mission, Joe Feldman highlighted the opening phrase: “GDS honors the integrity and worth of each individual...” He explained, “The word ‘worth’ is really about giving care and dignity to every child––that is, it’s the adults' jobs to recognize and be responsive to the child as a full human, with all of [their] complexity and capacity.”

Common assessment practices—for instance, averaging performance over time and giving grades based on participation––are remnants of the Industrial Revolution, a time when American schools were intentionally designed as class-segregating, worker-producing engines. As a result, these practices are rife with implicit bias, and they continue to permeate every level of education, including national teacher education programs, because they are accepted as the status quo.

Middle School science teacher Ethan Burns noted how impactful the sessions with colleagues have been. “It has been incredibly valuable for us as a faculty to have intentional conversations about our grading practices. It is shocking to think that while nearly every other aspect of education has seen change over the last 200 years, grading systems in schools are nearly identical to the ones created during the 1800s.”

As faculty consider how to most accurately convey the full story of a student’s academic progress through the shorthand of grades, the process will be fraught and, at times, “painful,” Ethan noted. Still, he said, “Every change we implement is the result of hours of thought, intense debate, and significant research.”

Offering extra credit, marking off points for late work, and incorporating group work scores in grades do not reflect higher levels of individual academic achievement and are listed as frequent, biased offenders. Joe also noted that any activities that are designed for students to develop skills or grapple with new concepts––classwork and homework, for instance––should not be reflected in grades.

“Joe highlighted for us just how inequitable those things we do as second nature are for our students,” said Laura Yee, Assistant Head of School for Curriculum and Instruction. “[The conversation] lifted up important questions: ‘What do we mean by participation?’ ‘What does effort look like?’ and ‘Is that even a fair characteristic to assess?’ After working with Joe, GDS faculty will have the information to make more informed decisions about those questions.”

Early in the professional development, Joe emphasized, “[GDS] teachers agreed that learning is only possible through mistakes, and the new grading and assessment practices introduced during training allow, and even invite, mistakes in ways that traditional grading never does.” This orientation shift especially supports GDS students as they "take risks, tolerate failure, and learn from failure.”

In Ethan’s classes, for example, a student's performance on homework and in-class participation will be either not calculated into their final grade or account for a very small portion of their overall grade. Ethan explained: “This will encourage students to take risks while in class to strive for understanding before they are evaluated on their knowledge.”

Joe tasked faculty to implement at least one of the new approaches to equitable assessment through a semester-long action research. “The overall goal,” Joe explained, “is to build a body of evidence about effective practices in the context of [Georgetown Day School], led by the teachers.” Decades of research supports this model of learning for educators––one in which they take ownership over the process of aligning their grading practices with the information they want to communicate to students and families.

Ultimately, this important work benefits all stakeholders in our Middle School community: students––first and foremost––as well as parents and teachers. Grades, which have historically remained sources of anxiety and distrust, will instead be recognized universally as opportunities to ‘show off’ what students are learning and highlight areas for continued growth. Debby has prioritized this examination in the Middle School “to ensure [assessments] enhance student learning and inform our teaching.”

The question of impact on students is of utmost importance. “Student should expect profound changes to their learning experiences as a result of teachers implementing more accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational practices,” Joe said. He explained how targeted, often simple changes to grading practices can have far-reaching benefits not only to learning but student health. “These practices will help students feel less pressure, stress, and anxiety, promote a growth mindset and healthier approach to learning. They will have a clearer understanding of the academic expectations and their place relative to those expectations, more ownership and sense of efficacy over their achievement, and they will ultimately be more successful in school.”
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Georgetown Day School is a coed, preK-12, non-sectarian private school in Washington, DC with small class sizes and a diverse school community. Our comprehensive, innovative curriculum includes hands-on learning, honors and AP classes, as well as advanced-level math and STEM courses. An education is not just college prep and SAT scores. GDS teachers focus on providing the best education for each child, from elementary grades through high school. The school performing arts program includes theater, dance, and music. The athletics program offers competitive sports for student athletes, including cross-country, track, soccer, lacrosse, and crew/rowing. With our strong commitment to financial aid, an independent school tuition is affordable.