What Does a Grade Really Mean?
Shelley Levin, Middle School Science

Come by a fifth-grade science class on a day a graded assignment is passed back, and you won’t see or hear a single number score or letter grade. Why not? It’s because in this course, we use standards-based assessment and conference grading. Any graded assignment will always start with a thorough discussion of the skill standard it’s focused on and what the rubric really means. For example, the fifth-graders recently wrote Hydrology Reports to determine the cause and source of groundwater contamination in the (fictional) town of Fruitvale, which was assessed on our data standard:

Data. You use an appropriate and detailed method to organize and analyze your data so that it reveals valid patterns or relationships that you apply as evidence. You clearly explain your analysis methods.

Students collected data by testing the hazard level of the water in 40 different wells in the town, then organized these data by creating an isomap of the groundwater contamination plume. Comparing this isomap to a street map and topographic map of the town revealed the source of the contamination. Students received narrative feedback about at which level their work currently matched the data standard:

As you can see, still no numbers. Again, why not? An 80% means work was 80% correct and 20% incorrect, doesn’t it? Yes and no. Numbers can be feedback, but what research like Elawar & Corno (1985) shows is that students who receive narrative feedback learn faster and have more positive attitudes about learning when compared to students who receive only numerical scores. Butler (1998) found that students who received numerical grades on assignments showed no performance improvement from it, while students who received narrative feedback about if and how their work met carefully explained criteria increased their performance significantly. Yet, if a grade accompanied that narrative feedback, no performance improvement was made. Essentially, our brains ignore narrative feedback if a number is present! Every year, I share this research with my fifth-grade scientists, and our emphasis on feedback allows us to focus on what science class is really about—learning science!

At the end of each quarter, of course, students do need a grade for their progress report or semester report card. The solution? Conference grading! Each fifth-grader reflects on their work in science to date and the extent to which that work has met the standards we’ve been working on. Then, they propose a number grade to reflect their learning in science that quarter, and I meet with each student individually. We review their reflection together and either keep or revised their proposed number grade. When report cards come around, there are no surprises, and fifth-graders know exactly what their science grades really mean.