Where Do I Start?: Assessment for Learning vs. Grading Practices

“If students don’t know where they are going, it is unlikely they will arrive.” – Shirley Clark

Often teachers ask me, “Where do I start?”  Five years ago I would have said you have to start by ending the use of a zero for work not seen and stop the practice of reducing marks for work that is turned in late.  It is still my opinion that these practices are in need of being revisited by those who haven’t already done so.  However, because these practices are still prevalent in schools today I now hesitate to start the conversation here because it is often where the conversation will also end.  Without a viable alternative to these practices, many teachers who use zeroes and late marks for whatever reason will balk at the suggestion they reconsider their use.

In my current role as a teacher of new teachers I have opportunities to revisit the debate about assessment.  I help my students (new teachers) grapple with assessing the work their students produce and their School Associates’ expectations of what assessment data is being collected and how a final percent is arrived at.  Some student teachers are given more license to explore and experiment with formative assessment and descriptive feedback.  Others are expected to generate a certain number of marks in a set amount of time.  Assessment practices still vary significantly from classroom to classroom, as does the ways teachers “calculate” percentages.

Bottom line, I don’t believe assessment, or assessment for learning (AFL) = marks and percentages.

Assessment for Learning, as far as I understand and have read, has nothing to do with how a teacher generates a number to “represent” a learning activity or a body of learning activities.  Eventually a teacher needs to report a mark, level or percentage for distribution to the public.  I have written about an alternative path to generating a percentage here.  If you can agree with the notion that there isn’t a direct link between “assessment” practices and the “calculation” of a percentage, then consider this:

Preventing teachers from using zeros and late marks isn’t going to change the “assessment” practices of the teacher.  It’s the old, tell me not to do something and I’ll do it…”  But, change the “assessment” practices of the teacher and I believe you’ll end that teacher’s use of zeroes and late marks.

Assessment is about learning; assessment for learning.  It is about being clear with one’s learning intentions, clear about what it looks like when the learning has been achieved and clear in the use of descriptive feedback (words, not numbers) to help students grow.   I believe that if we start the conversation by asking teachers to focus on the learning by being clear with learning intentions and the success criteria there is much more of a chance that teachers will have to revisit zeros and late marks.  By understanding that the letter grade’s only purpose is to represent what a student has learned, then erroneous use of zeros and late marks has to be questioned by teachers.

Ultimately, if teachers require students to complete the work (which negates the need for a zero) and the completed work shows they have met the success criteria, then I bet a teacher would be hard pressed to take late marks off of a student who needed a bit more time.  We want students to be successful.  We want them to not only meet, but exceed their potential.  Assessment; assessment for learning will support us in helping all students achieve their own success.

I’m interested in where you think we start the conversation.



  1. Kevin Amboe

    Great conversation. It is about the learning. We need to remove the expectations of pushing all the information on learning into a number or letter. Once freed from that restriction, we can focus on learning. Some things are have to learn. You can’t survive independently if you never learn to eat.


  2. Jenny Myers

    I totally agree, having worked in schools in the UK where AfL is the norm! If a student is unaware of success criteria and what they need to do to achieve their target grade, then they’re somewhere, floundering out there in the knowledge abyss! Key priorities have to be; setting up that success criteria, using it consistently in subject teams & training your students in what they need to do to try to meet those criteria.

    Formative feedback can be time consuming for the teacher but informs the student clearly what they did well & how to improve next time. Far more effective (& satisfying) in helping students make progress than a red letter or percentage.

    Marking is not my favourite task, but when the consequence is that ‘eureka’ moment for a student …


  3. will hemrick

    I dont know if you are going back far enough to start the conversation. I like to start the conversation at “why school”. Why do you think we spend 13 years educating kids? If the answer is “to sort them out”, then that educator will never move away from the zeros and late marks.

    The next group that ive found to be attached to the old model are the “we are building functional workers” educators. The argument seems to be that we are training students for their future jobs. While I agree that schools have a role to play there, I dont think that is their primary purpose.

    I think in order to convince someone to banish the outdated zero and late mark, you need to get them to the point of thinking that education is to teach students how to learn. The assesment should support the learning, or in the end assess the learning.

    My favourite argument is the parachute packers parable. You can find the argument on my blog Mr. H’s musings on blogger mrhmuses.blogspot.com


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