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  • Honora Wall

Grades, goals, and gains

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Grades, goals, and gains: we’ve got to set them, record them, and hopefully have time to use them to drive future instruction. Each of these data sources is used in a different way for a unique purpose. Let’s look at some best practices for collecting student grades, goals, and gains, and using them to drive instructional choices.

First, we’ll talk about grades, the data collection tool every teacher and student is familiar with. We use grades to show how well (or poorly) a student understands and applies what we have taught them in class. Students can demonstrate mastery by answering questions or producing artifacts. These two methods are highly objective, clearly defined, and easily understood by students, parents, administrators, and educators. The best grading tools are rubrics (for artifacts, essays, or projects) or finding the percentage of correct answers out of the total correct answers available (for question-based assessments). If you are new to writing grading rubrics, check back soon. We will dive deeper into rubrics in another post.

Grades should reflect mastery of content, and that content should be based on standards. Effort, attendance, attitude and participation do not demonstrate mastery. While some schools include a grade for participation or conduct, this practice is falling out of favor because it is too subjective-- does a student truly talk more than others in the class, or does the teacher notice this one student more than others? Research shows the second option is usually true, and is skewed against boys and people of color. Does a student refuse to participate because they are disengaged or disrespectful, or could they be quiet because they are anxious, have an accent, have a bully in the class, or have a learning disability? How can a teacher know which is true when they are determining a participation grade? They can’t, which is why these grades are ripe for argument from parents and students. Administrators can’t back up their teachers very well when there is so much gray area open to interpretation. If a school chooses to include these types of grades, they should have clearly defined policies regarding the class weight of conduct or participation grades, how they are determined, and what will be done in the case of a complaint.

Next, we have goals. Goals are used in IEPs and 504s to set measurable growth for student skills-- not content mastery. Setting goals helps us state where we are and set a point where we would like to be. Goals help students and their teachers or interventionists create action steps (classroom and home activities). For students, this might mean increasing the number of sight words that can be read fluently. Once the goal is set, the action steps can be determined: in order to read 20 new sight words fluently, the student will learn to fluently read 5 new words a week, each week, for 4 weeks. In order to learn 5 words a week, the student will learn 1 new word each day, during Language Arts class, with their teacher. (Notice how this action step mentions what will happen, how frequently it will happen, when and where it will happen, and who is responsible for making sure it happens). Fluent reading may or may not be related to grade-level standards for that student, but a goal like this can help any student meet standards. Goals are not graded, they are met.

The final data tool of academic achievement is student gains. Gains are not used in all school settings; some schools opt out of state testing and some schools are completely gradeless. Most schools I’ve worked with find that they are too overwhelmed to really know what student gains should be or how they should be met. Administration hopes to see an increase in the bottom 25% of performers and teachers document different instructional strategies and assignments that might make this happen. Gains typically come from state testing, but schools can use any data to create a baseline and a “gains” goal for students. Gains are used to measure growth from the beginning of the school year to end of the school year, not tied to standards or skill sets. Gains can come from increasing executive function skills, increasing test taking skills, or increasing content mastery. Gains are not included on a report card or transcript, but they certainly influence grades in all areas.

Grades, goals, and gains are three ways to measure academic achievement. They are used for different types of data-- content mastery, skill attainment, or overall growth-- and each one gives us a different view of both student growth and school impact. The more we understand what grades, goals, and gains are designed to measure, the better assessments we can make, the better action steps we can write, and the better gains we can set.

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