Grade (3)

One of exciting things I've come to realize about AFL is that so many teachers are already practicing it in their classrooms.  To become a more "AFL-ish" teacher usually doesn't require making major changes in practices.  Instead it's usually a matter of focusing one's intent and purpose.  When this happens, it seems that what we find is that the best classroom practices tend to be AFL in nature.  When one's mind is focused on AFL purposes, it becomes much more likely that these best practices will become more frequent and pervasive.


Here's a simple activity that Mrs. Kelley, my daughter's 3rd grade teacher at South Salem School, does with her students.  Everyday they review key Social Studies facts and key Science facts.  Take a look at the worksheets pictured below (you can enlarge them by clicking on them) and then read on for some AFL analysis of this activity and the lesson that secondary teachers can take from it.



At first glance, there is really nothing extraordinary about this activity.  The teacher teaches the content and then has her students review it daily.  This isn't extraordinary because it is - and should be - a very ordinary activity.  Everyday students should be reviewing content.  


This is a perfect example of the fact that our best activities are usually AFL in nature.  Rather than simply teach and then assess at the end (summative assessment), Mrs. Kelley is choosing to assess daily (formative assessment).  If she uses this activity properly, 2 important AFL objectives will be accomplished:

  1. She will daily receive feedback on how well her students are mastering content, and
  2. Students will daily assess their own progress.


This type of activity needs to occur at all levels of education.  I would contend that not a single class period should go by in which ALL students don't assess their understanding and provide feedback to the teacher.  It's not enough for a teacher to rely solely on the feedback from the handful of students who answer questions in class.  A systematic approach is necessary to make sure that ALL students are assessing their progress.  In fact, I would strongly encourage all teachers at all levels to do exactly as Mrs. Kelley has done.  Create a daily review activity and then train your students on how to use the feedback they receive from it.


I can think of 2 possible negative reactions that a secondary teacher might have.  They are:

  1. Printing out this many daily review sheets would use too much paper, and
  2. This is an elementary-style activity.  At the secondary level students should take more ownership of their own studying/reviewing.


Let me try to address both of those.  The first is easy: Don't print out a daily review sheet.  Project the daily review from a computer/LCD projector/overhead on your screen at the last part of class each day and have students use their own paper.  Write it on the board.  Review orally.  There are many alternatives that will work great.


So is this activity too "elementary-ish"?  I would respond to that with the following question: Would students learn content better if at the end of each class period/lecture/activity the teacher made them stop and review what they had just covered?  I think it's pretty easy to say the answer to my question is "yes".  Our first of order business is to NOT to make sure that students review on their own.  Our first order of business is to make sure that our students learn.  Therefore, if there is something we're not doing DURING our class time that would increase learning, then we're not doing all that we should.


Think about your own classroom.  Are there ever days when your students leave without you being able to quantify how well they have mastered the content?  Are there ever days when your students leave your class without you having provided them with a way to quantify their own level of mastery?  Thinking back to my own classroom, I think the answer for many if not most teachers is probably "yes" to both questions.  


The next obvious question is, "What should we do about this?"  Some would say that the answer is to tell students to go home and review.  I agree with that answer, but that answer isn't complete unless I don't feel a sense of ownership of my students' success.  If I feel a sense of responsibility for how well my students do, then I will make sure that each and everyday I provide students with a time to check their understanding.  


So go ahead and figure out a way to daily let your students assess themselves.  It works great in 3rd grade and it will work in your classroom as well.

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While assessment and grading are two distinct topics, they often intertwine.  Occasionally something comes along to remind us that poor grading practices can end up negating effective assessment practices.  That's why Allen Iverson is on this site - to remind us that we need to give and assess practice, but to remember that when we do so, we're just talkin' 'bout practice!  That's also why we have this video about a player who becomes the best tailback ever but can't start because his poor practices earlier in the season were counted against him.  Now the world of sports has brought us another example of how allowing practice grades to average into the overall grade can give a misleading perspective.  


Thanks to AFL member, Dr. Keith Perrigan, for sending us this softball story from  It's about Kelsey, a high school softball player, who, after a great season last year, had an almost season-long batting slump this year.  However, in the last few weeks of the season her bat came alive.  As a result, her team has a great chance to win the state championship.  (Read the full article here:


At the time of the article, Kelsey's batting average was .265.  Not terrible, but not exactly the stuff of all-stars.  However, based on her ability - as demonstrated in the past - and based on her incredible run at the end of the season, she would be anybody's pick for a spot on an all-star team.  In fact, she'd be a no-brainer all-star except for one thing - her batting average.  Softball doesn't allow for a batting average to start over once a player gets hot; therefore, it's not uncommon for a batting average to tell an incomplete, or even incorrect, story.  Kelsey is the hottest player in the league, but her batting average is, well, average!  Should her coach player her?  Should other teams pitch around her?  If they're smart, the answer is "yes".  If they put all their stock in an average, then the answer is a very foolish "no".


So why do we educators put so much stock in averages?  We know they often don't tell accurate stories.  We know they rarely indicate the true measure of a student's learning.  We know that they also distort the impact of our teaching on students' learning.  Yet when push comes to show we will often swear by them.  We will cling to the argument that the average produced in our grade book is the absolute truth when it comes to a student's performance.  We will be offended and become indignant when someone suggests that a student's grade should something other than the average we derived.


Why is this?  Why do we cling to averages?


I suppose that part of the reason is that it's what has always been done.  Perhaps using a grading system that doesn't rely on averaging together a bunch of grades might seem too radical to some.  I guess there is also a certain amount of comfort and safety in relying on an average.  If a student or parent complains about a grade, the teacher can always use the grade book average as a justification. 


But what if Kelsey's coach decided to bench her?  What if his coaches in the past had always played the players based on batting average?  What kind of coach would he be?  Probably a fired one.  While batting averages are fun for us sports junkies, they aren't a reliable resource upon which to make all coaching decisions.  The same is true for grade book averages.  They might provide some useful data or feedback, but they are not a reliable enough resource upon which to base our grading decisions.  Teachers should feel free to act like Kelsey's coach.  Use the batting average as feedback, but assign a grade based on mastery - not solely on the average.  


Who is in charge of the team - the coach or the batting average?


Who is in charge of the classroom - the teacher or the grade book average?


Any thoughts?


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Does AFL lead to grade inflation?

A criticism of Assessment FOR Learning is that along with it comes pressure to make sure that students’ grades increase. In other words, some have been concernerd that AFL might lead to grade inflation. I would hope that no school would ever encourage grade inflation while it encourages its teachers to try AFL techniques. I think that that the concern over grade inflation is probably first and foremost a misunderstanding about the purpose of AFL. The primary goal of AFL is not grade inflation. I don’t know that it would ever be appropriate for educators to do things solely for the purpose of raising grades. In fact, if grade inflation was the goal then a focus on AFL wouldn’t be necessary. Many teachers already do an excellent job of grade inflation through several more traditional measures such as extra credit, dropping the lowest grade, or curving scores. These are practices that teachers have used for many years, and they all have the same outcome of inflating grades and making grades less representative of actual learning. AFL isn’t necessary for inflating grades. The primary goal of AFL is instead LEARNING INFLATION. The entire purpose of AFL is to increase learning. When teachers assess students in an ongoing manner, use that data to guide their instructional practices, and teach students how to use their own assessment data to chart their progress and to guide their studies, then it is only natural that learning will increase. Now let’s be honest, when learning increases grades tend to increase as well. That is, grades will increase if we are grading accurately while learning increases. This is why it is impossible to discuss assessing with AFL techniques without also discussing grading practices. While assessment is not the same as grading, and while not all assessments need to be graded, if teachers aren’t careful with their grading practices they can negate their assessment efforts. For example, if a teacher’s assessment practices cause a student to increase learning to a B level but the grading practices cause the student to earn a D then the incentive for learning will decrease. Once the conversation moves to grading practices it is very easy for that subject to dominate the discussion, but don’t be fooled – grading is secondary to learning. As you make plans to use AFL in your classroom, focus on this simple mantra: AFL is about how you use assessments to increase learning. Whatever types of assessments you use, use them in ongoing manner, use the data you receive to guide your instruction, and train/require your students to use their own data to guide their studies. You’ll be using AFL and learning will inflate.
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