Founder Blog: Should practice work be graded?


Mike Xakellis (@xakellis)

Founder of @TeacherEase



I build software for a living, mostly for teachers and schools.  I spend most of my waking hours thinking about education, and how I can help make it better.  A question came up on twitter recently, “In a standards-based grading (SBG) environment, should practice work be graded?”

A while back, I had a long conversation with an SBG customer about this very topic.  They were adamant that “practice is practice and summative assessment should be done separately.”  They felt students should practice in a low risk environment without threat of “getting a bad grade.“  For summative purposes, they use common assessments only.

While I agree that low pressure practice is good, I’m troubled by the loss of data.  My inner nerd can’t shake the feeling that discarding performance data is like driving with one eye closed.  If you assess student work, why ignore the data when tracking performance?

In SBG, you build a data set for each learning target.  You expect early scores to be low and get better over time as students learn.  This is normal.  Mastery calculation algorithms (power law, decaying weights, etc) devalue or discard early data points, so students’ final scores are dominated by the last few data points.  Bad practice scores don’t really affect the final mastery score.

To me, it feels like ungraded practice work is a holdover from traditional grading.  If you graded all practice in a traditional grading environment (or didn’t give it low weight), it would pull down student averages, which would be unnecessarily punitive.

In an SBG environment, the benefit of grading everything (and putting it in your SB gradebook) is to build good data sets.  You immediately see when students learn, and inform instruction.  You can see which lessons or activities create the most growth.  As you review the effectiveness of your teaching techniques, you know which materials should be reused/shared and which should be replaced.  

You probably need to “pete, pete, and repeat” to students that scores grow over time.  What matters is where they eventually arrive, not the path they take to get there.  They should strive for learning and not fear failure.  You don't want them stressing over a 1 or 2.

From a software development perspective, we already have a feature to “ignore scores” for practice work.  I wonder if we need more subtle options for practice work, something like “don’t let practice negatively affect current score.”  We could implement some fancy math to ignore practice scores if they had a negative impact.  This might make some folks more comfortable to record their practice scores.

You probably DO need good rubrics to define each grading level on a standard.  It should be clear what students must know to get a 2 (or a 3, 4, etc) on a standard.  This will help increase the fidelity of instructor created assessments.

Thanks to @RoweRikW and @Mr_Oldfield for prompting my thoughts.  Feel free to comment on twitter @xakellis and @TeacherEase.