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Portfolio Assessments and the Future of Grades

Are letter grades here to stay?

For 200 years, teachers have been using letter grades as the primary method for recording student progress in the classroom.

But how and why is it that grades came to occupy such an important position in the lives of educators and students?

To find out, it’s worth digging deeper into the background and history of grades. Doing so can help inform efforts by schools to improve how they evaluate the progress of students in the classroom. This is particularly true now that technology plays such a major role in schools and society. The use of digital portfolios as an assessment tool is a good example of the changing landscape educators face when measuring student progress.

A Brief History of Letter Grades

It wasn’t until close to the 1800s that educators began using comparative systems for showing student progress in the classroom. Yale University first used a kind of precursor to today’s letter grades in the late 1780s. Students were placed into one of four tiers depending on how well they demonstrated learned knowledge. Later, Harvard made use of a numerical system where students were graded on a scale of 1-200. 

In 1887, Mount Holyoke College become the first to use a letter grade system most similar to the A through F system commonly used today. (An interesting bit of trivia is Mount Holyoke also employed the use of the letter “E”). 

These grading systems were useful for demonstrating to those outside the classroom that students were actually attending classes and doing work. Lee Wilson, President of digital assessment platform company FreshGrade, explains that grades served as a proxy for an important group of people—namely, the parents—for showing what was going on inside the classroom. 

The Role of Letter Grades

While grades serve an important purpose, they do not provide much depth of information about what students are actually learning. Grades are useful for providing a quick summary of a student’s overall performance. They also indicate where a student stands in comparison with their classmates. 

But as Lee Wilson points out, grades don’t actually exist to serve the students or the teachers. “They don’t help in the classroom in the actual act of learning,” he says. 

There is an ongoing debate among educators over whether grades continue to be a useful means of assessing students’ learning. Where grades fall short is in the details. In their role of providing a snapshot of a student’s performance, they don’t reveal specific information about the skills and knowledge they have learned. As such, grades are not able to show the particular areas of a student’s strengths and weaknesses within a subject.

Also, grades are usually a summary of many different factors, such as attendance, class participation, and late assignments as well as subject mastery. As a result, two students could receive the same grade while having very different levels of understanding of the topic being assessed. 

In fact, while grades serve such a visible role throughout a student’s educational experience, they aren’t key to the learning experience. They don’t help teachers with teaching or students with learning.

Some educators point out that traditional grading can place the focus on the wrong priorities. Education consultant Ken O’Connor explains, “They give the community the wrong message of what school’s all about, that it’s about the accumulation of points, when we should be doing everything to make clear school is about learning.” 

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Portfolio Assessments

Matt Renwick, author of Digital Portfolios in the Classroom, describes how portfolio assessments gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly as a tool for assessing writing. Educators Donald Graves and Sheila Valencia believed reading and writing, which rely on qualitative results, were better served by a system that didn’t rely on letter grades or single scores.

But while many teachers and parents recognized the value of portfolio assessments, the practice fell out of favor. The increased amount of time and attention it required made it difficult to implement. With class sizes increasing, and resources to teachers shrinking, teachers were overwhelmed by how much time and effort it took them to provide this level of information.

The good news is that the rise of technology has made it increasingly possible to adopt portfolio assessments in the classroom without taxing teachers’ time and resources. Digital tools make it easy to record, share, and save examples of student progress in the classroom. Students can also take an active role in creating their portfolios. 

Using Performance Assessments to Enhance the Grading System

Performance assessment tools such as digital portfolios can lessen the importance of a single letter grade. Because they allow parents to see what is going on behind the scenes, they are more than just a quick summary of many individual parts.

Also, just because a student may struggle in any particular subject doesn’t mean they aren’t making progress. Being assessed a grade of “C” may be discouraging for a student. But if performance assessments are also being used, both the student and their family can see how they have progressed over time.

Portfolio assessment tools are particularly useful for subjects beyond the core curriculum. For example, students can record themselves using FreshGrade’s digital portfolio platform. A student could make recordings of themselves learning a musical instrument over the course of a school year. Being able to literally see and hear their progress from the beginning of the school year to the end provides a truer and more accurate picture than a single letter grade.

A digital portfolio assessment allows teachers to better educate the whole child. When grades are the only source of assessment information, teachers are limited to gauging how best to educate a student based on a number or assigned level. 

With a portfolio assessment, teachers can move away from focusing on how well a student performs on a test or writing assignment. Instead, they can direct their attention to the potential each student has to learn and improve.

Karen Fadum, a teacher in British Columbia, Canada, experienced the benefits of this focus when she used FreshGrade to record reading conferences with students. She observed students’ reading confidence rose as a result of the focus on their journeys as readers. 

When we were able to engage with them where they were and where they were going, they started to more regularly recognize their strengths – and not just in reading.Karen Fadum, teacher, British Columbia, Canada

Will Grades Ever Go Away?

In the opinion of Lee Wilson, grades are probably here to stay. At least for the foreseeable future.

“If we just went in and said, ‘Guess what? We are throwing everything out,’” predicts Wilson, it would not be very well received. “You would probably earn a parent revolution.”

Because of their long history and widespread use, all parties (teachers, students, parents) are comfortable and familiar with grades. They are a useful tool for educators to provide a brief overview of students’ achievements and how well they are learning in the classroom. They are easy to digest and provide a common method of comparison among the vast majority of schools across the country.

Getting families to accept an alternative assessment system is often met with some resistance. New performance assessment systems can appear confusing or too complex. Parents also worry that an alternative assessment system could affect their child’s opportunities when they apply to college.

A Multifaceted Approach to Evaluating Students

Perhaps the best approach to changing how we assess student progress is one that blends the best of both worlds.  Educators can work on transitioning away from a focus on letter grades to one that integrates both grades and performance assessments together.

“We need to work toward a new balance between more traditional forms of assessment (letter grades) and the actual performance assessment of students in real time,” Lee Wilson said.  

This combination approach would allow teachers to provide more context to grades that gives a richer and more detailed picture of what each student is learning. 

Eventually the role of letter grades could evolve so teachers and students can take more of a partnership approach in the classroom.  Moving the focus away from achieving certain grades to the process of learning would benefit both students and teachers. At the same time parents would gain greater insight into the real time experience inside the classroom. 

So while grades are not likely to disappear, change is definitely on the horizon. Perhaps a revolution is on the way, but in this case, it’s one that all parties can support. 

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