By Starr Sackstein
In the best of times, “Grading students is a controversial yet time-honored tradition used in most school systems to efficiently communicate the level of a student’s learning. Although it may be the most efficient way to share information, it is far from the most effective or compassionate way to do so. Kids at every level are labeled, compared, controlled, and ultimately dishonored by the process. Few think to question it because “it’s how we’ve always done it,” and perhaps they don’t realize that there are other options.
As educators and parents, we have a real opportunity to shift the paradigm around what assessment for learning looks like and also consider the impact that teacher-centered schooling structures have on the development of young minds.
In Assessing with Respect: Everyday Practices That Meet Students’ Social and Emotional Needs, I share a variety of strategies that empower students to be a part of their learning which breeds success and improves the sense of learner identity. One way teachers can do this is by bringing student voice into the process early on: inviting them to help define what success looks like, or what we call co-construction of success criteria. When students are included in determining what success looks like from the beginning, there is a clear pathway designated for them to follow and integrate throughout the process.
First, we need to understand what we mean by success criteria and why defining it is essential. Once teachers have clarity about learning, they are better able to help students clearly engage with content and skills, determining the best means to promote that growth. Success criteria are the actual elements of learning that need to be present in order to complete a learning experience well. The criteria can be developed using a rubric or exemplars.
Additionally, using success criteria can help students provide targeted peer feedback and serve as a means for reflecting and self-assessing on their own work. When the criteria are clear, students know what they have to do; when exemplars are provided, they know what the criteria look like successfully completed, and then they have the appropriate tools to acknowledge what they know and can do and ask for help where they are struggling.
Embed Standards Language
First, embed standards language in everyday classes. Don’t wait to use the standards at the end when you assess, but rather develop continuums using student-facing standards language so students know the standards and why they are learning them. We can do this by unpacking the standards with students at the beginning of a project or unit and then referring to the standards as new or older skills or content is being taught.
For example, when setting learning targets at the beginning of the period, open class by unpacking the target which is aligned with the standard. Ask students to underline important nouns and circle important verbs. Nouns are generally the concepts and verbs are the skills. Ask them to provide synonyms where appropriate so they can internalize what is being asked of them.
Review this example: This is a Common Core standard for part of argument writing in Social Studies, “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1.B
Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.”
Since it is likely that students will already understand the three verbs (in yellow) in this standard and in this context, it is more important to go over key concepts and vocabulary (highlighted in blue). In order for students to be successful with this standard, they need to clearly understand what a claim is and how to support it with “logical reasoning” and “relevant, accurate data and evidence” all in service of demonstrating an understanding of the topic with credible sources. Teachers will need to have done some teaching into each of these topics as they seem subjective on their faces. Students will need concrete examples of what they look like and how they apply to the current learning. It would make sense to first brainstorm as a class to activate prior knowledge and connections and then provide concrete examples.
Another way to approach student understanding of standards language is to let them work through it in groups and then rewrite them on sentence strips instead of as a whole group discussion. A student version of the above standard might be simplified to “ support claim with evidence that shows understanding with credible sources.” When the standard is being used in class that day, put the student-made sentence strip on the wall and refer to it throughout the lesson, making sure to use the language used on the strip. For example, if the students are referring to a literary text or a primary source, we may remind students to take cited text directly from those sources in order to support what they are trying to argue.
Beyond having them learn the standards as needed for the grade level, as a teacher team, a progression that takes the standards both below the grade level and above into consideration adding the various levels of depth into a color-coded progression. Students should be able to identify where they are on the progression based on what they see in their own work. They do not need to know that it is above or below grade level.
So the 5th-grade version of the same standard is, “Provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details” and the 9th-10th grade version is “Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level and concerns.”
Using the above progression, teachers can emulate the appropriate language and provide feedback to meet students where they are when determining where they are on the continuum, understanding that kids all learn at different paces. Students will also be able to identify where they are on the continuum by color instead of by grade level thus destigmatizing being above or below and helping them see growth and progress fluidly.
Provide Exemplars to Backward Plan
Now that students are hearing the language of the standards every day, not just in isolation or in their learning targets, it’s time to start showing them models of excellent student work and asking them to deconstruct what makes it successful.
First, let them read or review the model on their own. For math, students can review a fully solved problem, then articulate the steps that were taken in the language used by the standards and the concepts that have been taught. You may also want to show them a weaker example and have them articulate what is missing and how they can improve it. This should be done as a whole class, then in small groups, and then independently on their own work supporting a gradual release of control.
For science, have students identify different parts of the scientific method throughout a lab write-up. Since the first lab write-up of the year will serve as a model and will likely be done together, allow them to work in small groups moving forward and offering them chances to get peer feedback based on what they know about the process. Having an anchor chart of the necessary parts of a lab report hanging in the room or in your google classroom as a review would always be helpful.
For social studies and English, have them review sample student essays highlighting areas that are done well and aligned with the standard from class. So in this example, students would be looking for claims with relevant evidence that supports the demonstration of understanding from credible sources. Students can have an opportunity to defend their thoughts about what is or isn’t working in the student sample.
From there, as a class, brainstorm a list of criteria that helped the product classify as successful. These criteria should be hung or copied so students have ready access to it.
Involve Students to Identify Needs
Another way to approach the same measure is to review an assignment sheet that outlines an upcoming project or unit and ask students what they already know how to do. They should be given the opportunity to read and annotate the expectations.
Ask them to try to clarify areas that will need to be taught to help them be successful. This can include unfamiliar vocabulary or skills. Students can then work in a think-pair-share model as they talk through their strengths and challenges with a peer and then allow that peer to share out on their behalf to lessen the stigma of potentially sharing a deficit.
Make sure to note what they share with you and this can be a way to group students moving forward or plan small group instruction. Then their voices can also inform full class mini-lessons and their questions can drive the direction the class goes from the beginning.
Using Rubrics to Determine Success Criteria
If rubrics are already teacher made and standards-aligned (I recommend not using a 4 point rubric that delineates criteria for a 2 or 1 as that doesn’t support student growth and actually allows for deficiency thinking), then have students review them before doing the work in a small group. Ask them to highlight aspects of the rubric they believe to be the criteria for learning that can be turned into “I can” statements (more on this later).
As a whole class, create an anchor chart for the wall with the list of success criteria. This list will serve as a way for students to provide specific feedback to each other before submitting their work and it will also double as a way for students to self-assess.
Using these criteria, students will be able to ascertain whether or not they have all of the components to be successful in their learning. Watch one of these short videos where a teacher co-constructs success criteria and students use it to provide feedback.
Success Criteria as “I can” Statements
These lists of success criteria can be made into “I can” statements that help students self-assess where they are in the process using a stoplight rubric to identify: “I understand”, “I need help” or “I can teach it”. These charts can be used at the students’ desks to mirror the anchor chart.
When students know the success criteria before they start, they have clarity on how to be successful during the learning. Throughout the lessons, students should have ample opportunity to work with peers to figure out problems before involving the teacher. When they are unable to come to a consensus on their own, students can then be encouraged to ask a question of the teacher and get specific actionable feedback during the formative assessment process - not after the product has been submitted for a grade. Once we put a grade on the product, the learning ends - so if a grade must be given, delay it as long as you can. Instructive feedback will go a long way to ensuring that students see themselves as productive learners in our classrooms and sharing ownership of the success criteria offers one more way for their voices to be included.
Since our main goal is to help all learners grow and see themselves as capable, we need to stop labeling their learning. Once we put a grade or label on a student, we diminish possibilities greatly. Grades end learning and they can potentially humiliate students. Even traditionally higher achieving students stress themselves out when they don’t do well right away. It is imperative that we shift this culture if we want students to lessen their anxiety and truly enjoy the learning process the way they did when they were younger and curious. Let’s work to bring curiosity and excitement back to learning so that all learners see themselves as such.
What can you do tomorrow to ensure that students feel empowered about their own learning?
Other books that can support assessment in the classroom:
Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grades
school. Cleveland, OH: X10 (Times 10) Publications.
Sackstein, S. (2015). Teaching students to self-assess: How do I help students reflect and
grow as learners? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be the
experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Sackstein, S. (2021). Assessing with respect: Everyday practices that meet students' social
and emotional needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
tarr Sackstein started her teaching career at Far Rockaway High School. She spent nine years as a high school English and journalism teacher at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, New York, where her students ran the multimedia news outlet WJPSnews.com. She is a certified Master Journalism Educator through the Journalism Education Association (JEA) and serves at the New York State Director to JEA to help advisers in New York better grow journalism programs.
Starr is the author of several books including: Peer Feedback in the Classroom: Empowering Students to be the Experts, Teaching Students to Self-Assess: How Do I Help Students Grow as Learners, Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless In a Traditional Grades School and just recently published her latest book entitled, From Teacher to Leader: Finding Your Way as a First-time Leader Without Losing Your Mind.
Starr blogs for Education Week Teacher at Work in Progress where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher and education reform. On Twitter, she co-moderates #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. She has made the Bammy Awards finals for Secondary High School Educator in 2014 and for blogging in 2015. She was named one of ASCD's Emerging Leaders Class of 2016.