Liberating Assessment from Grading: Theory and Research, Part I | Jared Colley | 6 Min Read

Those who choose education as their profession must answer one basic question about their purpose. How they answer this question will largely determine the direction of their career, how they go about their work, and how they judge their success. No other question about their role as an educator will be more important.

That one basic question is this:

Is my purpose to select talent, or is it to develop talent?

Thomas Guskey, 2015

At my school one of our norms is to start with questions, whether that be in a meeting, a class with students, or a new project we plan to start. But before we ask ourselves how we might liberate assessment practice from the specter of the grade, consider Thomas Guskey’s advice from On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting:

“Clarifying the purpose of grades… always must come first. All related changes in policy and practice can then be guided by that agreed-upon purpose statement.”

Thomas Guskey. On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, 2015

If our methods are always shaped, first and foremost, by purpose, I suggest we start with the following question:

  1. As Guskey puts it, is the purpose of education to select and sort talent, or is the purpose to develop talent in each and every learner?

Every time I’ve asked this question in workshops and conversations, a consensus quickly coalesces around the latter option. Teachers seem to agree: Of course, the purpose is to develop skills and capacities in every student we encounter! This means we need to think about education from what philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, calls a “Capabilities Approach” to human development where every student is treated as “as an end, asking not just about the total or average well-being [among students] but about the opportunities available to each [student]” (Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, 2011). 

This leads us to our current predicament: Grades, whether they be numbers or letters, were never historically intended to serve our agreed-upon purpose. Thomas Guskey makes clear that when defining the purpose for grading and reporting, we must make explicit for whom the report is intended — Who is our audience? A claim I’d like to make is that schools themselves were the original intended audience for grades in order for institutions to have an idea…

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Jared Colley

Jared Colley has been Upper School Head of Learning & Innovation at the The Mount Vernon School (GA) since July 2020. Previously, he was English Department Chair at The Oakridge School (TX) since August 2010. He has been an OESIS Network Leader since August 2017.