Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Process or Product and Assigning Grades

Recently a teacher expressed that his students would not have any grades for several weeks in his class because the students were working on a big project. Students would have a single grade when the project was completed. I question the validity of this type of thinking. As educators, are we interested only in the product or are we also interested in the process? Another way to phrase this is to ask whether we provide formative assessment or only summative assessment.

In his book Educative Assessment (1998) Grant Wiggins--famous for his work with Jay McTighe and Understanding by Design--states "the aim of assessment is primarily to educate and improve student performance, not merely to audit it." We can move from these concepts to use of the terms formative and summative assessment. In his book Classroom Assessement & Grading that Work (2006) Robert Marzano provides a definition of formative and summative assessment. He stated that formative assessment is "occurring while knowledge is being learned," whereas summative assessment occurs "at the end of the learning episode." Marzano cites Peter Airasian in further defining formative assessment as "interactive and used primarily to form or alter an ongoing process or activity." In other words, formative assessment addresses the process of learning as opposed to addressing only the product.

Now, the teachers in my school have recently been inundated with the learning trend of the moment: project-based learning (PBL). Therefore, they are all working diligently to engage their students in meaningful, hands-on, collaborative projects, with the purpose of making learning increasingly relevant and, therefore, more meaningful to the students and, consequently, more effective. (That is a quick summary of the philosophy behind PBL.) I know that the teachers are guiding students during the process of the learning; they are good teachers. However, some teachers find ways to provide students with grades along the way and others are waiting for the product grade when the project is finished. The handbook that has been provided to some of the teachers--Project Based Learning, second edition by the Buck Institute for Education--states that "the assessment plan should include both formative assessments--assessments that allow you to give feedback as the project progresses--and summative assessments--assessments that provide studens with a culminating appraisal of their performance."

I am going to suggest that the formative assessments may and should result--from time to time and on a regular basis--in the assignment of grades that can be posted. As parents and students are now accustom to checking grades 24/7 through online access, the grades provided for process help to inform the student and parent of progress and help to hold the student more accountable for the work. It is a way to provide timely feedback to guide instruction and learning.

Marzano also stated in his book that effective classroom assessments should meet four purposes:
  1. Provide students with a clear picture of their progress on learning goals and how they might improve.
  2. Encourage students to improve.
  3. Be formative in nature.
  4. Be frequent.
My suggestion is that formative assessment can result in the recording of grades that can be communicated to parents and students. Perhaps there is a valid argument against the use of grades completely, but that is for another time.


  1. Agreed--there is no reason to think one grade per week is unrealistic. Students are likely to NEED checkpoints, or formative assessments, along the way in order to be successful in meeting the end goal anyway. It is simple to do and it also helps students understand whether or not they are meeting project expectations. Frequent assessments should be expected of all teachers.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mr. Lutton. Frequent assessments, however, are not as much what should be expected of teachers as they are what students deserve. Perhaps grades are not the best way to communicate whether a student is making progress, but our society is familiar and comfortable with grades. Without frequent updates of the electronic grade book, parents feel uninformed and left to guessing how their child is doing.