On January 10, 2016, I received an email from a colleague with a picture of a book cover (the featured image on this post), telling me that she had just read the book and that she thought I should read it. I forgot about it until we exchanged another email a couple of weeks later, and it came up again.
I decided to try to track down the book. It ended up being harder than I thought to get my hands on a hard copy, but I was eventually able to download it through the publisher’s website – Portage and Main Press. The book is called Rethinking Letter Grades, and is written by Caren Cameron and Kathleen Gregory. I knew Kathleen Gregory, having participated in a series of workshops she had presented in my school district a few years previous about assessment for learning, and so I was curious as to what she was working on now. The cover promises “A Five-Step Approach for Aligning Letter Grades to Learning Standards”, and it is deceptively small, at 72 pages, and is a quick read at about an hour. Despite its small size, this book changed everything as far as my assessment process is concerned.
I had been looking for a more cohesive approach to assessment that answered two questions for students more effectively: the “why” and the “how”. Why are we doing this? Why is this skill important? Why are we reading this story? How did I get this grade? How do I improve? And so on. I wanted to do this without getting lost in the weeds of small aspects of individual assignments, and be able to focus on the more global aspects of language learning, as well as shifting the conversation from being about marks to being about learning. Traditional conversations about marks (in my experience) tend to focus on deficits (what the student DIDN’T do) versus assets (what the student CAN do, and how do we build from there).
The synopsis of the book provides a good summary of its contents and philosophy –
“Teachers in most schools are required to provide letter grades—even if they are philosophically opposed to the practice. In Rethinking Letter Grades, the authors offer a practical five-step process for arriving at letter grades that moves away from collecting a string of marks and calculating a grade. They examine a wide variety of assessment tools (rating scales, scoring keys, rubrics, test scores, observation records, discussion notes, symbols, portfolio collections, and more) and match the student evidence with a description of achievement. This description presents a valid picture of student achievement—one that recognizes all aspects of student performance.