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In this episode, we are joined by a special guest: Jessica Liew from the Vancouver School Board. We are going to talk about assessment practices and we can shift to a standards-based approach.

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Show Notes

This week, we are excited to be joined by Jessica Liew, a very special guest!

Who is Jessica Liew?

Jessica is an English and Social Studies teacher from Vancouver, and she is currently in a technology support role where she helps secondary teachers get more comfortable with using technology in the classroom.

We met Jessica because she and her colleague were hosting a conference, and she invited us to present at her conference. During our pre and post conversations, we discovered Jessica’s love for all things assessment. She has been on her own journey with assessment for a long time, and has embraced the move towards standards-based grading, and the use of proficiency scale grading in her province.

Jessica also participated in a pilot project at her school, and it really lit a fire in her, and has encouraged her to make changes in her practice.

How did you get started with this journey?

There were always certain things that bothered her around grading and report cards. Feedback would always end up in the recycling bin, and growth mindset did not exist. While reading the book “Grading Smarter, Not Harder’ by Myron Dueck, Jessica came across the following quote:

Students will not be interested in running to the wharf if it is clear to them that the ship has already sailed

Myron Dueck in “Grading Smarter, Not Harder”

This was the beginning of a realization that providing all of the feedback at the end was not motivating for students. Having all potential for feedback and growth occur at the end of the process, when a grade has already been assigned, does not encourage students to read and process any the feedback provided since it won’t actually impact their grade.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Katie is listening closely to Rachel; text: "Go on . . ."

In addition, the way that she was marking and providing feedback was very task specific. Not all students understood that the feedback provided could be carried forward to help them improve on a future assignment, so she had to adapt the language and feedback that she used to demonstrate how students could actually use it to improve.

Before students could really make these connections and improve, though, it all had to begin with the teacher changing. While she knew that changes were needed, it wasn’t totally clear about what that meant, and how she should change.

Key takeaways from our conversation with Jessica

Our conversation with Jessica was amazing – she shared so much information and learning from her own assessment journey. Here, we have summarized the key takeaways that she shared that you can consider as you continue your own assessment adventure.

Focus on Skills/Standards

Instead of task-specific language in rubrics and feedback, shift the language towards the specific skills or standards for your course. This will allow students to better understand the feedback you have provided, and how they can take that feedback and improve future assessments.

We need to focus on the learning goals of a course, and how we can shift assessment and feedback to target the acquisition of these skills. Go back to your curriculum, isolate the specific skills that students need to build, and shift your assessment practices to target these standards.

This shift towards skills or standards also requires you to take a look at your course and to identify what transferrable schools are required, and how do you assess these fairly?

Rachel’s lightbulb moment occurred while reading David Frangiosa and Elise Burns’ book “Going Gradeless, Grades 6-12” who also stressed that content should be used as a vehicle to develop schools. They broken down a course into a number of skills, and kept referring back to these schools throughout the course.

Feedback Frequency

Feedback can’t just occur at the end of an assessment. It needs to occur throughout the learning process, a project or assignment so that students buy-in and see how they can be more successful. Students need to see that there is a point to assessment and feedback, and that they can grow from it.

Performance VS Rehearsal

The learning in a class should act as a rehearsal of the overall skills that students need to build and demonstrate. The more practice they get, the better they perform on assessments where they need to show this learning. The vehicle (knowledge or fact-based content) that is used to practice the skills (critical thinking, etc.) isn’t the most important takeaway or aspect that students need to develop and demonstrate. Rather, it is the skill that needs to be demonstrated effectively so that students can take that skill and transfer it to future units, courses, etc.

Omnibus or “Overall” Grades

We put so much in the grades that we assign to our students. When entering grades into grading software, teachers are able to assign different weights to different tasks, and this has a big impact on a student’s mark.

We often stress that the grade demonstrates the learning in a course, and yet there are marks included (or sometimes excluded) that are actually separate from learning itself. For example, often we include marks for participation, homework, completion of a task, quizzes, tests, late marks, bonus marks, etc. This could potentially inflate a student’s grade, or alternatively drive a grade down, unfairly.

To top it off, bonus marks, in particular were not necessarily equitable. Bonus marks could be assigned for a wide range of activities both within class time and outside of school hours. By assigning bonus marks to students who could complete and afford these optional tasks, it became a disadvantage to students that could not. This is a difficult point to recognize, but once learned, it is clear that it is a practice that needs to end.

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Late Marks & Zeros

The use of late marks doesn’t accurately show a student’s learning. There are many different situations, both at home and in school, that could prevent a student from being able to complete a task, and assigning late marks only further exacerbates issues that may exist.

For some students, this may result in feelings of resignation and defeat, and no motivation to actually submit the work. By shifting away from this practice of taking off a set number of marks for submitting something late, students are still motivated to complete the work and submit it. This means that they have an opportunity to demonstrate their learning, and to receive feedback on how they can continue to improve.

A lot of times, these could also potentially be students that struggle with executive functioning skills, students that are working and/or supporting siblings and family at home, etc.

Once again, issues of equity become clear when we really take a look at who these practices adversely affect.


One of the shifts that occurred as a result of much of the learning, which was also exacerbated by covid and the recognition that not all homes are the same, is homework.

Not all students have access to technology, supports, etc. while at home, and assigning homework once again adversely affects students that don’t have the same resources or supports, those who work or support their families, etc.

As a result, a shift away from homework gives every students the same access to the teacher, as well as the time needed to complete work. No students are falling further behind because they weren’t able to do the work at home, and students are more likely to use their class time efficiently since they recognize that the teacher is giving them the time and support to complete and engage with the course.

One exception to this change is for projects if a student opts to use extra time to be able to work on something at home, particularly if they weren’t using class time well.

Shift in Student Mindsets

One neat change that results from a different approach to assessment is that students don’t always expect grades for everything that they submit. Students adjust to the fact that not all things are graded, and that some tasks are simply to assess learning and provide feedback.

This shift in language and practices changes not only the teacher, but also the language and perceptions of the students, too! Students listen and pick up on these assessment and grading language and practices, and are able to survive and thrive in this new environment.

Also, conversations about overall marks decrease when you shift towards a growth mindset and standards-based approach. They tend to understand that their grade is no longer an overall, but rather separated into the different skills or standards required in the course. This allows students to see areas of strength, and areas of growth and so they are more aware of how they are doing, and what they need to do to continue to see improvement.

For these conversations to occur effectively, it’s important to set up whatever gradebook or grading software that you are using in such a way that it shows the individual standards or skills.

Proficiency Scale vs Traditional 100 Point Scale

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For students to be able to understand and shift their expectations away from the traditional grade, it’s helpful to ditch the 100 point scale in favour of a different approach: a proficiency scale.

A proficiency scale will provide specific language that informs students how they are progressing in skills or standards acquisition, and eliminates the pressure to use the 100 point scale. A student is considered on the scale once they have minimally demonstrated a specific skill; this means that they are passing, though not yet demonstrating proficiency.

One such approach is a four point scale that is broken up into the following categories:

  1. Beginning (just starting to work with the skill; needs lots of support)
  2. Developing (partial understanding; lacks consistency)
  3. Applying (proficient; complete understanding)
  4. Extending (work is exemplary; have their own voice, and can make their own connections; NOT beyond grade level)

Once you have a scale in place, it is important not to relate it back to a traditional 100 point scale, as this will only undermine the learning and the system itself.

In a traditional 100 point scale, a challenge at the beginning of a course could really adversely affect a student’s ability to overcome and bring their mark back up. The could be so discouraging for students, and by shifting towards a different scale or approach, it focuses more on the individual standards and skills, and less towards the overall average on a test, quiz, etc.

Class Conversations

Part of this process also demonstrates that the way we engage with our students needs to change as well. Whole class conversations, while super ideal, aren’t always effective indicators of students participation and understanding.

Allowing smaller group conversations is so much more effective than full group conversations. Students are often paying attention to a teacher’s reaction when in a whole class discussion, but when in small groups they engage much more readily, and it ends up way more meaningful. The teacher can lurk and listen in the conversations, but by creating smaller groups, it really shows active listening, participation, and students are more likely to share their thoughts and ideas.

Shifting towards smaller group conversations also removes pressure on students to agree or align with the teacher and their opinions. Some students see a difference of opinion as disrespectful, and so they hesitate to share a different view. By removing the teacher as a participant, and creating smaller groups of students, students are able to authentically share and are not afraid that their views will have negative consequences.

Standards-Based Grades and Reporting Periods

One of the challenges of shifting towards a standards- or skills-based grading system is that grades need to be shared at points throughout the year. It becomes a big question or challenge to determine what the grade should be, and how it should be calculated or determined.

One option is to create a conversion chart based on your proficiency scale and work completed. You could assign a number for each level on the proficiency scale, and from there calculate a GPA-type grade that could then be reported as a letter or numerical grade.

You could also take a look at how students have performed in each of the course standards, and assign a mark based on how they have performed, which can then be averaged overall. This still gives students room to improve, particularly since a jump in proficiency translates in a noticeable improvement numerically.

The most important thing to remember is that you should be transparent with students and families as to how that grade was determined, while also stressing the importance of continuing to develop the skills to see further improvement.

Conferencing About Grades

Grading conferences is a great way to have a meaningful conversation about student learning, while also giving students agency and ownership of their learning and marks. Students have a lot of great ideas and questions when it comes to how they have demonstrated their skills, and how they have shown improvement. By engaging in grade conferences, they can share their perspectives, their goals, etc. and better understand the grading process in a standards-based course, as well as how they can improve.

It also gives the teacher something to think about. Students are also very aware of their strengths, and their areas of growth, and they also are aware of the number of opportunities they have had to practice and demonstrate new skills. They can provide teachers with a unique perspective that could help to further develop and build a more efficient standards-based grading classroom. Teachers aren’t perfect, and we have a lot to learn from one another.

These conversations also give us a great opportunity to discuss the rubric and expectations. It really makes a case for developing clear standards and expectations for each of the skills that can then be used in a rubric for a particular task.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Katie is holding a large pencil, and Rachel is looking up; Text: "Sign me up" with ticked checkbox

If you are really interested in standards-based grading, then consider how you can start shifting your practice in the smallest ways that make the biggest impact. This could mean eliminating late marks and zeros, or the use of bonus and participation marks. This is a good starting point, as it focuses on what students know, versus penalizing or inflating students’ marks.

Once you are ready, slowly shift towards more standards-based (or skills-based) practices. There are so many different components, but by slowly introducing a strategy, more solutions will become obvious.

Want to learn more from Jessica?

Jessica is not on social media, however if you want to learn more from her, feel free to email her at: [email protected]

Resources to consider:

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