Navigating the Shift from Number Grades to Narrative Assessment

Blog Series, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Teachers

In case you didn’t already know, I’m incredibly spoiled. Teachers at my school don’t give “grades,” instead we write narratives describing to parents and other stakeholders how our students are progressing on learning objectives. These are time-consuming to write and can sometimes be not exceptionally clear to parents – we need to work on using less teacher-language and be more specific in explaining progress with fewer superlatives. But I strongly believe that this kind of reporting is much more effective than percentages and letters, and I’ve been thrilled to hear from more and more colleagues in public and independent schools that the broader mindset in education is also shifting in the direction of narrative rather than number grades. There’s a very, very long way to go, and we need a focused strategy and rallying-cry to move forward.

Steps taken, and steps we need to take

I recently began following Janet Avery, an educator in Idaho, on Twitter after coming across her sharing and reflecting during her school district back-to-school professional development using the hashtag #jsd261. One image from a presentation in particular caught my eye:

These categories of purposes for assessment are certainly accurate – many teachers use assessment for all six of these purposes. And the list is disheartening. First and foremost, we *must* shift mindset away from assessment being used either punitively (category 6) or as a reward for certain behavior (category 4). By mixing these purposes, the use of number, percentage, and letter grades becomes even more meaningless… A student who has thoroughly met learning objectives but who doesn’t turn in homework on time or who has a disorganized binder might have a lower “grade” than a student who has not met all learning objectives but has completed formulaic extra credit or brought in extra credit. 

In order to make any progress at all, we must support teachers, parents, and students in viewing assessment as strictly measuring learning progress. (However, as long as teacher assessment is not viewed through that lens, it will be challenging to move student assessment universally in that direction.)

Moving from “summative” to “formative” assessment

Among teachers who already view assessment as truly for measuring student progress on learning objectives, there is hearty conversation around moving from “summative” to “formative” assessment. “Summative” assessment is a final assessment at the end of a learning experience to ensure that learning objectives have been met. “Formative” assessment, on the other hand, refers to activities planned over the course of a learning experience to ensure that students are learning and meeting interim goals along the way.

“Formative” assessment is critical to ensuring that students aren’t losing ground along the way during a learning experience, and  giving teachers necessary feedback to shift course if the planned learning experiences aren’t effective. However, there are a few problems with how formative assessment is implemented:

  • Sometimes, formative assessment is “graded” in the same way that a summative assessment is graded… In other words, the formative assessment “grade” is incorporated into a final number, percentage, or letter grade even if the student improves their understanding later. Similar to the example used with punitive or reward grading, a student who very thoroughly meets a learning objective by the end of a learning experience might still receive a low “grade” if they struggled through several formative assessments along the way. Formative assessments should never detract from a report of the student’s final understanding.
  • Formative assessments still cannot always fully capture a student’s current understanding and ability towards a learning objective. Formative assessments are often somewhat gimmicky activities, like “write a postcard from this historical figure’s perspective” or “write a possible quiz question about this aspect of nutrition.” (I’m guilty of that last one…) Formative assessment activities should not obfuscate students’ real understanding and ability.
  • Formative assessment is frequently treated as a tack-on. Organizations that support teachers in implementing formative assessment frequently explain the importance of planning for formative assessment early in the curriculum planning process, but these are nonetheless often thrown in haphazardly or excessively, resulting in fatigue from the students and a sense of disconnection between the main learning experience and the formative assessment activities. Formative assessments should come in a form that blends seamlessly with the main learning experience.

For these reasons, I’ve fallen out of love with the idea of “formative assessment.”

So what do we do instead?

Over the past school year, I shifted away from formal assessments entirely. Don’t get me wrong… I do still give quizzes. But I give much fewer of them. Rather, in the PBL learning experiences I design for my students, I simply… well… talk to my kids.

As my students are working, I circulate to all of them and verbally discuss their progress on their projects. Later in the year, I also had students begin blogging, which allowed me to “talk” to my students asynchronously as well as “listen in” on their conversations with each other within their blogs. You can read a bit about how I did this with two of my students’ projects: the Elwha River and Science Innovation Time. I kept meticulous notes on these conversations, allowing me to genuinely track each student’s progress in meeting my learning objectives for them as well as the learning objectives they defined for themselves.


Some might call this informal assessment, but use of that term is quite mixed, and some even include exit tickets or quizzes under the “informal assessment” umbrella – in my view, conflating informal and formative assessment. Others might call is authentic assessment, which I think might be closer, but still has very mixed definitions throughout the education field.

However, the definitions of assessment that I feel are closest to what I’ve found most effective in my classroom – and that matches the most exciting conversations I’m participating in with colleagues at schools around the world – are assessment definitions that come from Early Childhood Education. At that level, students’ seem to benefit from their pre-reading/writing abilities in that we can’t simply resort to quizzes! I found a wonderful list from G.S. Morrison of early childhood assessment types that I believe are thoroughly applicable across all ages of learners.

Since I’m not an ECE expert, others of course led me to this connection. In reviewing proposals for sessions for SXSWedu 2016, I came across this amazing proposal for a session on exactly what has been going through my mind: how observational, ongoing, “whole child” ECE assessment can be applied to assessment K-12. (Disclosure: I don’t know these presenters at all, and have no stake in their presentation proposal. I simply think it’s brilliant!)


Will technology become a barrier to progress?

Because educational technology is so excellent at organizing and analyzing quantitative data, EdTech may actually be impeding progress in moving towards flexible, ongoing assessment. More and more beautiful programs are in development and implementation that make it just so easy to track and calculate those number, percentage, letter grades, and developers aren’t being told much otherwise.

From design sprints I’ve participated in with technology development companies to #SharkTankEDU events I’ve “sharked,” I haven’t seen many companies willing to develop technology that will genuinely push for deeper learning. This definitely creates an uphill battle, as it becomes easier to track those traditional assessment grades and comparatively even harder to track narrative observations of student learning.

What can be our rallying-cry?

To reach a tipping point where number, percentage, and letter-based grades can begin to be seen as not necessary or – better yet – detrimental to learning, we have to build a focused movement that shows a consistent alternate view of assessment. Perhaps that looks like elevating early childhood forms of assessment to a level respected among K-12 educators. Perhaps that looks like implementing Dr. Justin Tarte’s “Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights” but removing the term “grade” and replace it with “report of learning.” Or perhaps that simply looks like… well… talking to our kids.

I believe our rallying cries could be:

  • Develop cultures of mutual respect and belief in positive intention in schools.
  • Trust teachers to know their students; accept non-databaseable reports on progress.
  • Develop learning experiences that give kids agency in developing their pathways towards reaching learning objectives.
  • Talk to kids and probe them for understanding rather than expecting them to demonstrate their understanding in only the way you (the teacher) define.
  • Steer the EdTech conversation to promote technology that elevates best learning practices rather than increasing efficiency but also entrenching restrictive routines.

For more blogs by Lindsey check out:

Lindsey Own

Lindsey Own

Lindsey Own teaches science at The Evergreen School in Shoreline, WA. Follow Lindsey on Twitter, @LindseyOwn.

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