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Book thoughts: Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning by Cathy Vattertott

Near the beginning of my career in education, my mentor teacher and friend told me about an organization called ASCD that had transformed her teaching even late into her career. Since then, I have been a member and have enjoyed the shipment of 5 separate books that comes each year. For the most part, these books dig deeper into subjects that I have a cursory knowledge in and help me to further hone and refine my craft. I have treasured this membership even more so as an administrator and have used it to provide resources to teachers that I am working with. No kickbacks here, just a plug for something I personally have enjoyed and benefitted from.

The member book for this month centers on the issue of standards based grading, which involves rethinking traditional forms of grading that have persisted for decades. Standards based grading as a movement challenges notions about what our purpose is as a school, what the purpose of student work is and what outcomes we should seek for students. Cathy Vatterott begins the book with a synopsis of the history of education and some of the older notions that answer these questions before giving definitions of how the paradigm shifts under a standards based grading system. I think my favorite aspect of this shift as described by Vatterott is in how we define what learning is: "Learning is defined by the standards- not by what students know, but by what they can do with what they know." This definition, as well as what the rest of this shift means, is parsed out in the rest of the book through Vatterott's justification for a new paradigm and then an explanation of what that paradigm entails in practice. 

For teachers who are still struggling with what the shift from a traditional grading system to a standards based system will look like, I would strongly recommend this as a great beginning book. I found the charts that exist throughout the book to be very useful in particular as they provide a clear and concise illustration of this shift. The rather simple T-charts between the traditional grading system and standards based grading system could otherwise be labeled "what standards based grading is and what standards based grading is not". Either way you look at them, they are a good primer for delving deeper into understanding this shift.

Also of note, Ms. Vatterott outlines for teachers ways that they can blend a standards based grading system with structural barriers that may exist in a teacher's current context. Even teachers who function under district mandated grading rules can employ the strategies of a standards based grading system with a considerable amount of fidelity. I particularly found it useful that Ms. Vatterott gave examples of ways that various teachers have done grade conversion systems in light of a requirement to give letter or number grades. This is particularly useful to my high school teaching colleagues and friends as we still operate very heavily in that type of system. Also, for those who are looking at making a greater change throughout a system of a school or district, the last chapter of the book is dedicated to how to frame the need for change and also how to avoid pitfalls while trying to execute the change to standards based grading system-wide.

Overall, I would say that I found this to be a useful and helpful read. Standards based grading is a subject that is not specific to any one grade level or content and is something that is worth consideration if you have student learning as the center of your personal educational philosophy. If you are well read in education literature, you can probably skip the exposition about what the traditional educational system has established in regards to grading and focus your reading on the paradigm shift piece.


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