How do teachers differentiate instruction?

Page 8: Evaluate and Grade Student Performance

Teacher at their deskIn any classroom, the teacher is expected to document students’ performance. At regular intervals (e.g., six weeks, nine weeks), the results of this evaluation are shared with students and their parents in the form of a report card. When they are first introduced to the concept of differentiated instruction, some teachers, parents, and students might consider it unfair for all students to be evaluated and graded using the same set of criteria when some students are working on complex or advanced tasks and others are learning foundational skills. In other words, they believe that the lower-performing students might receive higher grades than they deserve. However, this belief is often dismissed once it is understood that one of the major goals of a differentiated classroom is to help all students to succeed. Success is defined as a demonstration of growth toward the mastery of a given content or a skill. Because students in a differentiated classroom are often working on different tasks and completing different products to show mastery, several questions arise:

  • How will the teacher fairly evaluate each student’s performance?
  • How will the teacher assign grades?

Evaluating Performance

Teacher making a graphThough students will work on different activities and demonstrate their knowledge through a variety of products, teachers can accurately evaluate student performance using one of several recommended methods:

  • Rubrics: A rubric is an objective set of guidelines that defines the criteria used to score or grade an assignment. It describes the requirements of the assignment and clearly outlines the points the student will receive based on the quality of his or her work. Teachers can give students the rubric in advance to help them understand the requirements and expectations for the assignment. Even if the students are completing a variety of products to demonstrate their knowledge of the same content or skill, teachers can use the same rubric for grading all of the students’ products. Click here for general procedures for developing a rubric.
  • Portfolios: A portfolio is a collection of artifacts, or individual work samples, that represent a student’s performance over a period of time. In general, this type of assessment allows teachers to more accurately evaluate a student’s mastery of content or a skill than a single assessment such as a test that captures one moment in time. A portfolio also allows a student to reflect on his or her performance over time and to perhaps establish future goals. Click here to learn more about how to use portfolios.
  • Self-assessment: Student self-assessment is the process of students using specific criteria to evaluate and reflect on their own work. In doing so, students become more responsible for their own learning and may be more prepared to work with the teacher to develop individual learning goals. For students to effectively evaluate their own work, teachers should provide them criteria to evaluate themselves against. Click here to learn how to train your students to self assess and to view a list of different types of self-assessments.

Assigning Grades

In addition to evaluating performance, teachers must also assign grades for each instructional period. Typically, teachers consider three factors when they assign grades:
report card

  • Achievement (i.e., how the student is performing in relation to expected grade-level goals)
  • Growth (i.e., the amount of individual improvement over time)
  • Habits (e.g., participation, behavior, effort, attendance)

In a traditional classroom, teachers usually report one grade that reflects all three factors. Although achievement is important in a differentiated classroom, growth is also critical; it is a measure of success and teachers want to communicate to students and to parents how much growth the student has experienced. In a differentiated classroom, teachers grade these factors separately. They report grades based only on achievement and report information about growth and habits in other ways, such as in the notes section of the report card, sending a letter or email home containing this information, or discussing at a parent-teacher conference.

For Your Information

In a traditional classroom, it is often the case that students with the greatest ability easily achieve the top grades with little effort, while students who struggle often receive poor or failing grades even if they have worked hard and shown great improvement. This frequently results in the top students not applying themselves because they can easily master the work with little or no effort and in the struggling students giving up because no amount of effort will lead to success.

Teacher at her desk

When they assign grades, teachers should keep several principles in mind. First, teachers should understand that an assessment is a means of collecting information about their students and that every assessment does not have to be graded. Second, grades should be based on a student’s performance in relation to grade-level standards. Next, as mentioned above, grades should only reflect student achievement, not student growth or habits. Finally, students should be graded against established criteria and not in relation to the performance of their peers. In addition to these principles, teachers should consider practices related to grading. Click on each item in the table below to learn more about how to address it in a differentiated classroom.

The primary purpose of preassessments and formative assessments is to guide instruction. Preassessments and homework should never be graded. Formative assessments should rarely be graded, and only when students are informed ahead of time. The reason for this is that, if teachers grade these types of assessments early in the grading cycle, some students’ grade averages will be lowered because they are unable to perform well on a task that they have just been introduced to. Instead, summative assessments should be graded to determine whether students have mastered the content.

Grades should be an accurate reflection of student achievement. Teachers should not adjust a student’s grades either higher or lower based on other factors such as effort, bonus points, and behavior. Similarly, teachers should not grade on curve.

Because students learn at different rates, some might not perform well on the summative assessment. However, this does not mean that students cannot master the content or skill; they might just need more time. Teachers should give students another chance to demonstrate mastery without being penalized (e.g., deducting points for a second attempt). Teachers should give students full credit if they master the content on subsequent attempts.

Because students learn in different ways, some require more supports to successfully learn content or a skill and to demonstrate their knowledge. If teachers provide supports (e.g., graphic organizers) to help students master the material, they should also provide these same supports when students are being assessed (without adjusting the grade).

Assignments or tests evaluate students’ mastery of specific content or skills. Although typically not recommended in a differentiated classroom, if a teacher awards extra credit or bonus points, they should only be awarded if the extra credit assignment or bonus activity assesses this same content. If extra credit assignment or bonus point items are unrelated, students’ grades will be inflated and not an accurate reflection of mastery.

When cooperative learning activities are used to teach students about a topic, the teacher should not grade this activity. Teachers should avoid assigning a single grade to all of the students who work together on a group project because such grades will not reflect an individual student’s mastery of the topic at hand.

Traditionally, teachers record a zero for students who do not turn in an assignment. Even for students who generally receive good grades, a single zero can significantly lower their overall average. This is also true for students who receive a very low grade on a test or assignment (e.g., 20%). Some teachers who differentiate instruction record a grade that will indicate that the students are not proficient in a given topic (e.g., 50% or 60%) without skewing the student’s overall grade average.

Adapted from Tomlinson & Imbeau (2010) and Wormeli (2006).
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