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This was originally posted on Assessment FOR Learning on October 12, 2009.

A criticism of Assessment FOR Learning is that along with it comes pressure to make sure that students’ grades increase. In other words, some have been concernerd that AFL might lead to grade inflation.

I would hope that no school would ever encourage grade inflation while it encourages its teachers to try AFL techniques. I think that that the concern over grade inflation is probably first and foremost a misunderstanding about the purpose of AFL.

The primary goal of AFL is not grade inflation. I don’t know that it would ever be appropriate for educators to do things solely for the purpose of raising grades. In fact, if grade inflation was the goal then a focus on AFL wouldn’t be necessary. Many teachers already do an excellent job of grade inflation through several more traditional measures such as extra credit, dropping the lowest grade, or curving scores. These are practices that teachers have used for many years, and they all have the same outcome of inflating grades and making grades less representative of actual learning. AFL isn’t necessary for inflating grades.

The primary goal of AFL is instead LEARNING INFLATION. The entire purpose of AFL is to increase learning. When teachers assess students in an ongoing manner, use that data to guide their instructional practices, and teach students how to use their own assessment data to chart their progress and to guide their studies, then it is only natural that learning will increase.

Now let’s be honest, when learning increases grades tend to increase as well. That is, grades will increase if we are grading accurately while learning increases. This is why it is impossible to discuss assessing with AFL techniques without also discussing grading practices. While assessment is not the same as grading, and while not all assessments need to be graded, if teachers aren’t careful with their grading practices they can negate their assessment efforts. For example, if a teacher’s assessment practices cause a student to increase learning to a B level but the grading practices cause the student to earn a D then the incentive for learning will decrease.

Once the conversation moves to grading practices it is very easy for that subject to dominate the discussion, but don’t be fooled – grading is secondary to learning. As you make plans to use AFL in your classroom, focus on this simple mantra: AFL is about how you use assessments to increase learning. Whatever types of assessments you use, use them in ongoing manner, use the data you receive to guide your instruction, and train/require your students to use their own data to guide their studies.

You’ll be using AFL and learning will inflate.

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on October 14, 2009 at 8:47pm
Very good point. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that grades should be more than just something to average together to come up with a justifiable final grade. Too often, while we might like to think they are more than that, they really aren't. We need to move away from the idea that just because the grade is in the grade book it is now part of some official permanent average-able record. Instead, grades need to be feedback for students, parents, and teachers. Grades should instruct and guide so that strengths are identified and areas of weakness can improve. With this in mind a grade should be able to change. A grade should be in wet cement. Students should have opportunities to use what they learned from the grade to guide the learning. Once they have demonstrated mastery of the content/skill, the previous grades (which were really just practice grades) no longer have the same validity. To see an example of how a teacher is putting this into practice in a math class, click here.
Comment by Monica Clark on October 14, 2009 at 2:43pm
I agree that formative assessment should be conducted for the purpose of increasing student learning and guiding instrucitonal practices. The problem I see is that students are so accustomed to receiving a grade for a test (assessment) that if there is no grade attached to the assessment some of them will discount its value and not attempt to do their best.

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