by Diane Stempinski


Does this sound familiar?

Student: “What grade did you give me?”

Teacher: “No, the correct question is, ‘What grade did you earn?’”

No matter how many times we explain to students that they earn grades, instead of being given grades, the fact remains … students do not always understand how they earn their grades. Since assigning letter grades first appeared in the late 19th century, teachers and students have been wrestling with the idea of who earns and who gives grades.

Assessment practices are the perfect way to build—or destroy—relationships with students. I’ll take you into my 11th-grade Psychology classroom where, as an experienced teacher teaching Psychology for the first time, I did what is common practice: I copied the test directly from the publisher’s test bank. How bad could it be? I knew I had introduced most of the content, and anyway, the students had been assigned to read that entire chapter. Plus, don’t forget, most would be attending college in a few short months, so this would be good practice for their post-high school experience. (Oh, the rationalization that we can do to ourselves!) My uplifting, exciting, discussion-based class changed, literally, within five minutes of handing back the first test. Average grade: C. Trust built between students and teacher: F.

What had happened? Easy. I failed my students. By not having clear, direct learning targets that I taught from, I had not aligned my assessment to my classroom discussion, homework, or assignments. Therefore, the summative assessment (Chapter 1 test) reflected the publisher’s learning targets, not mine. My students came into my classroom ready to demonstrate what they had learned from what they perceived my learning targets to be, and what they left with was an evaluation from a stranger.

I had a decision to make. I could move on to Chapter 2 and justify to them that they were responsible for all of Chapter 1 and that, therefore, the assessment was fair and valid. Or I could decide to not use that grade in my grade book and assess the students differently. It was a Psychology class, so I decided to ask my students for their opinions.

Their opinions astounded me. “You lied.” “You cheated us.” “I thought you wanted us to be successful!” “Do teachers like to play ‘GOTCHA?’” The list went on and on. It was hard for me to realize my students had seen this pattern before. One concept is taught, another one is assessed, and in the process, a relationship is damaged.

I did throw out that assessment. In fact, I began to examine my assessment practices. My students became part of the development of the assessments … both the formative and summative. We discussed the assessments before the units began and then evaluated each assessment after the grade was given/earned.

Assessments give us a chance to look into the brains of our students. We need to take this part of teaching extremely seriously. It cannot be a last minute decision. It is an important aspect in the teacher/student relationship. Assessments need to be well thought out and, most importantly, communicated to our students. Having clear learning targets aligned to the assessment made my classroom teaching even more productive, engaging, and exciting. It gave us all a target to keep on track, and students knew they were going to be responsible for demonstrating their knowledge.

Relationships with students are not a given. The interactions between a student and teacher begin the moment a student walks into the classroom. We need to use whatever is in our authority to build relationships with our students. What we use to assess students and how we use those assessments is just one way of making us earn our relationships with them.

-Diane Stempinski