Article #25
Where Are the Grades in This Model?
Cheryl M. Sigmon

There is a misunderstanding among many teachers that you cannot adopt the 4-Blocks Model if the school uses a traditional grading system. Where I might agree that the model is far more consistent with a narrative reporting system, grades can be collected in the model for use in a tradition numerical or letter grade system. Again, it's not the best way--especially for the primary grades--but it's doable. In some school systems, getting parents and administrators to buy in to the model is sometimes the biggest "battle" we can fight at one time. Once parents and administrators are convinced that what the model has to offer really does make our kids better readers, writers, and communicators, then we can pursue other issues and concerns that we feel will make our implementation even stronger.

So, if you're stuck with the traditional system of grading, how do you gather those grades in a way that is fair to students where they are not penalized for their need to grow and where they are held accountable for what has actually been taught? Here are a few ideas that have worked for 4-Blocks teachers:

Guided Reading Block:

What's being taught during this block?

    • Comprehension of printed text at grade level and below grade level
    • Specific skills and strategies that are necessary for comprehension
    • Vocabulary pertinent to the concepts contained in the text
What is fair to be assessed?
    • The students' ability to apply the skills and strategies that were taught during this lesson.
    • The students' basic understanding of the text.
    • The vocabulary that students have learned and applied to the text.
    • Reasonable guesses of words in a Cloze format dealing with the story. (This makes a point of using context clues in reading.)
How can it be formally assessed? One fairly traditional measure can be a multiple choice, short answer test, and/or Cloze format. The teacher can construct a test based on what was actually taught and successfully applied during the days spent on the text. This is far better and fairer than using the publisher's test since neither the publisher nor the basal consultant was present in the classroom to know exactly what the teacher taught that week. Self-Selected Reading Block If a traditional grade must be assigned to "reading comprehension," information gathered during the SSR conference should be considered along with the test described above. A rubric can be designed to take in to account such things as the student's ability to apply skills and strategies taught during Guided Reading in the context of what is read and discussed during the conference; to self-select appropriate materials; to engage in print; and to make personal connections with the text. Writing Block All of the writing skills, including grammar, mechanics, and usage, and students' growth in writing, can be assessed in the context of their actual writing. Here again, rubrics can be most useful in reflecting students' true grow in written communication. There are numerous publications making good, sound rubrics available to which letter grades can be attached. The best of these also put the conventions--grammar, mechanics, and usage--in proper perspective. They are a part of the whole where correctness counts but where it is not the only criterion. Word Block Here is where spelling can be assessed. Having kids memorize long lists of spelling and/or vocabulary words is totally contrary to the philosophy of this block. Memorization is not what will enable students to be good spellers. Learning the patterns of spelling and decoding is what is valuable. If the teacher is spending 10-15 minutes daily on new and old Word Wall words, then those words could be a part of the spelling test. Additionally, because transfer and application of the rules and patterns learned is what is really of value, this level of the taxonomy should be included in the test. At the upper grades, something from the other goals being taught (see Month by Month Phonics for the Upper Grades by Cunningham and Hall) could be included in the assessment. Tests might be designed as follows:

Lower Grades

Choose among: 5 new Word Wall words
5 words from On the Back activities that have been covered that week
2 dictation sentences including old and new words (bonus points)
Upper Grades Choose among: 5 old and new Word Wall words
2-3 Nifty Thrifty Fifty words
5 words written in correct columns as in What Looks Right activities
5 words written in correct columns as in Brand Name Phonics
3-4 sentences or a paragraph of dictation incorporating a variety of words (bonus points)
When we decide to defend our desire and belief that numerical and letter grades don't serve our students well, we need to be sure that our reasons are clear and that they justify why the antiquated grading system in place does not serve our students well. Consider some of the following points in defense of a change:
  • We should not penalize our students for starting behind the rest of the class. We do want to reward those students for the growth that they have made. Sometimes even with tremendous growth--by leaps and bounds--a student cannot compensate for his lack of knowledge and low grades in the beginning of the year using a traditional grading system. That must change.
I think that the analogy Dr. Lynn Cannaday once shared about grading best illustrates what we mean by penalizing kids who are not at the same starting line as some other students. In his presentation on grading systems a number of years ago, he pointed out that our grading system should be much like the care of a sick patient in the emergency room. Should we take the patient's temperature every hour and then at the end of the day treat him according to the average of all of those readings? Or should we plan our treatment according to the temperature reading each time we take it? The answer is obvious and the analogy is clear. I wonder why it hasn't been so clear to educators through the ages?
  • We should do all in our power not allow a first grader to fail. The damage done to many kids as they have just started their educational careers may be irreparable. I cannot even imagine how totally demoralizing it must be for a child to perceive himself a failure right from the beginning! Unconscionable! What we must do instead is to target that student for all of the additional support he needs to grow--regardless of whether he grows to the same achievement level as most of his peers.
  • We should perceive grades as an indication of what needs to be done for a student. Too many teachers tend to see grades as a reward or punishment for students--not a gauge for what work lies ahead for the teacher. We must accept the challenge and support each and every individual student. They are in our care.
  • We should not sacrifice any more of our valuable teaching and learning time than is necessary to assess students. Far too many teachers have fallen into the practice of testing on Fridays and then declaring the remainder of the day "Fun Friday." There are several serious problems with this practice. First, we absolutely cannot afford to give 20% of our instructional time to assessment. There's already not enough time to teach all that must be taught to the depth that it should be delivered. Second, the concept of Fun Friday communicates to kids that learning is dull and that they can on occasion have "fun" by not being involved in learning. (Maybe I've just seen too many Fridays where kids were eating popsicles and watching cartoons.) Third, there is no reason why Friday should be a testing day. It does not follow logic that lessons would always conclude for Friday testing.
  • We should rely more on our ability to assess students' progress through our observations of them rather than having as much needless paper and pencil assessment.
  • Think about using IRIs at the beginning and ending of the year to show how much children have grown on valid measures. There is usually an additional form of the IRI that will allow you to measure kids at a midpoint in the year as well. So much valuable information can be gathered during the administration of an IRI to plan lessons for individuals, groups, and for the whole class.
Let's at least start the dialogue about less traditional grading procedures, even if it still takes a while for our ideas to be accepted and for new measures to be implemented. It is a part of the paradigm that needs to shift as we change our methods of instruction.

4 Blocks Goodies