How does grading relate to the purpose of assessment? Are we so caught up in assigning numbers to rate our students that we forget the purpose of evaluating students?
What is the Purpose of Educational Assessment?
I think most elementary teachers with experience are able to give a full report of what their students strengths and weaknesses are at any given moment. Are they struggling with writing, reading, math? Are they creative in an artistic sense? Do they take their time or rush projects? Do they work well together? Does Johnny have below average technical skills in writing? What about poor handwriting? Can Jane use the addition algorithm with carrying (no biggies if she can't unless she's taking a state test...how else might she compute those sums?)
Any teacher who spends time in the faculty room knows that their colleagues are experts on their students. They know them down to the letter. Yet, we are forced to quantify our students ability because for some reason in our system of education, numbers are powerful indicators of a child's overall intelligence. I would argue with that, but I guess that is for another article.
So, we have children memorize lists of spelling words and test them each week, not to see who the best speller is, but to see who memorized the most words they are going to forget how to spell by the end of the weekend.
We teach a math algorithm and send kids home to practice using it only to have them return and prove they can calculate using a thousand year old procedure.
From all this we get...our grades. Never mind that teachers grading systems are often diverse and rarely consistent from one grade level to the next. This means Johnny could be an "A" student in fourth grade and a "C+" in fifth grade, and for no other reason than the expectations and system of grading was different from one year to the next. Or perhaps he didn't study as hard for one particular teacher because she didn't inspire him.
Grading and Assessment
In looking at grading from the perspective of assessment one would have to see that there should be no connection between the two at all.
Teachers assess students so that they can identify areas of weakness either with individuals or small and whole groups. The results of these assessments are what drive a good teacher's instruction. In essence, assessment has little to do with the student performing or not performing and everything to do with what a teacher is going to do with the information she obtains from a given assessment. So, the question becomes after the review of an assessment not "what can the student do to improve?" but "What can the teacher do to help the student improve?"
I think about those weekly spelling tests going home. What of Jane who always does poorly? Or should the question be, what of this teacher who can't figure out how to help her student become a better speller (that is if a teacher allows spelling assessments to answer the question "Is Jane a good speller?")
Upon closer examination, what grading truly relates to is helping to understand which children need more time to reach various landmarks and which are speedier at hitting those same landmarks. Knowing What grades in turn do, is punish children for a teacher needing to go back and reteach concepts or work more closely with groups on a concept. Why assign grades to children on progress when it is clear science that the results of a particular assessment will never yield an entire group reaching a given benchmark at the same time? The deck is always unfairly stacked. Assessment is to provide insight to teachers not to punish students.
With the notion of grading being separate from that of assessment teachers have a whole regiment of practical assessment tools that can easily be used to report on student progress without making assessment punitive by translating assessment results into grades. Checklists, anecdotal records, portfolios, work samples, documented conversations with students, and interest inventories to name a few. These tools can be easily employed in the classroom to demonstrate growth or areas of needed assistance. Yet they aren't as widely used in the classroom despite the insight they could provide. Why? Because these forms of assessment are hard to quantify on top of requiring much more work from teachers.
Assessment has to be thought of as a teacher tool used to drive future instruction. Any assessment that does not provide this insight (the weekly spelling test--the most laughable system of teaching spelling and the biggest waste of classroom and home time) and moreover is used solely to rack up a set of grades for students is not an assessment at all. If teachers aren't actively using assessment results to inform their instruction then why bother?
Assessment in education is not for the purpose of grading students. Whenever it is used as a basis to do so it becomes null and void as to its intended purpose.