A Teacher’s Journey: ‘Student, Grade Thyself’

Stephanie Farley teaches English Language Arts to middle graders in a California independent school. She wrote about effective rubrics earlier this year.

By Stephanie Farley

Student-centered assessment is the most transformative change I’ve made in my English teaching practice within the past five years.

For two decades, I’d been confounded when my students told me they didn’t understand where their grades came from. An English teacher in a traditional school, I thought I’d clarified that grades on papers came from students demonstrating their skills in a number of areas – like clear theses, well-developed examples, and accurate mechanics.

As it turned out, the students couldn’t figure out how facility in those areas translated into points or a letter grade. For example, they’d say: Why do I get a B+ instead of an A-, Ms. Farley? What exactly would I have to change to get an A?

This problem really bothered me. I spent hours commenting on papers and trying to explain to students where their work was strong and how it could improve, but I couldn’t quite articulate, in satisfactory kid language, why one student earned an 85 and another earned a 78.

Fortunately, I worked with the WORLD’S BEST PRINCIPAL, so she set me on a path of discovery in the form of competency-based learning. I read a bunch of books, but the following really stood out:

  • Breaking with Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work by Brian M. Stack and Jonathan G. Vander Els (2017)
  • Competency-Based Education: A New Architecture for K-12 Schooling by Rose Colby (2017)
  • Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman (2019)
  • Leaders of Their Own Learning by Ron Berger, Leah Rugen, and Libby Woodfin (2014).
  • On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, by Thomas R. Guskey (2014)
  • A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, by Ken O’Connor (2011)

I went to conferences and talked to lots of really, really smart people who were shifting how their classes, departments or schools taught and assessed kids. I saw examples of competency-based schools and talked to teachers whose students self-assessed.

If you saw me sitting in my office as I thought about what I’d learned, you’d notice that little puffs of smoke arose from my ears and a whirring sound emanated from my head as my brain struggled to process the data.

But one day, it clicked. My primary mistakes had been:

  • I was trying to get the students to work on too many skills all at once.
  • I hadn’t articulated all the skills involved in writing an essay or story.
  • I wasn’t giving proper feedback about the specific skills I wanted to see developed.
  • As a result, my grading was unfair and biased.

To remedy this, I realized I needed to:

  • Focus on just a few skills at a time.
  • Write clearer, smaller learning targets.
  • Focus my feedback on the learning targets.
  • Get students involved in assessing their progress.

However, when I asked my students to evaluate themselves, they balked. That’s your job, they told me, meekly, like they didn’t want to infringe on my livelihood (they were so thoughtful!).

It took multiple attempts, but I was finally able to convince students to try grading just one paper themselves. This turned into another paper, a project, and after that…there was no stopping the kids. They loved it, and I had successfully transitioned my class to student-centered assessment.

Nine Not Too Easy Steps

I don’t mean to make this sound too easy, because it definitely wasn’t. But I can outline the steps I took that made student-centered assessment a reality in my college preparatory school.

1. I revised my learning targets so that they were in kid language, focused on ONE skill each, and as clear as possible. For example, “Develops a big idea that is well supported by details within the story” became, “I can write a story or essay with a purpose – or big idea – in mind” and “I can use details in my story that support – or give examples of – the big idea.”

2. In the first month of school, I focused on teaching the language of the learning targets, so students truly understood what a “big idea” or a “supporting detail” looked like in their written work. My teaching was all play-based and silly, but it helped students get familiar with the language we used for assessments.

3. I provided opportunities for students to practice evaluating each other’s work before they evaluated themselves. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, but practicing on others’ work trains your brain to take a step back and look for the learning targets.

4. For the first trimester, I used the same rubric for all written assessments. This really helped, as the guideposts weren’t constantly changing and the learning target language was being imprinted onto the students’ understanding of writing.

5. Before students had to evaluate their own work, I gave tons of written feedback about the learning targets and asked students to revise. In this way, they already knew which areas of the work needed improvement and what was strong, so if they edited successfully, they’d have a fair understanding of where the work stood in terms of the rubric.

6. Part of the self-evaluation process was to provide evidence. So, for example, since one of the learning targets was “I can write a story with a big idea in mind,” students highlighted where the “big idea” showed up in their stories. This visual really helped students see how well they’d integrated their big ideas into their writing, which meant I didn’t have to explain quite as much.

7. I met with each student to review their work and their evaluation. They’d explain their revisions to me, then they’d explain where they thought their work fell in each category of the rubric, using evidence from their stories. Finally, they’d tell me what grade they thought the work merited, based on what they’d just shared.

8. In the conferences, I’d support students’ self-evaluation as much as possible. However, I was quick to point out when students didn’t give themselves enough credit or underrated their achievement. If needed, I’d also mention where their work didn’t quite align with their evaluation of it. This didn’t happen very often; 99% of the time, I agreed with the students’ evaluations. For the 1% of the time when I didn’t, I explained how the work could improve and invited the student to revise again.

9. The grade that the student and I agreed upon was put into the gradebook.

Once we got this system down, students thrived: they wanted to push themselves on each assignment with absolutely no coercion or coaxing from me.

What Happened Next

They were happier, less anxious and stressed, and, ultimately, felt safe and confident in the classroom. Consequently, the students worked hard and made astonishing progress each trimester. No one fell behind or failed, and each student left the class knowing not only that they’d grown, but they also knew how they’d grown. The feedback to me, taken from a student feedback form, was mostly like this:

“In this class, I learned how to write using descriptive language like metaphors and sense imagery. But most of all, I felt like I got better at and more confident about writing. This was my favorite class.”

As teachers, our greatest reward is getting to observe our students grow more confident and skilled as the year progresses. Student-centered assessment is the best tool I’ve encountered for ensuring that every single child experiences that success.

Stephanie Farley has been an English teacher and independent school administrator for 27 years. Interested in instructional design, assessment, feedback, and grading, Stephanie served as a Mastery Transcript Consortium Site Director and has been on a number of California Association of Independent Schools accreditation committees. She has created professional development for schools around reading and curriculum and coaches teachers in instruction, lesson planning, feedback, and assessment. Visit her website Joyful Learning.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.