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Grading vs. Assessment: What's the Difference?

By The Room 241 Team January 30, 2013

Since the beginning of public education, teachers have recognized the need to have a formalized way to evaluate the progress of their students. After all, how can teachers even know if their teaching methods are effective if there is no way to measure the success or failure of their students? Letter or number grades have traditionally been used to assess student progress, but there are other, perhaps more effective ways to evaluate.

Grading vs. assessment: What is the difference?

While the two terms are closely related, there are some crucial differences between grading and assessment. Let’s look at each of them separately.

  • Grading – Grading is a way for educators to evaluate each individual student’s performance and learning. Grading can include letter grades, percentages and even a simple pass/fail. Grades can be attached to physical activities like writing assignments, lab work, projects, reports and tests. They can also be assigned to more nebulous activities that a teacher feels are important to the learning experience. These can include participation, attendance, classroom behavior and even effort.
  • Assessment – Using assessment as a ruler to measure student learning often includes analyzing grades. This, perhaps, is why some people confuse the two terms. Grades should be a “major source of data” when evaluating student progress; however, assessment goes beyond grades. A teacher might, for example, look past grade averages and examine individual areas of strength and weakness. If a child consistently gets B’s in math, the grading model would tell that child’s teacher that the student is learning successfully. If, however, that child always misses all the math problems that concern weights and measures, then there is a deficit in his or her education. Assessment would identify that deficit, while a system of evaluation based purely on grades would not.

So, which is better: grades or assessment?

Grading

Grading is the traditional method of measuring whether or not students are participating successfully in their classroom experience and whether or not they are learning. It has the advantage of being codified. Letter or number grades are easy to add up and record, and a teacher can quickly get a sense of a student’s success or failure by scanning that student’s grades. On the national and state-wide level, grades are used extensively to measure the overall success of our educational system. The federal government has very specific grade standards for many areas of study. These standards can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics’ “National Assessment of Educational Progress” webpage.

Other benefits of a grade-based system of student evaluation include:

  • Grades are easily understood by students and their parents
  • Grades can be measured objectively since they are usually based on measurable data
  • Grades can give students concrete goals to aim for when they assess their own progress

Assessment

Assessment, on the other hand, has many advantages of its own. Assessment can look past the blurring data of grade averages and identify areas of weakness in a course of study or in an individual student’s education. It can also be highly individualized because the educator who designed the course and its materials plays a big role in choosing assessment goals. Because that teacher knows what information and skills he or she intended to impart, that teacher is often the best judge of whether those learning goals have been met. Students are also judged on their final understanding of the material, not just their accumulative grade point average. Students don’t have to bring past failures made during practice with them “in the final match.”

Other benefits of assessment-based evaluation include:

  • Student involvement in the evaluation process
  • Individualized goals for measuring success
  • Less paperwork and more time with students

Grading vs. assessment: room for both methods

While grading may seem as old fashioned, and assessment progressive, there is clearly room for both of these methods in the modern educational system. Grading is best for evaluating large amounts of student data — as when the individual states need to assess their educational systems — while assessment gives teachers a valuable tool for measuring the individual progress of students in their classes.

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