Sarah Schuhl

Sarah Schuhl, a consultant specializing in mathematics, has been a secondary mathematics teacher, high school instructional coach, and K–12 mathematics specialist for nearly 20 years.

Eliminating Bias in Grading: Teachers Collaborate on Student Assessments

The work of a professional learning community team is never done. Instead, teachers continuously navigate the world of standards, assessments, interventions, and extensions, using inquiry in an informed way to improve student learning. They begin a journey that becomes more clearly defined, but encounter speed bumps and forks in the road along the way. For those not clear about the importance of looking at student learning, analyzing results, and working collaboratively, it becomes easy to say “we’re doing PLCs” just by meeting at a designated time. This minimizes the impact PLCs have on improving student performance and shifting the culture of a school. In Learning by Doing, Rick DuFour describes the difference between “doing PLCs” and “being a PLC.” By “being a PLC,” a team of teachers embraces the stamina needed for the continuous journey ahead and keep student learning at the forefront of decisions.

Schools where PLC teams seem to be stuck in a spiral of planning the next unit, lesson, or assessment without clear, direct ties to student work or interventions and extensions need to consider how the second PLC question, “How will we know students have learned?” is being answered. The automated response of many teachers is “formative and summative assessments,” but what are the criteria that prove whether or not students are proficient on each standard or learning target? Further, schools must ask how teachers communicate their expectations to students and other teachers? In other words, the critical question for schools in the process becomes, how successfully is a team working as a PLC rather than “doing PLC”?

As we began the work of PLCs at my own high school, it became apparent that although we could agree on the guaranteed and viable curriculum and could even write common assessments, measuring student learning from those assessments varied dramatically from teacher to teacher. This inconsistency stifled the efforts toward student equity, as well as the ability of teachers and students to clearly articulate what was expected. Teachers wanted to spend time planning the next unit or test but did not devote time to thinking about how an assessment should be scored to ensure the common experience of students from classroom to classroom. As a result, a student could earn a D+ to a B on a common summative assessment depending on which teacher graded the exam.

In order to navigate the path toward true common assessments to measure student learning, teams met to grade three summative student tests without teacher comments or student names. Each teacher in the PLC independently scored the student work. Before the work began, teachers assumed they would similarly assess the exams. However, once the exams were scored and the results anonymously recorded to share with the team, the teachers were surprised that the grades differed so significantly, and a new path on the PLC journey began. Discussions followed, which helped clarify the rubric that should be used to measure student learning for each question on the exam. It was important to have norms and consensus in place during this discussion because whether a teacher had taught for 1 year or 20, he/she was passionate about how student work should be scored.

Even after the initial discussion, it was important to continue examining how student learning was being measured on each exam. While scoring student work at a later date with assumed clarity about how the work should be evaluated, there were still subtle inconsistencies among the grades students earned by each teacher on the team. However, when teachers came together to discuss their scoring while looking at student samples, the PLC members began to come to true consensus regarding assessment scores. There is a need to use student work as a road map along the continuous journey for clear direction.

Feeling confident that teachers were now commonly assessing students, we met again to compare data. The PLC journey continued as we realized some teachers had put raw scores into the grade book and others percents. This intentionally or unintentionally weighted the exams during the semester. The team again came to consensus.

Once the summative exams were more closely aligned to the learning targets and scored equitably, we began to look more closely at common formative assessments. This was manageable because so much time had been spent making sure each team member understood the level at which students needed to master each target and had identified the most important learning in that process. As with the summative assessments, the teams need to revisit their scoring by looking at student work on a regular basis.

Collecting and analyzing data continues to add to the journey and help teams determine which interventions and enrichments are needed for individual students. All of this is done with continuous refinement of learning targets in each unit to better involve students in their learning and help them answer these questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I close the gap?

On the road to “being a PLC,” teams must use student work as a catalyst for determining proficiency and clarifying expectations. This will lead to using data to make informed decisions and working in an inquiry based model with a constant focus on student learning. The conversations are not always easy or smooth, but they have value and through them, teachers grow in their ability to work together and have shared understanding regarding the guaranteed and viable curriculum established. Students become the focus and all members of the educational community learn.



In my school district we have an early out day once a week where students leave early and as teachers we meet in our PLC and collaborate. The problem of scoring assessments has been a focus this year. We decided that we needed a common rubric for grading. During a PLC meeting we created common rubrics to go with our common assessments. We now have a grading rubric for Math, Writing, and Language Arts. We are working on Science and Social studies. If one of us is grading and we need input we bring the assessment to collaboration and grade it together. Grading assessments collaboratively has really helped our team to focus on specific strategies, expectations, and learning goals. Our students as a whole are better off and parents are satisfied that as a grade level and team we are cohesive.

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[...] Eliminating Bias in Grading: Teachers Collaborate on Student AssessmentsPLC at Work™ associate Sarah Schuhl explains how her team of teachers worked together to create [...]

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Dick Dewey

Thank you for writing.

Let me first comment that dissonance along the collaborative journey is a valuable ingredient. Growth never takes place in the middle of our comfort zone; it happens at the edges of our comfort zone. With that comes necessary messiness and non-linearity, along with some starts and stops. At a minimum, embrace the dissonance. This is an important step toward building trust and using the dissonance as a springboard. Next, if you have not already done so, develop an operational definition of consensus and use the process to guide your decision-making. The work of The Consensus Institute suggests the following considerations in developing that process:
• It should be an active, participatory approach that engages everyone present in seeking positive resolution to critical issues;
• The process uses the principles of listening with respect and small group interaction to explore individuals’ basic beliefs and behaviors;
• This exploration leads to more open communication and increased trust among the parties involved;
• The resulting effective communication and trust create the foundation that leads to a positive, long lasting resolution of the conflict being discussed.

Another excellent resource is Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (2nd edition). In particular, chapter 9 addresses these very issues we are discussing. Further, chapter 5 makes outstanding contributions to help us better understand and building the all-important collaborative culture. Included on page 135 are Protocols for Effective Advocacy and Protocols for Effective Inquiry. These are great strategies for embracing dissonance and dialoging toward consensus.

In building consensus, I have found one particular nominal group process that has worked extremely well. It is called “multi-voting.” The steps involved include:

1. Brainstorm ideas/options (let the dissonance unfold without objection);
2. Engage in a “Yes/No reduction” vote (without further advocacy or inquiry). This “Yes/No” reduction vote is simply a vote to determine if the ideas should be advanced for further discussion. It takes 50%+1 of the participants to advance an idea to the discussion table. This keeps the “falling on my sword strategy of talking louder and longer” from entering the process;
3. Allow time for advocacy and inquiry (with time limits on each contribution – make your point in a succinct fashion (using the protocols for advocacy and inquiry) and then become an active listener;
4. “Sticky Dot” vote #1. Each participant receives a specified number of sticky dots (# of ideas remaining divided by 3, rounded up). Each participant then votes with their dots, placing all of their dots on their favorite idea or dividing them among multiple ideas;
5. Eliminate items with few or no votes;
6. If there are still too many ideas left on the table, engage in additional advocacy/inquiry with the remaining items (optional);
7. If necessary, Sticky Dot vote #2, #3, …. until the final priorities reach a manageable number.

Dr. Richard DuFour suggests the following operational definition for consensus building:
1. Did we build shared knowledge regarding best practice?
2. Did we honestly assess our current reality?
3. Did we ensure all points of view were heard?
4. Was the will of the group evident, even to those who opposed it?


Some additional questions you might consider for consensus building are as follows:
1. What are the worst possible outcomes of _______________________________?
2. What are the worst possible outcomes of NOT _____________________________?
3. What are the best possible outcomes of _______________________________?
4. What strategies, actions and beliefs will foster our best possible outcomes?

Anthony Muhammad, in his book on Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, helps us better understand why people resist change (persist in current behavior).

1. People resist (persist) when they are given no CLEAR REASONS to change.
2. People resist (persist) when they don’t TRUST the person who tells them to change.
3. People may keep their familiar tools (in a difficult situation) because an unfamiliar alternative….seems even more difficult.
4. People may refuse to change because change may mean admitting failure.

I’ll refer you to Patrick Lencioni’s books on The Five Dysfunctions of Teams and Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of Teams to dig deeper into the importance of building TRUST. The matter of providing CLEAR REASONS to change can be addressed through constant efforts to build shared knowledge….build shared knowledge….build shared knowledge. Work collaboratively, provide modeling and share data and celebrate the successes in demonstrating the efficacy of the concepts, attributes, research-based best practices and standards for becoming a Professional Learning Community. Finally, the need to change is not about us failing in our work in the 20th century, it is about embracing a new job (as of a decade ago) – the appropriate challenge of quality learning for ALL students.

In Learning by Doing (2010), Dr. DuFour offers some additional advice on strategies for changing somebody else’s mind:
1. REASON – Appealing to rational thinking and decision making
2. RESEARCH – Building shared knowledge of the research base supporting a position
3. REPRESENTATION – Change the way the information is presented (e.g. stories, analogies, etc.)
4. RESOURCES and REWARD – Providing people with incentives to embrace an idea
5. REAL WORLD EVENTS – Presenting real-world examples where the idea has been applied successfully

I would also encourage you to review the following link on - “Building Consensus for Change.” Also, posts tagged with the keyword ‘motivation’ might be helpful.

Best wishes.

Dick Dewey, PLC at Work Associate

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Currently, My school is in the process of create units. One day every other month each content area has the entire day to create units. During this time has a content area we decided what standards we are going to cover and how long it should take for students to master it. We discussed several common assessments and performance tasks that will be used. We then create a the assessments and rubric for the performance task. We like to create the assessments first so we know what should be covered as we developed lessons.Besides, writing units we have to meet once a week to discuss data and set goals. The common assessment are scan into a program called data director which breaks the data down by class,students,and grade level. We are able to see what standards were missed by the students. We then collaborate and discuss which areas the students are strong and weak. We also share ideas on alternative ways to reteach the information. I find this to be extremely helpful because the entire grade level is doing the same thing around the same time period. The makes collaboration much easier.

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In my grade level, we give common assessments in math and reading. At our weekly PLCs we collaborate to create common assessments or review the student results of the common assessments. I really enjoy it because it makes us aware of the expectations we have for our students and allows us to exchange ideas and materials on what we are teaching.

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My district has been trying for years to have a standard for grading. I agree that each subject area should have its own, solely based on the idea that the material is different, taught differently, and needs to be measured differently. However, my district does not see it that way. They are piloting a program this year at one of the schools where each subject area has the same guidelines for grading. There is something that needs to be done, especially at the middle school level. Students from each middle school are coming into one high school all at different levels mainly based on the middle school they attended. I do not agree that this type of guideline the school system is trying to implement is going to help. I believe it is only going to hurt the system. A new collaborative solution needs to be worked out with input from the teachers that get the students after they leave middle school.

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I worked in a school district in Colorado that embraced Professional Learning Communities. In the beginning, it seemed as though we were using our PLC time to analyze student data. After walking away from the meetings, we often found ourselves asking, "Now what?" We began scoring the data as you did at your school. We often found ourselves coming up with very different scores for the student work. This often frusturated the teachers and made the question the validity of the testing that we used. Our concerns made it to the district level. Then we were given rubrics that the entire district used and offered trainings on how to use the rubrics. Then our grading became more fluid. Finally, we were able to use the data to make small intervention groups to target what each individual student in our school needed. Effective professional learning communities should be utilized across every school district across America.

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This issue is interesting to me because it is something that has been brought up in my meetings this year. In fourth grade, writing is tested by the state. Therefore, writing practice and assessment is a huge part of the curriculum. When we compile the data at our meetings, it is noticed that some classes tend to score higher than others on a consistent basis. Therefore, we decided to switch papers each week and have other teachers grade our student’s papers. We average each grade which eliminates many problems we encounter with grading biases.

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I agree that there should be collaboration amongst the teachers in any given school about the standards and guidelines by which the students will be assessed. As described in this article, each teacher has a different idea of what constitutes as a good grade. Because of this, one teahehr may give a student an A, while another teacher may give the same student a C. In NY, and I'm sure elsewhere, our standardized testing gives us very specific guidelines about how to grade a students performance on the Regents exams. But what about the rest of the school year? Shouldn't we as educators have out own collaborative set of guidlines that should assist in assigning a more consistent grade on given assignments? I do, however, think there should be limitations on the PLC concept. For example, this piece does not mention what content area the teachers who all evaluated the same student's exam. If they were from different areas then it is no wonder that they saw things a bit differently. A math teacher is certainly not going to evaluate a social exam the same way as the social studies teacher! I think the PLC concept, at least in regards to particular content, needs to be kept within the specific departments of a shcool. Aside from this though, I think the PLC concept sounds fantastic, and highly believ that my school district certainly could benfit it.

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I am a third year teacher of grade 5. I am just learning all the acronyms for everything and their corresponding use. Now that I am grade level chair, I thought it important to know what I am doing(: There is a huge difference between doing a PLC and being a PLC. If it is treated as just a place to whine and complain or to fulfill some obligation, then what is the point? If we meet but there is no structure, again what is the point? But we need to start brainstorming answers to these huge problems regarding assessment. PLCs are the perfect place to do that. We have just began talking as a grade level about weighing grades correctly and taking common assessments. Grades need to become more concrete and accurate measures of student ability. It will be a time-consuming process, but necessary for our students.

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PLC have become the newest trend and all schools feel that they need to be participating in them. But, we are not doing them justice if all we are doing is just putting our time it. There needs to be thinking going on within the group. Just looking at the common assessments and the percentage that met standard is not enough. We need to analyze our teaching and instruction. To really improve as educator we need to look at why our instruction did not reach some of our students. What can I do now to help those students connect with the information?

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I attended a conference in Palm Springs by the DuFours 2 summers ago. It was about PLCs and was interesting. I think teacher collaborations are vitally important especially across the grade level. This article about assessments makes sense too because if so many teachers at the same grade level and subject are grading differently, then, like the article said, a student could earn a B- or and F, depending on which teacher was doing the grading. I have experienced a little of this at the middle school this year. I am new to middle school but I get the feeling that most of the other subject's teachers grade much easier than I do. We had to all grade the writing prompts of our first graders last year and a similar thing happened. Some of us thought a paper was better than another teacher did. It is for these reasons that I feel PLCs are a good idea.

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I completely agree that the best way to receive unbiased results is to create a rubric and collaborate with colleges to grade students' work. This allows educators to have the opportunity to discuss any gray areas that are not covered in the rubric.

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While reading this I realized that, at least in the school I teach at, the only time teachers collaborate and grade assessments is when we are rounded up to score the state assessment and use the state issued rubric. Even then teachers have questions and disagree about how a problem should be scored. We need to find the time to come to an agreement and create a subject area rubric specific to each grade level, that is very similar to that of the state assessment, to create a unified front.

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The district that I work for is making the push for standardized assessments in science and social studies. We have a similar problem that an A at one school might be a B or even a C at another school. We are just starting this process and I have a feeling that it will take some time for the whole district to get on the same page so to speak. I am all for this movement. There needs to be universal learning targets and consistent scoring of the assessments.

My only concerns are that we will lose our autonomy of instruction. Social studies and science have always been a place where I could express myself creatively as a teacher.

We are relatively new to the PLC process and i see our efforts right now as more of a "doing PLC than being a PLC" as described in Learning by Doing by Rick Dufour. I feel that we are moving in the right direction, but it just takes time. One of the key components to effective PLCs are Providing Time, Good time as described in Characteristics of Effective Professional Development by Dr. Ann Leiberman. We meet for approx. 35 minutes once a week, which I'm not sure is ample time. Dr. Ann Leibermann suggests 2 hrs per week of quality time...after school might not be quality time.
Hopefully our PLCs will get continue to improve and our district can contiune to improve learning for both teachers and students.

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I think that it is a great accomplishment if teachers can use their PLC time to create common assessments for their students. It is even better if the teachers can work out a common evaluation to use to grade the assessments. So often teachers may give a common assessment, but they are grading so differently you can't get a clear picture of how they really did. This would be especially helpful for providing student results to specialists in order to pull for interventions. Shelby- it's wonderful your team was able to create new rubrics for all of your assessments!

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I found your experiences very interesting. I am currently teaching at a school that has PLCs but I do not believe we are using them effectively. I am going to reccommend a similar activity for us to do during our meeting time and hopefully that will help us eliminate some of the bias in our grading and open the door to other discussions. I would like to see our PLC time develop into what it was created for, a time to focus on learning.

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I too agree that teachers need to collaborate and grade assessments together. I had the opportunity to take part in a PLC that did this across their grade levels and we found that the data we collected was much more effective at determining what we needed to use our instructional time for. Unfortunately, at the school I work at now, we are just beginning PLC and I feel that we have a long way to go.

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I work at an international school with a very eclectic team of educators. To alleviate some of the pressure of planning and prepare our fifth graders for 6th grade, we decided to departmentalize with social studies and science this year. As a result, each teacher team is supposed to collaborate with the ESL teachers to plan units and assessments. I’ve had great success collaborating with my partner teacher and we put in many hours before and after school determining what it is we want our students to learn as well as alternative ways to assess them. Unfortunately, it has been quite a different experience for the other teachers, which impacts the group as a whole.
I feel that our team is stuck in that spiral mentioned in the post. When the group comes together there are varying opinions on how to best assess these students and how to teach the subject matter. Do you have any suggestions on how to overcome these differences in opinions so that we can focus on meeting the needs of our students? I feel that collaboration can and is very beneficial when there is a common goal, but only if the group is a unified whole.

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Our school is just starting to use PLCs to guide us in the right direction in helping student learning. Reading your post has really helped me to see more clearly the direction we are headed and that it is always a changing and continuous process. One thing leads to another. We are beginning to really work together and contribute to discussion that translates into action to help our students. It seems like a slow start but we are getting there. Thank you for sharing your insight and experience with PLC work. It is really helpful to see that it is a constant process and never ending as education and needs of students are always changing. I have to remember that it always has to be student focused.

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My grade level team used to meet weekly and we would switch assessments for scoring. I really liked it as a teacher, because it allowed me to see what other students in other classes were capable of. Not only did it help the team work together to score, but it was nice because if my students weren't understanding a skill, I could ask another teacher whose class did well.

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I agree when teachers can collabortate and grade assessments together, they learn more and with the use of a rubric that we all agree on makes the student's work sample on the same level. I enjoyed working with my first grade team when we went over writing samples for our grade level. It was my first year teaching and what I learned from this collaboration that I was much tougher on my students then my colleagues were. We need to have more time in order to collaborate more and often.

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My school uses something called DATA TEAMS, to facilitate the process of collaborative scoring and planning. We work on grade level teams to determine areas of weakness, then use CFA (common formative assessments) to monitor student progress after teaching the skills. It is always a difficult experience trying to match our grading techniques so that scoring in uniform across the grade level. It helps to have a rubic that everyone agrees on and uses. Also, we often share answers orally to get a group opinion (especially on short answer type questions where there is more subjectivity). This has been a great experience for me as a teacher.

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I agree that when teachers can collaborate and grade assessments together, they are much less biased and much more can be gained from the experience. My team recently collaborated and developed all new assessments and rubrics for every subject matter.

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