Using Conferences for Grading Students

Teach Better TeamBlog, Differentiate Better, Grade Better, Mastery Done Better, Personalize Student Learning Better

In This Post

  • The struggle of quantifying mastery with a letter or percent.
  • Grading conferences as a solution to this struggle!
  • Steps to set up grading conferences in your classroom & communicate about them to stakeholders.
  • Feedback from students on grading conferences.

In a mastery learning classroom, determining student quarter or final grades can be difficult. How do you assign a numerical value or letter grade to a student’s mastery of your content?

The truth is, it’s a struggle. Their progress toward the learning goals is going to look different than their peers, and quantifying it with a percentage doesn’t make a lot of sense. Especially when you consider the growth a student is making towards a standard. For example, if one student starts with no schema or background and ends the unit with a basic understanding of the concept, they’ve made a lot more growth than the student who started with a basic understanding and maintained it.

So the question is, how do we work within a letter and percentage grading system but still ensure we communicate student’s actual learning?

The Answer: Grading Conferences

In my middle school language arts classroom, I use a 4-point proficiency scale throughout the quarter. I report their summative assessment scores in our online grade book, and I provide tons of feedback (and their proficiency level) on formative work.

The major difference? All summative scores are weighted at zero. As in, they don’t count toward an overall course grade.

The quarter grade, or course grade, is determined in the final week of the quarter. Students spend time creating a portfolio of their learning and growth on the standards we’ve covered over that time period. They include formative work, summative assessments, and any re-assessments they’ve done.

Once they’ve created their portfolio, they sign up to conference with me. At the conference, they talk me through their portfolio. We discuss each standard, their progress, whether they’ve chosen to re-assess a skill. We also discuss how they’re feeling about the class and about their learning so far.

I get a window into their perception of language arts and they get to tell me how they’re progressing. The conversations are powerful, for me and for them. We dig into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of their learning.

At the end of the conference, I ask them one question. “What grade do you think you deserve for ELA this quarter?”

They know the question is coming. They’ve prepared for it with this sheet, which outlines the 10 point grading scale and what ‘qualifies’ them for each point value.

Students are able to articulate their mastery of our standards, and then justify the reason their score should be reported a certain way. They are actively involved in the assessment process, and they take actual ownership of not just their learning, but their grade, too.

Students are actively involved in the assessment process, and they take actual ownership of not just their learning, but their grade, too. Click To Tweet

How Do You Set Up Grading Conferences?

This structure does require some set up and scaffolding before jumping in. You first have to determine which standards you will assess during a quarter, which is valuable regardless of the final grade system you implement.

You’ll then need to determine how you want to report the final grade and the structure you want to use.

In my class, quarter grades are determined solely by a grading conference. The overall class grade does not show up until the student and I have determined it together. I put it in my grade book as “2nd Quarter Grade” and it is worth 10 points. It is the only grade in my grade book that holds weight, though the summative assessments are used in the portfolio (so they do “count”).

My students have a week to prepare a portfolio, which is another component of structure to consider. I like providing the week because it offers time for reteaching and re-assessment, and it gives adequate time to put together a solid portfolio. Many of my kids get creative and put together slideshows covering each standard, the activities and learning they’ve done, and how it translates to a percentage. As with most things in my class, my students have a lot of freedom to do what works for them.

This is not the only way to do it, but I do believe involving students in their grade is valuable. It gives them the opportunity to “show what they know” and authentically reflect on their growth over a quarter.

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How Do Kids Feel About Grading Conferences?

As with every new thing in my class, I get student feedback through Google forms. It’s my favorite way to gauge how something is going in my classroom because it allows students to be honest with me and give me suggestions.

After the first round, the majority of my students reported that they LOVED grading conferences. Their feedback included things like…

“I think it was an easier way of getting graded than just being told your grade because you can understand why you got it.”

“I loved it because if you believe some of your assignments were not up to your full potential you could redo it to get a better grade. It also prepares you for interviews which you will have to do in life.”

“I loved it because I now get to explain what grade I think that I deserve and why. I also like it because I feel more independent.”

Those that didn’t like it gave me some great suggestions to improve, and our second quarter conferences ran much smoother.

How Do You Communicate About Grading Conferences?

As with anything new, it’s important to communicate with stakeholders. Namely, students and their families. My partner and I sent out videos, info guides, and emails regarding the structure. We explained the reasoning behind it, how it would work, and the value in it ahead of time. Proactive instead of reactive!

We also provided some context. Grading conferences are modeled after performance reviews, which are required at nearly every job. So not only are we increasing student ownership of their learning, we’re also preparing them with a life skill they will likely need in the future.

By putting it in these terms, we got a lot of support. Students and their families knew what was expected, but what’s more, they knew why we were doing it. They (hopefully) had a better understanding of it because we communicated early and often, and were more likely to get behind it.

Want to Try Grading Conferences?

Yay! Find a structure that works for you and begin to think about the philosophy behind it–your why for implementing the structure. If you get stuck, I’m here to help! You can email me at or find me on social media.

I’m always ready to share resources and chat assessment.

About Katelynn Giordano

Katelynn Giordano is a 6th grade language arts teacher in the Chicago suburbs and the Digital Content Editor for the Teach Better Team. She loves writing, both on her blog, Curriculum Coffee, and for the Teachers on Fire magazine on Medium. She is a dynamic educator with a focus on student empowerment in the ELA classroom. Her writing and presentations are all about incorporating student voice, choice, and personalized learning in your teaching practice.

Katelynn is active on Twitter and Instagram, and loves to collaborate with educators everywhere! In her free time, she enjoys relaxing with her husband and her cat, Chickpea, drinking coffee, and reading YA books.