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Fluid Grades

Like it or not, education is evolving. Conceptual understanding has become a higher priority than collection of knowledge, as it should be. The 21st century classroom is not a place of rote memorization, regurgitation of facts, and right-or-wrong answers as it was when I was a student.  With the increasing use of technology not only in the classroom, but throughout all aspects of our lives, just knowing facts is becoming less and less useful.  With the vast bank of knowledge accessible through Siri, Google, and Alexa (and whatever the next innovation will be) we have access to all the knowledge we need. What students need to learn now is how to access the most helpful information, evaluate the information for validity and usefulness, apply what they have learned, communicate their findings, and most importantly in my opinion... create new information for the generations ahead.


21st Century teaching practices like Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are really asking students to think, to evaluate their own thinking to determine where their thinking could be improved, and then find ways to gain a better understanding.  It is different, it is new, and it is a little bit scary because it means that my generation is not as good at helping our children as we would like to be.  They are learning in a way that is different, but the research shows that it is a better way.  Don't take my word for it, here are some links to the experts who can explain it much more clearly than I:

So if we are changing the way we teach and the way students learn, shouldn't we also be changing the way we assess student learning?  This is where the idea of fluid grades started.  

The  quest for understanding

Rebecca Solnit Pic.jpg

If gold has been prized because it is the most inert element, changeless and incorruptible, water is prized for the opposite reason -- its fluidity, mobility, changeability that make it a necessity and a metaphor for life itself. To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.

Rebecca Solnit

So... How does it work?

In a nutshell, Fluid Grading means that each grade can be changed by the teacher to accurately reflect a student's current understanding.  Students can revise and resubmit any of their assignments to show that their understanding has improved, or can wait until a similar assignment comes along to show their improved understanding.  When their understanding improves, their grade improves with it.  The level of understanding is determined through a rubric, which students have access to before they begin an assignment.  These rubrics help students to know what the expectations are, and allow for direct feedback from the teacher to explain where a student is making mistakes or has misconceptions. The student can then use this feedback to fix their mistakes and submit the assignment again.  Students can resubmit as many times as they like, and the teacher will continue to give feedback based on the rubric.

Here is the part that might be a little tricky:  While students will receive feedback from each assignment through the rubric, the assignment itself does not directly affect their grade.  Each of the assignments will inform the teacher of the student's understanding, allowing the teacher to give a grade for the concept, rather than the assignment.  This might sound a little confusing, but is a practice that has been around a long time.  In fact, this is the way grades are done in elementary schools throughout San Diego Unified School District.  It is referred to as standards-based grading.

Let me use an example to make this a little more clear.  The class is exploring the phenomenon of boiling water.  Students are given the task of creating a list of questions about boiling water.  A student (we'll call him Billy), turns in the following list of questions:

The teacher then uses the Questioning Rubric to evaluate Billy's understanding of the Science and Engineering Practice of Asking Questions. The student will receive feedback for each piece of the rubric through the comments section on PowerSchool, which also allows the parents to be informed as well.  The scores will look something like this:

Q1: 7

Q2: 5

Q3: 5

Q4: 5

Q5: 5

Q6: 9

Overall score: 36/60 = D (60 %)

Billy looks at these scores, and realizes that he really misunderstood what the expectation was.  He decides to work on these questions again to show that he understands the practice better than his work has shown, and submits the following questions:

Billy then receives feedback from the teacher, using the same rubric as before.  Many of his scores have changed, which tells Billy where he is improving in his understanding, and where he is still struggling to meet the expectations.  The teacher inputs the following into PowerSchool in replace of what was there before:

Q1: 10 (Changed  from 7 on 9/22/19)

Q2: 7 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

Q3: 7 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

Q4: 5

Q5: 5

Q6: 9

Overall Score: 43/60 = 72% (C)

1. Why do bubbles form on the bottom of the glass when water is boiling?

2. What determines the temperature at which water boils?

3. When water is boiling, where do the bubbles come from?

4. Where do the bubbles formed by boiling water go?

5. What safety precautions need to be considered when boiling water?

6. How would adding different amounts of salt affect the temperature at which water boils?

By adding that last question, Billy has now shown understanding in two areas: Q4 and Q5.  It took him about 3 minutes to come up with this question. He then received the following feedback on PowerSchool:

Q1: 10 (Changed  from 7 on 9/22/19)

Q2: 7 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

Q3: 7 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

Q4: 10 (Changed from 5 on 9/28/19)

Q5: 7 (Changed from 5 on 9/28/19)

Q6: 9

Overall Score: 50/60 = 83% (B)

With some simple adjustments and a few extra minutes, Billy's score has risen from a D to a B.  He is starting to lose interest in the subject of boiling water and can't come up with any more questions.  He decides to wait until the next phenomenon to try and improve this grade further.

The class then moves on to the phenomenon of self-sustaining ecosystems.  The class works in small groups to design and build an ecosystem inside a small aquarium.  Once again, they are tasked with asking questions.  Billy turns in the following questions:

1. How does the amount of light an ecosystem receives affect the oxygen content in the water of the ecosystem?

2. What patterns can be found in the population size of snails in an ecosystem over time?

3. What factors affect the acidity of the water in an ecosystem the most?

4. What is the most efficient way to measure the "success" of an ecosystem?

It is clear that Billy has grown in his ability to ask meaningful questions that will help drive his explorations of the topic.  The teacher supplied the following feedback:

Q1: 10 (Changed  from 7 on 9/22/19)

Q2: 10 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

            (Changed from 7 on 10/12/19)

Q3: 10 (Changed from 5 on 9/22/19)

            (Changed from 7 on 10/12/19)

Q4: 10 (Changed from 5 on 9/28/19)

Q5: 10 (Changed from 5 on 9/28/19)

            (Changed from 7 on 10/12/19)

Q6: 9

Overall Score: 59/60 = 98% (A)

Billy has now met all the requirements for Asking Questions in 8th grade science, earning all 10s and one 9.  In order to get a 10, he needs to go above and beyond these expectations, which is what Q6 is about.  Only after evaluating his own questions for merits and limitations will he be able to raise the overall score up to a 10. 


Keep in mind that even though these were two separate assignments (questions about boiling water and questions about self-sustaining ecosystems), each with their own feedback, there is only one grade for Asking Questions.  Both assignments have informed the teacher as to how well Billy has shown his understanding of this Science and Engineering  Practice.  The scores for both will be shown in Powerschool, but will be left as exempt, which means they won't directly affect the grade.  Another assignment titled Overall Questions, will be the one that raises or lowers the grade in Powerschool.  The highest score achieved for a standard on any assignment will be the score put in Overall Questions.  For each standard, the scores on Overall Questions can only go up during a semester. 

Hopefully, this example has made the process a little clearer.  Here is a reminder of the main points:

1. Why does this happen?

2. Does it happen every time?

3. Where do the bubbles come from?

4. Where do the bubbles go?

5. Can it be dangerous?

1. Why do bubbles form on the bottom of the glass when water is boiling?

2. Does water always boil when it gets to a certain temperature?

3. When water is boiling, where do the bubbles come from?

4. Where do the bubbles formed by boiling water go?

5. What safety precautions need to be considered when boiling water?

Billy can now see that he is asking questions that are much clearer. His line of questioning doesn't end with the answers he would get, but could lead to further questioning. Most of his questions now cannot be answered in a single word or phrase, but are still able to be answered in one sentence.  He can see where he has improved, and which areas he has not made any change in.

You may notice that some of Billy's scores have gone up, and his overall grade has gone up.  The overall score is determined by adding up each of the rubric scores and dividing by the points possible.

It should be noted that during the first semester, only the first 3 components of the rubric  (Q1, Q2, and Q3) affect the Overall Score.  Students still receive feedback on all components, but students are only held accountable for the first 3.  It is unrealistic to expect students to be able to master all of this so quickly.  In this case, during the first semester, Billy's Overall Score would actually be a 24/30 = B (80%).  During the 2nd semester, if no changes were made, Billy's score would drop to a C because all 6 components would be used to determine the Overall Score.

The teacher has noticed that several of the students are struggling with Asking Questions.  By looking at the scores for each component, it is clear which areas need the most attention.  After reteaching and clarifying a few things, students are given another opportunity to ask questions.  Billy submits the following questions:

How it works




Fluid grading requires that grades are directly linked to one or more standards. The requirements of meeting those standards must be clearly defined.  The grade then is not placed on an assignment for the work done, but rather the assignment is used to inform the student and the teacher as to where there are holes or misconceptions in student understanding. The teacher then bases the student's grade on how well they have shown their understanding of each standard, but allows the grade to change as understanding improves



Fluid grading utilizes rubrics to not only inform students as to the requirements for meeting the standards, but more importantly gives them direct feedback as to their level of understanding.  Students can clearly see where they are making mistakes, whether because they have left something out, or have explained something incorrectly.  A lot of care must go into creating a rubric, so that only the critical concepts are being assessed, the inconsequential components are ignored, and the language of the rubric must be easily understood by the students.



Fluid grading hinges on the ability for students to have multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding of a critical concept.  As students continue learning, their level of understanding changes. Students need to be able to show this change in understanding and grades should reflect it.  This means there should be multiple assignments assessing each standard, and students should have the opportunity to revise and resubmit any work they have done. This cycle of student-work and teacher-feedback is what makes fluid grading so powerful.  

Teacher Feedback

Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.

William Pollard

william pollard.jpg

What's wrong with the old way?

Why Change?

We've all heard the old addage, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?", and I couldn't agree with this statement more, but I think a more appropriate one would be, "If something is broken and could be fixed, why not fix it?"  I truly believe that the system of grading we have all been using since 1898 (according to educational historian Mark Durm's "An A is Not an A is Not an A: A History of Grading") is indeed broken. 



















If we are one of the world's leaders in science and technology innovation, shouldn't our education system reflect that?  Why doesn't it?  Here are just a few reasons why:

  • The "Dig Yourself a Hole" problem:  Once a student's grade has dropped to a certain point, there is no recovery. At some point, no amount of points can raise a failing student back to passing, even if they really do understand it.  This causes struggling students to give up and stop trying.

  •  The "I Already Know This" problem:  Students with a background in science who memorize facts easily will feel as though there is nothing left to learn.  They will find that getting an A is easy, and therefore will not push themselves beyond what the "A" expectation is.  They hit the glass ceiling. This causes excelling students to stop trying.

  • The "We Have to Move On" problem.  Grades, which are often the way students find out how well they performed on an assignment or test, come at the end. It might be the end of a chapter, or unit, or grading period. There is then no time or opportunity to do anything with this feedback because the class has to move to the next chapter, unit, or grading period.  For a student to improve, they have to apply this feedback to a new situation, which is not necessarily related to the previous unit in any way.  The feedback is unhelpful because they have no chance to do anything with it.  The opportunity to learn from your mistakes has been lost.

  • The "Why Risk It?" problem:  Students often have creative solutions to problems, especially during projects.  However, these creative solutions are sometimes pushed aside because a student is not sure if the creative solution will meet the teacher's expectations. Students tend to lean towards the "safe" option, rather than trying something outside of the box.  The risk of getting a low grade is too high, since that grade cannot later be changed.  Students are more likely to mimic teacher examples than discover a better way.  Their creativity is being suppressed.

What does the research show?

"One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science."

Still confused?

Check out the video below 

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