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Growth Over Grades: How a Resubmit Policy Is Helping Us Build a Culture of Revision

This article originally appeared in EdSurge.

"Are you going to resubmit your chemical changes model?" Valentina asked Jayda.

"I'm not sure,” Jayda responded, “I'm already at proficient and I understand all the concepts, so mastery work wouldn't really be worth it for me." 

Hearing a student say that work isn’t worth it would send most teachers into a downward spiral, but these words brought me joy.
Jayda was confident that she understood the material, and hearing her make a choice not to pursue additional work for the purpose of chasing an extra few points on her grade made me proud.

At Forest Ridge, an independent all-girls school serving students in grades 5-12 in Bellevue, Wash., we've been grappling with how to support students in focusing on growth over grades for years.

In 2016, our school began putting intentional effort into getting our students to value the learning process and to focus on growth rather than grades. At the same time, our middle school science department made the switch from traditional grading to standards-based assessment and overhauled our philosophy to focus on fostering revision practices. One of the significant changes we made was to offer an open resubmit policy, meaning any student could revise and resubmit any assessed work up until the end of the following unit for up to full credit.
In my eighth grade physical science class, I took all the steps that I believed would help my students focus on the learning process and their growth along the way. I didn’t grade behaviors like participation or timely work submission, I praised effort over achievement and I carved out ample time for goal setting and reflection. I expected transformative outcomes, but they were slow to come.

To Resubmit or Not to Resubmit—That Became the Question

By 2017, my students were still setting up meetings to ask me, “How can I get my grade above a 90 percent?" They were still emailing me just minutes after their grades were posted to ask questions about how their overall grade would change in response to a new score. I overheard frequent conversations in which students tried to one-up each other with tales of how little they slept, the size of their homework load or how little they’d eaten all day. Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough as She Is,” a book about self-confidence for girls, refers to this as “competitive stress,” or the "Stress Olympics," which was rampant at our school.

The culture around grading was still pretty toxic—even with the new resubmit policy. Perhaps it was because the only students taking advantage of it were the ones who already had very high grades.

Unfortunately, when I approached my administrators to discuss going gradeless, I was told that it was off the table for the time being. Families with their eyes set on elite colleges are understandably apprehensive about moving away from the status-quo into the unknown of a gradeless education. So I asked myself: If I'm stuck using traditional grades to define student success, how can I make those grades as meaningful as possible?

Simply having an open resubmit policy wasn’t enough to drive productive revision for all students. I worked with my colleagues and students to develop a feedback and revision system that leverages digital technologies and classroom protocols to teach feedback literacy skills, make actionable feedback constantly available and give students the agency to act on their feedback. With the addition of feedback and assessment literacy practices, my students now have the information and strategies necessary to engage in iterative learning.

So, Does a Resubmit Policy Actually Work?

Since our switch to standards-based assessment in 2016, I've been keeping records on academic achievement and revision behaviors. Comparing academic performance and submission behaviors of students from before and after our shift to standards-based grading (SBG), I notice that the data reveals some fascinating trends.
Source: Christine Witcher
  1. Greater Proficiency: In 2015-16, 74 percent of my students were earning grades that would now be identified as at or above proficiency, but these scores were not based in any standards. When we moved to standards-based grading, that number dipped to 51 percent. The added rigor of assessing on each standard without the cushion of participation and completion points, was challenging for students. This year, 76 percent of my students are at or above proficient. My conclusion is that this feedback-focused revision system is effective at supporting students in attaining or exceeding proficiency.
  2. Redefining Mastery: Our first year of standards-based grading was an experiment. We were liberal with mastery level, awarding it to almost any student who was proficient and resubmitted their work. We’ve since fine-tuned our definition of mastery and it's more complex and open-ended. Though the number of students attaining mastery has fluctuated each year, this system has helped us communicate high standards to students and avoid grade inflation.
  3. It Takes Time: During 2015-16, we did not accept resubmits so the number of submitted versions was 1.0. By the following year, that had risen to 1.2 versions as we introduced the new policy, but still, less than a quarter of our assignments were resubmitted across that first year. As students got accustomed to this new policy, that number increased to 1.5 submissions per assignment in the 2017-18 school year. I’ve concluded that it takes time and consistency for a resubmit policy to make sense and become part of the practice of learning for students.
  4. Fewer Resubmits, More Revision: The drop in the number of versions this 2018-19 school year is intriguing. This data point alone, dropping from 1.5 to 1.2 average versions per assignment, appears concerning and makes me wonder: why are fewer students resubmitting their work? 

    However, looking at this data point in combination with the average score distribution, I see the bigger picture. Fewer students need to resubmit their work, because they are revising their work in response to feedback before it is due. This conclusion is also supported by the data gathered during summative self-assessments. When asked what behaviors led up to the submission of an assignment, students are reporting revision-focused habits.
Source: Christine Witcher

One of the questions that started this journey in the first place was: How can I support students in being the drivers of their own learning? Now I can answer it with strong supporting evidence. I can support students by giving them the opportunity to iterate on their work, and teaching them the skills they need to do it successfully. This holistic approach of providing actionable information, teaching feedback literacy skills and giving students the agency to act on it, is critical to increasing student agency.

When we teach students to revise productively, we don't have to worry about them taking advantage of retakes as an opportunity to slack off the first time, or suffer a growing achievement gap in our classrooms. And with digital tools and classroom protocols, we no longer have to drown in grading—that burden can shift beneficially to our students. An open resubmit policy works, as long as it's paired with a robust feedback system.


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