Assessment is just another word for grades, right?

September 18, 2023 Renee Aitken

When it comes to evaluating student progress at higher education institutions, administrators need to reference the right metrics. So which is better: assessment or grading?

While we often use these two terms interchangeably, it's important to remember that they're distinct concepts. Understanding the difference between grading and assessment — and knowing when to use each one — is essential for improving learning outcomes at your institution.

What is grading?

A grade is a measure of an individual student's performance for a given course, program, unit, or assignment. It typically reflects how well a student meets a clearly defined set of criteria, such as the ability to recall course information on a final exam. 

However, grading usually includes factors beyond knowledge retention. Even in higher education, instructors often include certain student behaviors in their grading criteria, such as attendance and participation.

While these behaviors do little to demonstrate a student's understanding of the course material, they do serve as indirect ways to gauge engagement — which is essential for student retention. That said, although grades can be a useful, standardized measurement for understanding student progress at a glance, they're rarely enough to provide deeper insight.

What is the goal of grading?

The ultimate goal of grading is to provide a measure of how well a student performs on a specific assignment or course. Usually, educators score students using either numerical or letter grades, though some may use a combination of the two. 

Of course, grading needs to be fair and transparent to achieve its intended outcome. Faculty should clearly explain what goes into the grading process so students understand exactly what outcomes they should be aiming for. Assignments should also clearly state learning objectives and goals. Many instructors even distribute the rubric they use to grade each assignment for extra transparency.

What is assessment?

While assessment is similar to grading in that it measures student performance, it's a much broader type of evaluation that focuses on overall learning outcomes for a course or program rather than specific student knowledge. 

Unlike grades, which score students according to a clearly defined rubric, assessments generate qualitative data on student progress. This feedback is essential for gaining the actionable insights educators need to identify areas of improvement at every level.

The common levels of assessment in higher ed include:

  1. Student learning within courses: How well is a student performing within a specific course? This type of learning assessment usually examines grades as well as instructor feedback to paint a comprehensive picture of the student's strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Student learning across courses: How does the student's understanding and performance evolve as they move through their chosen program? A combination of formative and summative assessments can help determine whether students are achieving the program's intended outcomes.
  3. Course evaluations: Is a course effective at helping students achieve specific learning outcomes, such as proficiency in important skills within their chosen field? Assessments like end-of-term course evaluations are essential for answering this question.
  4. Program assessments: Program reviews are important for determining whether a program aligns with the institution's overall mission. For example, are the program's courses contributing to the defined learning objectives? How well does the entire program fit into the institutional curriculum?
  5. Institutional assessments: Is the institution effectively preparing students for success after graduation? Periodically conducting holistic assessments of your institution helps your administrators understand the entire student experience, which can guide your institution toward a more personalized approach to student success.

Assessment is generally pretty stable, and it typically uses the same terms as grading: goals, outcomes, objectives, curriculum maps, and aggregated data.

What is the goal of assessment?

The primary goal of assessment is to help educators understand how their teaching methods and course content impact student outcomes. This insight tells institutions whether instructors adequately prepare students for success both in future courses and after graduation as they enter their fields.

Interestingly, faculty and assessment are often at odds with each other. It's important to get faculty to recognize that assessment is looking at assignments to see if they provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate the desired objective, goal, or outcome. No one in assessment looks at one student, and in many cases, they don't even look at one faculty member. Assessment professionals look at aggregate data across time.

The ultimate goal of assessment professionals is to create a place where faculty can retain their teaching style and creativity as well as honestly evaluate students. Creating such an environment is the only way to ensure that assessment data can improve student learning.

Grading vs. assessment: When to use each

Although both grades and assessments are essential for continuous improvement initiatives, each evaluation type works better for specific situations. Knowing when to use each one can help you more effectively pinpoint what actions you need to take to better serve your students. 

Here's how it breaks down:

  • Grading: Grades are best for evaluating individual student performance and engagement within specific courses or programs. They provide useful benchmarks for tracking student progress over time as well as identifying at-risk students. 
  • Assessment: Assessments are most useful for understanding broader situations, like courses and programs. It collects insights on trends that administrators can apply to institutional objectives like increasing enrollment and retention.

Using the right tools to gather and analyze data from grades and assessments will help you get the most out of your evaluations. Implementing an integrated software solution can help.

Drive institutional improvements with Watermark software 

Although assessment plays a larger role in higher education than grading, both are valuable sources of information for instructors and administrators alike. Using the right software can help institutions get the most out of this information and drive real institutional change.

Our fully integrated Watermark Student Success & Engagement solution transforms student data, like grades, into actionable insights, so your institution can improve student engagement and retention. Track attendance, grades, and more to identify at-risk students early so they can receive the support they need to complete their course of study.

Additionally, Watermark Outcomes Assessment Projects helps institutions measure learning outcomes using rubric-based assessments rather than student records. We designed our software to be straightforward from start to finish so you can set up and run assessments with ease. Plus, built-in monitoring and reporting capabilities create interactive visualizations that bring your assessment data to life so you get the full picture. 

Ready to get started? Request a free demo today to see how Watermark can help you harness the full power of your assessment results.

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