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How assignment-based grading hurts disabled students

By Al Friesen (they/them), teacher and district behaviour specialist, Surrey


In 2016, the BC Ministry of Education published a document called A Framework for Classroom Assessment. In that document, the Ministry gave an overview of “competency-driven curriculum,” also called “outcomes-based assessment.” The focus on outcomes, rather than assignments, means that teachers now have more flexibility when it comes to assessment. Take, for example, the English Studies 12 outcome “Students are expected individually and collaboratively to be able to evaluate the relevance, accuracy, and reliability of [oral, written, visual, and digital] texts.” Students can show that they’ve mastered this outcome in a variety of ways, including discussing bias in a particular news article, a debate about the relevance of a 19th century short story to contemporary Canadian culture, or an essay about how satire like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” might be interpreted if it were published today.


One might argue that this has always been the case under assignment-based grading. Using outcomes-based assessment, however, allows teachers to separate competencies from other learning outcomes. For example, a student who struggles with writing can demonstrate their learning in ways that do not rely on written output. For a student with speech challenges, an entire class discussion about bias isn’t necessary; a discussion between the teacher and student could suffice. The notes a student would use for a debate could also be used for assessment, as could an essay outline.

Outcomes-based assessment...allows every student in a class to thrive as they are not limited to demonstrating their understanding in exactly the same way.

Outcomes-based assessment is far more flexible, which is a boon for teachers and students alike. It allows students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways. For the Swift essay, for instance, one student could show their mastery through the finished product, yes, but a different student could show their mastery through annotations they made on a paper copy of the text, and yet another student could show their mastery through a discussion of the topic with the teacher. The outcome need not be met even through the same topic: a student could show their understanding of an outcome through another piece of writing, or a video, or a discussion unrelated to Swift’s essay. This freedom allows every student in a class to thrive as they are not limited to demonstrating their understanding in exactly the same way.


This is the crux: learners are different, learn in different ways, and thus should have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in different ways. Moreover, students shouldn’t be compared with each other, something that is common in assignment-based assessment. We still need to have high expectations for students, but these expectations need to also be reasonable. Indeed, expecting students to all act and respond the same way, whether socially, emotionally, or academically, can be harmful. This is just as true for students in Kindergarten as it is for students in Grade 12: every student in the province should be able to access curriculum, including academic graduation requirements like Mathematics 12 and English Studies 12.

...expecting students to all act and respond the same way, whether socially, emotionally, or academically, can be harmful. 

By focusing assessment on outcomes rather than assignments, the curriculum becomes more accessible to all students. Principles of Universal Design for Learning can be applied in every course, Kindergarten to Grade 12, and thus every course should be accessible to every learner. That’s how the new curriculum was designed, and that’s how it should be implemented. Outcomes-based assessment allows this to be possible. The advantages of outcomes-based assessment are that it’s inclusive, flexible, and can be adapted to meet the needs of any learner in the classroom. It should also be pointed out that creating a learning environment suitable for all learners in our classrooms is not optional. This includes assessment. That’s why we have specialists like resource teachers and learning support teachers to support us as classroom teachers when assessing students with invisible disabilities. In moving toward outcomes-based assessment, we as a province have become more inclusive and more open toward people with differences. As a disabled educator who works with neurodivergent kids, I am grateful that outcomes-based assessment allows us the flexibility to meet the needs of all students.


Strategies to implement outcomes-based assessment


Start small

Take it one step at a time. It’s not reasonable to expect that you can transform your entire teaching process overnight. Consider developing a single unit that focuses on outcomes rather than assignments and build more over time.


Collaborate with other educators

Connect with resource teachers and learning support teachers at your school for support. Classroom teachers are not expected to do it all alone. These colleagues at your school can support you in implementing more inclusive assessment practices, especially for students with invisible disabilities or students who may seem neurotypical but are in fact neurodivergent.


Collaborate with students

Students are our partners in learning, so ensure that they are aware of what the learning outcomes are throughout the course. For example, show students the big ideas, curricular competencies, and content for a specific course. Then, ask them how they want to learn this content and how they want to demonstrate their understanding throughout and at the end of a unit. This can sometimes be linked to curricular content: the process of working together as a class to design a plan for learning can be compared to similar processes throughout history (e.g., building consensus in domestic and international conflicts and co-operation, as per the Social Studies 10 content). Giving students choice and agency in how they demonstrate learning for any particular outcome leads to greater engagement and makes adaptations easier.


For elementary teachers, consider grouping together big ideas from different subject areas. For example, the question “How has climate change affected civilizations?” brings together the Social Studies 7 big idea “Geographic conditions shaped the emergence of civilizations,” the Science 7 big idea “Earth and its climate have changed over geological time,” and the ADST 7 big idea “Complex tasks may require multiple tools and technologies.” Grouping together specific learning outcomes from each subject area that address this overall question makes assessment simpler. This can also be done (and should be done!) in secondary school, but requires more collaboration with teachers in other subject areas.


Use a “yet/not yet” structure

Rubrics can be created to implement outcomes-based assessment, but it’s frequently simpler to use a “yet/not yet” structure: if a student has met an outcome, great! Celebrate! If not, work with them and create a plan to help them demonstrate understanding.


Focus on student understanding

Let go of the idea that assignments must be complete to demonstrate mastery of an outcome. The curriculum asks us to assess whether or not a student has mastered a curricular competency or shown understanding of specific content-area knowledge. It does not ask us whether or not a student has completed an assignment.


Assignment-based assessment places a high priority on the assessment, and grading, of individual assignments. If an assignment is missing, then a score of “incomplete” or a zero is sometimes used. It is possible, however, that the specific outcomes addressed with a particular assignment have been demonstrated through another assignment. Focusing on outcomes rather than assignments allows for more flexibility in assessing all students, but especially students who need additional supports.


About the author

Al Friesen is a district behaviour specialist in Surrey. They are also an adjunct professor at UBC instructing EPSE 317 Development and Exceptionality in the Classroom. Al has been a classroom teacher in Grades 1–12, from primary music to AP English Literature and Composition.


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