Published Online: April 30, 2013

The Grading Don'ts That Saved My Classroom

Tyler was determined to "get" algebraic equations. He was the first to hustle to the kidney table for small-group math review. He sacrificed recesses to practice. He even came to school early to study before the test.

It was heart-wrenching when I had to pass him back a C and not the B that I knew Tyler had been longing for. His reaction stopped me dead in my grading-paradigm tracks.

"Mrs. Larson, are the problems from this test going to be in our math centers for the next unit?"

"They sure are, Tyler," I responded with a bit of skepticism. Why wasn't he asking me if he could improve his grade?

"Good. Because I didn't do so well, and I really need to keep practicing until I get it right!"

What? Did this kid just tell me that he cares more about the math skills than he does about the grade going home? That moment was one of many confirming the effectiveness of my new grading policy. My 6th graders have embraced the idea that a grade should show what they know, not how hard or how little they have worked.

This allows knowledge and growth to be the focus of everything we do in our room. Tyler is focused on practicing those skills both at centers and with me so that he can feel proud of the knowledge he has worked hard to attain.

Finally, in my third year of teaching, I'm confident that my classroom is now a positive learning environment where the students focus on learning and growth. The policy that has changed my classroom is full of don'ts:

1) I don't deduct points for late work. When students know that I care about their knowledge and growth, they don't become unmotivated when an assignment is late. They are still expected to complete the assignment to the best of their ability. They know that their grade will reflect the knowledge, not the poor academic behavior of having turned in late work.

2) I don't assign zeros. My students understand that not-doing is not good enough in our room. They cannot settle for a zero.

Every assignment must be turned in, even if that means sacrificing their recess, special event, or class party until it's completed. They have to work hard and complete the assignments because it is their responsibility to show me how much they have learned. In return, I will grade their assignment, no matter when they turn it in.

Again, the grade is about the learning, not the behavior.

3) I don't give extra-credit points. Many teachers use extra-credit assignments to allow students to boost their grades. Instead, I allow my students to redo assignments. They can "boost" their grade by showing me what they have learned on the unit assessment, via a second or third attempt at corrections, elaborations, or alternate assignments.

4) I don't grade anything but end-of-unit assessments. It is a wonderful thing to see that my students feel safe to make mistakes as they discover, create, and grow throughout the learning process. Because I provide feedback instead of grades on their practice work and formative assessments, they aren't focused on a score that will haunt them on their report card. The comments and corrections on practice work are much more meaningful than a grade, so they focus more on learning and appreciate the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

So how do I get them to do the work?

When colleagues ask about this, I explain that it is my expectation that each child completes all activities because it helps him or her to learn and grow.

I set this expectation from day one.

Like most teachers I know, I also have a classroom behavior system. Students earn debits and credits from our "bank" for classroom behaviors, including academic behaviors such as completing learning activities and turning work in on time. At the end of each quarter, students' positive behaviors are rewarded when they can shop in the classroom "store," drawing upon their individual "accounts."

But behavior is not the same as knowledge.

Tyler's reaction to his C showed me he understood that. Sure, he was disappointed. But he didn't complain about how hard he'd worked, nor did he stress out about the grade itself. His focus was where it should be: on what he needed to learn.

Have you changed your grading policies over the years? What has worked, and what hasn't?

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