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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘What We Know About Grading’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 03, 2019 4 min read
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Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart agreed to answer a few questions in writing about their new book, What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next.

Susan Brookhart is professor emerita at Duquesne University’s School of Education and the author of more than 18 books and 70 articles. Thomas Guskey is professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of more than 18 books and 200 articles.

LF: A lot of research about grading is included in your book. What would you say are the three or four most important consistent findings that would be helpful for teachers to know?

Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart:

In developing What We Know About Grading, we assembled an exceptionally talented group of scholars to analyze and interpret the vast body of research evidence on grading and reporting gathered over the past 100 years. Although the recommendations they offer differ from one research area to the next, several consistent themes emerged.


  1. Always begin by clarifying the purpose. The appropriateness of any grading method varies depending on the purpose. What does the grade represent? For whom is that information intended? What do we hope will be the result? With the purpose made clear, questions about the most appropriate methods, policies, and practices are much easier to address.

  2. Grades should be based on specific learning criteria rather than on students’ relative standing among classmates. Grades based on learning criteria communicate precisely what students have learned and are able to do. They also encourage student collaboration because helping another student learn well enhances rather than diminishes your chances to earn a high grade.

  3. Grades improve learning only when accompanied by specific guidance and direction from teachers on how to improve. A score and grade at the top of a paper does nothing to help students improve. Nor does simply going over an assessment, letting students know the correct response. Improvement occurs only when teachers offer corrective instruction, different from the original instruction, that guides students in correcting their misunderstandings and remedying their learning difficulties.


LF: If either or both of you began teaching in a K-12 classroom tomorrow, how would you explain your grading system to students and why?

Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart:

We would begin by clearly stating our purpose in grading and stress that all grading policies and practices in the class relate to that purpose. We would then emphasize that although our expectations for students’ performance are rigorous and challenging, we are confident that all students can do well and earn the highest grade possible. Finally, we would stress that we are on their side, in this together, and committed to having every student learn excellently.

LF: What would you say are the most dangerous, or negative, grading practices that teachers can use?

Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart:

There are several grading policies and practices that research evidence indicates have negative consequences for students. These include: 1. grading students in terms of their relative standing among classmates, 2. lowering students’ academic grades because of behavioral infractions, and 3. using low grades to punish students for noncompliance. Again, if our purpose is clear, the difficulties involved in these policies become evident.

LF: Unless I missed it, I didn’t see any commentary on grading English-language learners. Can you offer some now?

Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart:

Chapter 6 on “Grading Students with Learning Differences” by Dr. Lee Ann Jung offers detailed guidance to teachers on assigning fair and meaningful grades to students with learning differences. Using the same principle that grading should always clarify purpose first, her model shows how to approach grading for students who can use grade-level learning expectations, perhaps with accommodations, and those who need modified but comparably rigorous expectations. The book does not address the specific nature of instructional programs for English-learners (for example, pullout, content-based, structured immersion, and so on), within which grading practices would need to fit, as well.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Thomas R. Guskey and Susan M. Brookhart:

We sincerely hope this book helps educators at all levels make better informed decisions when considering the grading policies and practices they use. Teachers must be able to defend the grades they assign based upon a specified purpose and be prepared to offer evidence aligned with that purpose to support their grading decisions. If reading this book helps them do that, we’ll consider it a great success.

LF: Thanks Tom and Susan!

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