Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Grading Standards Can Elevate Teaching

By Joe Feldman — November 12, 2014 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

With the common-core transition in full swing, we are in the midst of a radical shift in how we think about our K-12 standards, curriculum, and instructional strategies. Districts are spending most of their professional-development time and resources helping teachers and instructional leaders with these profound changes. There is one overlooked aspect of teacher practice, however, that is generally neglected in our common-core professional development: grading.

A surprisingly powerful lever for teachers to critically re-examine and improve every single aspect of their practice, grading may seem ancillary to our reform work—more a technical issue of tallying points than a substantive one—but teachers’ grading systems are woven into the very fabric of their day-to-day work. Neglecting this element of instruction constrains our reform within an evaluation and reporting system that many educators readily admit is flawed.

When I started teaching high school 20 years ago, I received no preservice guidance about end-of-term grading. And so, like my colleagues, I developed grading algorithms that verged on precalculus functions. I felt that everything my students did—or didn’t do—in my class was important. I tried to measure every element of student performance in a grade, assigning different percentage weights to categories—tests, homework, participation, attendance, and extra credit (to name just a few). I gave zeros for absent work, took off points when it was late or the student misbehaved, and used every other grading practice that is common in high schools. My grade would describe everything about that student, I thought—except that it described nothing.

We need to create a structure that allows each teacher to question her own understanding and the beliefs about grading."

When a single grade represents a composite of disparate elements of performance, it becomes nearly impossible to convey or understand what it represents in total. For example, what is described by the “B” on the report card? That a student mastered the standards, but came late every day? That the student understood half the standards, but persevered to complete every assignment and extra-credit offering? That the student aced major assessments, but was often disrespectful? No wonder so many students (and their parents) look at their progress reports and grades with a sense of inevitability and resignation.

There are other problems with our current system of grading. There is ample evidence that teachers have different interpretations of similar behaviors, all too often based on the racial, gender, or socioeconomic identity of the student. Categories such as “participation” and “effort” threaten to be more reflective of a teacher’s interpretation of a student’s actions than what the student actually knows and is capable of doing.

The problems are multiplied when every teacher constructs her own grading system. A high school student who sees five to seven different teachers a day has to navigate five to seven different grading systems. When a course is taught by several teachers (for example, Algebra 1 or English 9), two students who performed equally in different classes could receive entirely different grades.

Grading is also a reflection of a teacher’s professional judgment about a student—a symbol of her evaluative expertise. Yet, rather than bolster our professionalism with a clear and accurate system of grading, we damage our own credibility when we use one that is vague, arbitrary, and different for every teacher.

There is a critical need to address these concerns. The grade is the most enduring feedback a student receives, influencing how she thinks about a course, a subject, and even herself. (Many of us can recall how the grades we received affected our self-image and our perception about what we were “good at.”) As educators, we rely on grades to help us make key decisions about students. Within schools, we use grades to determine a student’s promotion, athletic eligibility, need for additional support, and suitability for graduation. Outside the K-12 arena, colleges, the armed forces, employers, and scholarship-funders rely on high school transcripts, making decisions about students that can have a profound effect on their lives’ trajectories.

After teaching, I went on to become a principal and a school district administrator; now I am a coach for instructional leaders and an education consultant. In my current position, I have seen teachers from California and Wyoming to Georgia and New York struggle with a range of issues, including the technical calculations, data input, and deeper principles and purposes of grading. Nearly all administrators readily admit that their teachers’ grades are flawed. And yet teachers receive almost no support for grading in most preservice, in-service, or professional-development study. Why, with this clear need for change, is grading so often a silenced dialogue in schools?

Those who have tried to broach conversations about grades with teachers know the perils: Few other subjects of a teacher’s practice are so intertwined with each day’s lesson and a sense of professional identity as her grading system. To many teachers, asking them to change their grading practices suggests a challenge to their autonomy and professionalism—a reaction that reveals how tightly grades are tied psychologically, emotionally, and philosophically to their deepest thinking about their practice.

We need to create a structure that allows each teacher to question her own understanding and beliefs about grading; for example, the assumption that giving zeroes will motivate students to work harder and better equip them to earn a passing grade. This fallacy runs counter to what we know about motivation and is also mathematically incorrect. Zeroes often consign students to a failing grade, regardless of their subsequent performance.

In 2011-12, I tested this design with a dozen teachers in a medium-size district in Northern California. Together, teachers examined conceptual and empirical research around grading, reflected on their own grading practices, piloted new practices in their classrooms, shared results with their colleagues, refined their prototypes as a group, and then repeated the cycle several times. We saw results we had hoped for: Teachers improved the accuracy of their grading practices, and their students’ passing rates increased significantly. Participants experienced what one veteran teacher described as “the most authentically collaborative experience I’ve had professionally.” But what was truly remarkable were the unintended consequences.

In addition to the improvements in their grading systems, the teachers’ reflective inquiry changed other aspects of their teaching, including their homework assignments, formative assessments, and even the language and cultural norms of their classrooms. Teachers spoke about the transformative effect this cycle of inquiry had on their professional identities, altering their entire perception of their roles, responsibilities, and relationships to their students.

They finished the year questioning long-held assumptions about the purposes and practices of grading, and realizing that accurate and fair grading can be a productive tool for building trust with students. Teachers and their students felt empowered by this new approach and found it to be a more efficient way to understand their own work.

Two years after the pilot series concluded, these profound effects continue. One teacher noted that he “could never go back” to the old way “of grading and of being” in his classroom.

Discussions that ask teachers to talk about grading are hard, emotional, and confusing. But we need to free ourselves from an antiquated, unclear, and essentially discredited system that weakens teachers’ effectiveness and their credibility. Improving grading practices isn’t an optional add-on to our common-core work. It is the linchpin to the effective use of the common standards and all they represent. It is one of the best ways to truly change what happens in our classrooms.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Grading Standards Can Elevate Teaching

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Assessment State Test Results Are In. Are They Useless?
While states, districts, and schools pore over data from spring 2021 tests, experts urge caution over how to interpret and use the results.
9 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2016 file photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md. The $380 million test coaching industry is facing competition from free or low-cost alternatives in what their founders hope will make the process of applying to college more equitable. Such innovations are also raising questions about the relevance and the fairness of relying on standardized tests in admissions process.
A sign is posted at the entrance to a hall for a test-preparation class. Assessment experts say educators should use data from spring 2021 tests with caution.
Alex Brandon/AP
Assessment Data Young Adolescents' Scores Trended to Historic Lows on National Tests. And That's Before COVID Hit
The past decade saw unprecedented declines in the National Assessment of Educational Progress's longitudinal study.
3 min read
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Whitepaper
Proven Techniques for Assessing Students with Technology
Dr. Doug Fisher’s proven assessment techniques help your students become active learners and increase their chances for higher learning g...
Content provided by Achieve3000
Assessment Long a Testing Bastion, Florida Plans to End 'Outdated' Year-End Exams
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state will shift to "progress monitoring" starting in the 2022-23 school year.
5 min read
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he believes a new testing regimen is needed to replace the Florida Standards Assessment, which has been given since 2015.
Marta Lavandier/AP