Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Kinds Of Grading Systems

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 17, 2012 9 min read
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Charlie Herzog asked:

Should we continue to assign students grades in the traditional manner
(percentages & letters), or should we move towards a system based on levels of

Grading is always a hot topic for teachers. I don’t have much knowledge of the “mastery” grading concept, though, which is why I’m deferring to guests Thomas R. Guskey, Susan M. Brookhart, and my friend and Teacher Leaders Network colleague Bill Ivey.

I would, however, like to share how I handle grades. It may not be a particularly “methodical” system, but it works for my students and me.

As regular readers of this blog know, I put a great deal of energy into helping “students motivate themselves” through assisting them develop and strengthen their sense of intrinsic motivation. Through those activities, and through multiple discussions, I think that most of my students understand that my priorities for how I assess them, and how they should assess themselves, emphasizes learning qualities that countless studies have identified as the key elements for a successful language learner (most of my students are English Language Learners). Research has also identified most of them as critical qualities for any successful learner, as well. They include:

Appetite for learning



Academic risk-taking

Ability to learn from mistakes

Willingness to teach others
(for more on this particular quality, you might want to see “What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand”)

At the beginning of the school year, I teach a lesson on the importance of these qualities (including several fun videos), and at the end of each semester I use a student self-assessment process in all my classes (ELL and non-ELL) to help determine grades. They complete a form that contains five questions and have to support their answer with specific examples:

Personal Grade Reflection -- Answer and Give supporting examples

1. Do you initiate working and learning most or all of the time in this class, or does Mr. Ferlazzo have to push you a lot?

2. Do you take risks and try challenging tasks in this class even if you make mistakes (and learn from them). Or do you “play it safe” most of the time?

3. Do you try to teach other students if you understand something more than they do? Do you just give them the answer, or do you help them learn? Or do you only focus on your own work and ignore students who need help?

4. When you don’t feel like doing the assignment, most of the time do you do your best anyway, or do you try to put it off and/or not do your best?

5. Think about the answers you made to the last four questions, and think about the quality of your school work this quarter -- tests, classwork, computer assignments, etc. What grade do you think you deserve and why?

I usually agree with them ninety percent of the time, increase it five percent of the time, and reduce it five percent of the time (after a discussion).

Now, it’s time to hear from today’s guests:

Response From Thomas R. Guskey

Thomas R. Guskey is an education professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading (2009) and Developing Standards-Based Report Cards (2010):

If someone proposed combining measures of height, weight, diet, and exercise into a single number or mark to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable. How could the combination of such diverse measures yield anything meaningful? Yet every day, teachers combine aspects of students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior into a single grade that’s recorded on a report card - and no one questions it.

Recognizing that merging these diverse sources of evidence distorts the meaning of any grade, educators in many parts of the world today assign multiple grades. In particular, educators distinguish product, process, and progress learning criteria.

Product criteria are favored by educators who believe that the primary purpose of grading is to communicate what students know and are able to do at a particular point in time. Teachers who use product criteria typically base grades exclusively on final products (reports, projects, or exhibits), summative assessments, and other culminating demonstrations of learning.

Process criteria are emphasized by educators who believe that grades should reflect not only the final results, but also how students got there. Teachers who consider responsibility, effort, formative assessments, homework, punctuality of assignments, or class participation when assigning grades use process criteria.

Progress criteria are used by educators who believe the most important aspect of grading is how much students gain from their learning experiences. Teachers using progress criteria look at how much improvement students have made over a particular period of time, rather than just where they are at a given moment.

Reporting multiple grades causes no increase in teachers’ grading workload. Teachers gather the same evidence on student learning that they did before, but no longer need worry about how to weigh or combine that evidence in calculating an overall grade.

More importantly, reporting separate grades for product, process, and progress criteria makes grading more meaningful. Grades for academic achievement reflect precisely that - academic achievement - and not some confusing amalgamation that’s impossible to interpret and rarely presents a true picture of students’ proficiency. Multiple grades provide for parents and others a more comprehensive profile of every student’s performance in school.

Response From Susan M. Brookhart

Susan M. Brookhart is an independent education consultant and a senior research associate in the Center for Advancing the Study of Teaching and Learning at Duquesne University. Her books include How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom and Grading and Learning: Practices That Support Student Achievement:

Should we continue to assign students grades in the traditional manner (percentages & letters), or should we move towards a system based on levels of mastery?

I support a grading system based on levels of mastery. The problem isn’t percentages or letters, really. Traditional grading practices, however, are so closely associated with the percentage and letter systems that it is great to be able to use the current interest in standards to start over with grading, as well. Grading reformers have been pressing for changes, with little result, for a century. Grades should be based on learning and achievement. Other recommended reforms--privileging recent evidence, using multiple measures, grading individuals and not groups--are ways of working out this primary purpose.

Grading students’ compliance, which happens when teachers emphasize following directions more than substance in their grading criteria, must go. Grading effort (e.g., raising a grade for trying hard) and behavior (e.g., docking a grade for mouthing off) must go. In theory we could do that with letters, too.

Not everyone agrees with this position. There is a bill pending in the Georgia legislature that would prohibit the use of standards based grading in grades four through 12. The first two arguments in the bill claim that standards-based grading fails “to differentiate among students who excel academically and those who merely meet minimal standards” and that “the assessment focus is on equal outcomes for all students, referred to as mastery of minimal standards, in which students can take as long as they need through the school year to meet standards without incurring grading penalties.”

Leaving aside a history lesson (the minimum competency movement was in the 1970s, and it’s over--most current standards are rigorous), and the fact that most schools that seriously attempt standards-based grading find they need to challenge their students who excel more so that they have evidence for advanced performance...am I the only one who hears in these words arguments that seem to be about perpetuating a system where the children of people of influence ‘win’? We have to move education away from being a zero-sum game. And we have to start turning out citizens who don’t think that if I win, you have to lose.

Response From Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School.. He blogs for his school at, and belongs to Teacher Leaders Network:

Some years ago, the middle school team in my school decided to study Rick Wormeli’s Fair Is Not Always Equal to help focus our discussions on assessment. Believing that letter grades were not developmentally appropriate for our students, we decided to convert to a standards-based system. One of the benefits was the deep level of thinking that infused our conversations about what skills we were going to focus on and the role of global grades on a specific assignment.

Our scale, developed with input from parents and students, is Mastered - Developing - Needs Attention - No Basis for Assessment. For individual assignments, we assess (and often ask students to self-assess) specific skills. For progress reports, we roll them together into areas such as Research Skills, Writing Skills, etc. We often take a mode rather than a mean, and we give extra weight to more recent assignments. We will probably replace “Mastered” next year with a broader term such as “Proficient” based on faculty and student input. The system helps students focus on specific progress but admittedly leaves them wanting a global judgment to know if they’re doing well enough; we try and handle that through narrative comments.

Responses From Readers


I believe we should cultivate a portfolio system that demonstrates mastery instead of simply assigning letter grades. At all turns, grades would include a student self-evaluation, peer comments and teacher evaluation as well.

Peter D. Ford, III

I use mastery levels, but old habits from students AND PARENTS die hard. Inevitably I must translate a ‘3' (on a scale of 1 to 4) to some letter grade or percentage, even though I describe explicitly what a ‘3' represents: “accurate solution, work shown consistent with solution, sequenced and clear.”

Teachers must be clear and explicit with their assessment approach, and a mastery assessment approach may be more subjective and tailored to each subject, and each teacher possibly.

Gail V. Ritchie:

I vote for no grades at all. Just narrative descriptions of what students know and can do...

Kelly Dillon:

Narrative feedback + self-assessment can help teacher + student assign a summative grade together. No points please!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Thomas, Susan, Bill and to many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Thursday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.