Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

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.

Teaching Opinion

Students Should Not Believe a Grade ‘Defines Who They Currently Are’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 05, 2019 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your best recommendations for how to handle grading?

Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez, Cathy Vatterott, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Cindy Garcia “kicked off” this series in Part One. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Al on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Joe Feldman, Julia Thompson, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Andrew Sharos shared their responses.

This series is “wrapped up” today with commentaries by Dennis Griffin Jr, Scott Wurdinger, and Douglas Reeves.

Response From Dennis Griffin Jr

Dennis Griffin Jr serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University. Dennis believes all students will be successful in school when they develop relationships with educators who value their gift, cultures, and individuality:

Two experiences shaped my thoughts around grading. When I first began teaching, I started my first class letting all of my students know that they have an A in the class. It was our job and our goal to do everything in our power to secure that A throughout the quarter/semester/year. It would take their effort, willingness to face challenges, accept that learning is not always easy, and the ability for us to learn together. I gave my students multiple opportunities to retake an assessment and redo homework.

The second experience was connected to my two daughters’ experiences in school. I am very fortunate that both of my daughters do very well in school. The problem that I encountered was at parent-teacher conferences when I asked what could my daughters continue to work on to improve. The reply was often they have an A; they are doing fine. This made the learning process feel like a final destination versus a journey that used high-leverage feedback to develop their overall growth toward proficiency. In addition to that, I am helping my daughters understand the significance of hard work and dedication on the journey of lifelong learning rather than always being tied to a grade.

Is there a middle ground? I will be honest with you; I am still on my journey. I believe without a doubt that in order to create a world where we value intellectual risks, we must feel safe knowing that there is a chance to learn from the process rather than be defined by it. At the same time, I have often asked myself when my students become adults, how will they handle the pressure of deadlines if I am always providing opportunities in the future? Until I encounter a different option, I will continue to ensure that my students view learning as a journey rather than a defined process. I never want them to believe one assessment, one day, or one moment in time defines who they currently are and who they are meant to become. What I learned over time was that my belief in my students and my desire to ensure their success enhanced their effort, their desire to succeed, and their ability to take risks while trusting me in the learning process. Proficiency was not created by natural ability alone; it was the culmination of learning.

Response From Scott Wurdinger

Scott Wurdinger, Ph.D., is a professor of experiential learning and leadership studies at Minnesota State University in Mankato. He has published numerous articles and books on experiential learning, project-based learning, and education reform. His research focuses on life-skill development in experiential learning environments, and his most recent book is titled Changing the status quo: courage to challenge the education system published by Rowman and Littlefield:

Grading as we know it should be abolished from the current education system and replaced with something that more closely mirrors reality. There is a reason why we often read education articles and books that use the term “real world"; it’s because formal education is an artificial world, especially when it comes to grading. Where else in the world are grades used as a means to evaluate one’s performance?

Once we leave formal education and get a job, we are evaluated based on our performance and typically receive oral or written feedback. If this is reality, then why not evaluate students the same way so they understand what their strengths and weaknesses are and can work on them during their formal education?

So often with tests, students are not provided an opportunity to discuss the correct answers to the questions they get wrong. Students often focus on their grade and what they need to do to get a better one next time. This form of evaluation is based on an external motivator so students focus on memorizing information, rather than on learning how to learn.

Education, in both high school and college, moves students from the same grade level, through the same curriculum, at the same pace, taking the same tests, at the same time. The status quo in education has existed for years. Layers of bureaucracy have been created with the goal of increasing test scores and grades, but this is not how students, or for that matter anyone, likes to learn.

It is time to act and allow schools and colleges to use different types of assessments. Performance is how most employees of organizations and businesses are evaluated so why not allow students to practice performance skills while they are still in school?

Assessments must be based on what the world demands of newly graduated students. Since 1992, reports and research studies have identified specific types of skills such as, problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, creativity, time management, and collaboration that employers desire but are lacking in their young new hires (SCANS, 1992; Wagner, 2008; Trilling & Fadel, 2009; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2016).

There are a host of innovative charter schools that are allowing students to take control of their learning such as those under the auspices of EdVisions, Big Picture Learning, High Tech High, New Tech High, and Expeditionary Learning (Wurdinger, 2016). These schools use a variety of experiential learning techniques that engage students in relevant experiences through project-based learning and internships.

They focus on teaching students’ important skills like problem solving, perseverance, creativity, collaboration, communication, and time management. In addition, they use performance assessments like portfolios and presentations.

Students in these charter schools are designing and building things, doing presentations, and practicing life skills. Performance assessments such as learning portfolios and project presentations are used to accurately assess a student’s learning in these environments. Performance assessments alter the way educators teach because students must demonstrate their learning through direct experience.

If the education system truly wants students to become self-directed lifelong learners, then students must be allowed to pursue their passions, work on projects, experience things firsthand, and present them orally to their peers and teachers. In return, they will be evaluated based on their performance. Tricking students on multiple-choice questions results is a form of punishment for getting the wrong answers. This in turn allows educators to dole a variety of different grades, probably mostly C’s, with the better memorizers receiving higher marks. Instead of using this evaluation system, educators should be inspiring and motivating students by allowing them to demonstrate their learning through portfolios and presentations and then providing them with honest feedback, which is what happens in the REAL WORLD!

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReeves and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

Grading is an emotional issue in many schools, and it can seem overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just TWO simple changes make a huge difference in student results.

First, get rid of the average (even though many computerized grading systems default to this) and use the latest and best evidence to determine the final grade. The professional judgment of teachers at the end of the semester is better than any computer algorithm. The use of “latest and best evidence” encourages resilience and breakthroughs in learning and stops the terrible situation in which students who achieve well at the end of the semester will nevertheless fail due to their mistakes three and four months earlier.

Second, use the old-fashioned A,B,C,D, F scale, with A=4; B=3; C=2; D=1, and F=1, and get rid of the 100-point scale. The 100-point scale, when combined with the use of the zero and the average, is riddled with mathematical errors and undermines student learning and motivation. You can still have transcripts, letter grades, and all the things that make people comfortable—just get rid of the average and the 100-point scale, and you can have a dramatic improvement in student performance, discipline, and classroom culture in a single semester. Let me be blunt about this: The use of the zero on the 100-point scale is academic corporal punishment. If you would not allow people to beat children to improve behavior, then stop allowing them to use academic corporal punishment in the mistaken belief that it improves academic performance.

Thanks to Dennis, Scott, and Douglas for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for the next question-of-the-week in a few days.

Related Tags:

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.