Assessment Opinion

The 4 Common Myths About Grading Reform, Debunked

Grading reformers and their critics all want the same thing
By Sarah Ruth Morris & Matt Townsley — November 20, 2023 5 min read
Venn diagram over a macro shot of A- on white results sheet. Extremely shallow focus. Letter grades are highlighted.
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Consensus in education, especially on grading reform, is elusive. But inside this heated debate, we’re really arguing for the same thing.

The goal of grading reform is to better reflect students’ true learning and comprehension, aligning students’ grades with their actual academic performance. In contrast, traditional grading combines academic achievement with behavioral factors by assigning points to assignments, irrespective of their intended purpose. For example, a student’s effort in completing a math assignment or their level of participation in English class discussions often influences their grades. While these behaviors are important, they may not directly reflect the student’s understanding of the academic material. Grading reform seeks to make grades a more accurate reflection of student mastery and knowledge.

But let’s consider the recent discourse that has ignited education circles. August ended with the ACT grade-inflation report. Writing in Forbes, Rick Hess (who also writes an opinion blog for Education Week) suggested equitable grading and parental pressure as drivers behind grade inflation. An Annenberg EdWorkingPaper in September linked lenient grading with unfavorable student outcomes. This crescendoed last month, when a New York Times opinion writer criticized relaxed grading policies for their disservice to teachers and students, and a teacher’s real-world account echoed the cautionary tone.

Amid this cacophony, an editorial in The Harvard Crimson stood apart, minimizing concerns over grade inflation and advocating a greater cultural shift in grading, a concept expanded upon by Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt in their latest book.

Education stakeholders are clearly aware of the criticism that often accompanies traditional grading practices, including grade inflation, how students grade-grub, and the disconnect between grade point averages and standardized test scores. But here is a hot take: Grading reformers agree with critics on these points.

To move forward together, we need to debunk several myths and acknowledge a common goal: grades that truly represent student learning.

Myth 1: Grading reformers want everyone to earn an A.

Recently, when the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas began disseminating results about Arkansas course failures for 9th grade students, there was a misconception among some educators that the aim was a universal A with no failures. That’s not the case.

Grading reform isn’t a push for universal A’s; it’s about matching grades with actual learning, not conflating achievement with behavior. Anecdotally, classroom educators have shared with us that some students find it harder to earn high marks when they are graded only on content knowledge. Grading reformers’ goal is to make grades clearer, so an A truly reflects deep understanding, not just gaming the system by accumulating extra-credit points or earning participation points from pleasing the teacher.

Myth 2: Grading reformers eliminate the use of a zero to inflate grades.

Within the heated grading debate on the use of zeros, critics argue that eliminating zeros and using 50 as a minimum grade is an attempt to boost grades and pass underperforming students artificially. However, this interpretation misses our intent and the underlying issue with the traditional 100-point scale. We refer to fellow grading reformer and high school teacher Josh Kunnath’s graphic when describing the proportion mismatch of how A-D all encompass roughly the same 10-point numerical range while an F can mean anything from zero to 59.

Opinion graphic. Minimal grading scale is 50 to 59% for an F grade. Traditionally the range is 0-59%.

Adopting “minimum grading” practices such as replacing zeroes with 50s within a 0-100 percentage scale is an attempt to create a fairer and more rational scale where the consequences of a single zero aren’t disproportionately punitive when averaged in with other scores. Douglas Reeves, a long-standing grading reformer, has suggested that transitioning to a different scale, such as 0-4, is an even better solution. A 0-4 scale reduces grade variability and measures student learning and performance more equitably. Zero is still available on such a scale but doesn’t carry the disproportionate weight of a percentage scale.

The debate around the zero is not a battle over points; it’s a conversation about fairness and the true meaning of grades as a measure of learning.

Myth 3: Grading reformers want to burn up the system.

The rhetoric around changes to grading policies can sometimes be radical, with a minority of grading reformers calling for their elimination. This has fed the myth that grading reformers want to throw out every grading policy and start over. Not necessarily.

Grades have long intended to serve as the primary mode of communicating student proficiency to students and their families. The problem isn’t with grades themselves but with how grades are determined and what grades communicate. Reformers argue that grades should solely reflect student mastery of the learning goals, not an amalgamation of point-accumulating activities such as earning points for extra-credit holiday crossword puzzles, essay drafts, and correct responses on tests. When grades only reflect what students have learned, they can serve as effective feedback, too.

Myth 4: Grading reformers should be able to snap their fingers and make it happen.

Effective grading reform is not a quick fix or a silver bullet. It’s no surprise that some critics view grading reform through a skeptical lens, suspecting that new grading practices are failing when they don’t immediately work.

Grading reform is a call for systemic change, and, like any change, it is a slow and iterative process. It’s about evolving the very purpose of grades from mere point accumulation to genuine reflections of student learning. This reformation demands a cultural shift among students, educators, and all educational stakeholders in understanding and valuing grades as learning rather than grades as earning.

Attempts at rapid changes in any education context have shown that without the foundational work of shifting mindsets and enhancing educators’ assessment literacy, reforms don’t last. It’s a persistent march toward a grading system that truly aids student development, not an immediate remedy.

As the old adage goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Our students’ grades will only be as meaningful as the evidence educators use to determine them. Educational stakeholders and grading reformers all want to see grades that truly represent student learning. It’s time for the education community to both reassess what factors determine grades and champion grades that are reflective of learning rather than earning.

Hot take or not, our students’ true academic abilities aren’t reflected accurately in the traditional grading system. Educators, researchers, and journalists should all be able to agree. It’s time for a change.

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