Assessment

The 5 Burning Questions for Districts on Grading Reforms

By Evie Blad — March 06, 2024 5 min read
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Districts around the country have weighed new approaches to grading, some motivated by concerns about achievement and student motivation following the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Education Week recently reported, districts like Clark County, Nev., have enacted grading policies that de-emphasize formative assignments, like homework; give students multiple chances to redo work; and establish clear rubrics to determine when students have mastered an academic concept.

But those changes don’t come without big questions. Here are five things districts ask about grading.

1. Are grades consistent among schools and classrooms?

Variations in teachers’ grading approaches can lead two students to earn different grades if they learn in different schools in the same district—or even different classrooms in the same school—even if those students have similar levels of content mastery, grading reform advocates argue.

Among those variables:

  • How much extra credit does a teacher offer?
  • How much do teachers penalize students for late work?
  • Do teachers grade “behaviors,” like participation in discussions or showing up to class with the appropriate materials? Do they penalize misbehavior, like distracting peers?
  • Can students retake tests or resubmit assignments?

Those differing approaches can also lead to equity concerns. For example, a teacher may view one student as more distracting than another because of that teacher’s own internal biases, said Joe Feldman, a former teacher, principal, and educational consultant whose book, Grading for Equity, has influenced districts around the country.

Districts have tackled these differences by setting more centralized policies about things like extra credit and late work. Some, like Clark County, have adopted “equitable grading” policies that seek to “separate behavior from grades” by banning grades for incremental homework, allowing students to submit work after deadline, and providing opportunities for students to retake tests or resubmit assignments to demonstrate content understanding.

However, some critics of such policies say they can remove a key motivational tool for students. Researchers at the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote in a Feb. 28 brief that schools should take a middle-ground approach by adopting guidelines that more clearly outline what subjective measures like classroom participation should look like, rather than removing those elements from grades altogether.

2. Should schools switch grading scales?

Some districts have adopted new grading scales in hopes of keeping students motivated and more accurately reflecting what they know.

Their argument: Under the traditional A-F grading system, students who get several F’s on early assignments may essentially check out or disengage from class because it is mathematically more difficult for them to recover and raise their overall grade.

That’s why some districts have raised their minimum grade to 50 percent so that the 10-percent grade bands for A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s hold equal mathematical weight.

Bar chart showing the equity grading scale that provides a floor of 50, which ensures an equal range for each letter grade of A through F, 
according to Clark County School District.

Critics argue that such a change makes student grades less accurate. In some districts with revised grading scales, even missing assignments are graded at 50 percent, rather than the 0 percent teachers would log under a traditional grading scale.

Some districts have sought to replace the A-F scale entirely, rather than re-engineering it by raising the minimum score. The Des Moines, Iowa, district is among those that use a 1-4, standards-referenced grading scale to indicate whether students have demonstrated mastery of learning standards. For secondary students, for example, a grade of “1" indicates the goal has not been met, a “2" grade indicates some progress, “3" grade means a student has met all of the goals related to a specific content standard, and a “4" grade means the student has demonstrated mastery beyond that standard.

3. Do district policies contribute to grade inflation?

Some researchers have sounded the alarm that changes to grading systems may contribute to grade inflation, especially if those changes are not well thought out or well executed.

A November analysis of Washington state students’ standardized test scores and grades issued from 2011 to 2022 found spikes in A’s in the spring of 2020, when many schools quickly adopted more lenient grading practices as they shifted to remote learning early in the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, A’s and B’s correlated with scoring in a lower percentile on state tests, meaning they were less predictive of student achievement, found the study by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research. That pattern has continued, particularly in math, even as the rate of high grades started to decline in the 2021-22 school year.

4. Do parents understand what grades mean?

When districts switch grading policies, they need to ensure parents and educators are on the same page about what grades represent, how grading scales work, and the rationale behind changes, said Susan Brookhart, an education professor emerita at Duquesne University who has followed grading debates for decades.

It’s not enough to say a new grading scale promotes equity; administrators must also explain how it does so, she said. Parents also need to understand whether grades represent the cumulative result of the assignments a student has completed or their current level of content mastery.

Brookhart highlighted websites created by districts like Clark County and Des Moines that clearly explain the rationale and timelines for policy changes and answers to frequently asked questions.

5. Are teachers on board with grading changes?

A new policy alone is not enough to bring about change in a district, Brookhart said. Teachers must also be prepared to change how they approach grading, and they must buy into new district policies, she said.

It can take four or five years to make an effective transition to a new grading system, and most of that work should be done before the policy shift is enacted, Brookhart said. Districts should hold teacher discussion groups, test out models in pilot classrooms and schools, and be open to feedback, she said.

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