Scoring & Grading Practices
Assigning students grades is an important component of teaching, and many school districts issue progress reports, interim reports, or midterm grades as well as final semester grades. Traditionally, these reports were printed on paper and sent home with students or mailed to students’ homes. Increasingly, school districts are using web-based grade management systems that allow parents to access their child’s grades on each assessment and the progress reports and final grades.
Grading can be frustrating for teachers as there are many factors to consider. In addition, report cards typically summarize in brief format a variety of assessments and so cannot provide much information about students’ strengths and weaknesses. This means that report cards focus more on assessment of learning than assessment for learning. Several decisions must be made when assigning students’ grades, and schools often have detailed policies that teachers must follow. In this chapter, we consider major questions associated with grading.
By the end of this chapter, you will be able to
- Define the purpose of grading;
- Identify classroom-level grading practices that align with purpose;
- Implement researched-based grading & reporting practices;
- Analyze the effectiveness of traditional grading practices to report student learning fully.
Purpose of Grading
Beginning with an understanding of purpose is key to developing effective grading practices. Susan Brookhart has written a lot about grading practices and encourages educators to focus first on determining what they believe about the purpose of grading. In “Starting the Conversation about Grading” (2011), Brookhart asserted:
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that getting sidetracked with details of scaling (letters, percentages, or rubrics? Zeros or not? No Ds or Fs?) or policies (What should we do with late or missing work? How can we report behavior? What will we do about academic honors and awards?) before you tackle the question of what a grade means in the first place will lead to trouble. Logic, my own experience, and the research and practice of others (Cox & Olsen, 2009; Guskey & Bailey, 2010; McMunn, Schenck, & McColskey, 2003) all scream that this is the case.
Grading scales and reporting policies can be discussed productively once you agree on the main purpose of grades. For example, if a school decides that academic grades should reflect achievement only, then teachers need to handle missed work in some other way than assigning an F or a zero. Once a school staff gets to this point, there are plenty of resources they can use to work out the details (see Brookhart, 2011; O’Connor, 2009). The important thing is to examine beliefs and assumptions about the meaning and purpose of grades first. Without a clear sense of what grading reform is trying to accomplish, not much will happen.
According to Brookhart, it is essential that educators first answer the question, “What is the purpose of a grade?” before deciding on grading practices within their classroom. Once a teacher defines their purpose, they should then check to make sure their purpose aligns with the school’s grading policy. A good supporting question when defining the purpose of a grade might be, “Is your purpose as a teacher to select talent, or is it to develop talent?” The answer will define not only how you approach grading but probably most aspects of your teaching practice.
According to Guskey (2015), researchers found that teachers and school leaders identify six common purposes for grades:
- Communicate information about student learning to parents;
- Provide information to students for self-reflection;
- Select, identify, or group students;
- Incentivize students to learn;
- Evaluate the quality of instruction; and
- Provide evidence of a student’s lack of effort.
No single grading instrument can accurately report all six of the aspects above to the fullest extent. Therefore, in an attempt to make their grading system more transparent and consistent, some schools have done the hard work of clarifying their purpose for grading. In the next section, we will explore a particular approach to grading with a specific purpose that seems to be a growing trend in schools across the country.
Accuracy Question: Do the grades I report accurately reflect my students’ true level of understanding?
Confidence Question: Do my grading practices contribute to student confidence or do they raise anxiety?
Adopting a Standards-Based Mindset
Many school districts have started looking for ways to make their grading practices more transparent. One of the biggest trends you will find in the literature is the idea of standards-based grading, sometimes also referred to as standards-referenced, criterion-referenced, or mastery grading. There are various forms of this idea being implemented and tested. As a novice educator, you should be aware of this concept as you may end up in a district that uses a version of this grading philosophy, or you may find that certain aspects may align strongly with your philosophy and choose to integrate them into your future grading practices at the classroom level.
School districts that shift their grading practices to a standards-based approach have a clearly defined purpose for what grades represent. Educational experts contend that in a standards-based grading mindset, the purpose of grading is to report where a student is in relation to a specific learning target (Brookhart, 2009; Dueck, 2014; Guskey, 2015; Popham, 2017; Schimmer, 2016). In adopting this belief, student effort, participation, past attempts, attendance, behavior, punctuality, etc. are not a factor in the final grade but are reported separately. This belief that grades should reflect student mastery or understanding of specific standards only contrasts with traditional grading practices that often factor in non-academic skills and dispositions. For an example, consider reading how Adam Dyche, Social Studies Dept. Chair at Waubonsie Valley High School defines a Standards-Based Mindset.
“The standards-based mindset is not about establishing flawless formulas, but rather a way for teachers to THINK as they examine the evidence of learning students produce” (Schimmer, 2016, p.61).
Common Grading Practices
Defining the purpose of grading is only effective if the practices used to determine students’ grades support the stated purpose. According to Guskey (2015), most teachers agree that grades should reflect how well students have demonstrated mastery of the established learning goals. Still, teachers use a variety of criteria to determine grades that often don’t align with that purpose. By not reflecting on grading practices, a teacher may inadvertently assign scores to students in a manner that does not align with their beliefs about what that grade should represent. Traditional methods of calculating grades include weighted averages, averaging, and total points earned. The key takeaway here is not that every teacher should assume the same grading procedures but that all teachers should take a moment to reflect on how their grading practices align with either the school’s or their purpose of grading statement.
The best way to align grading practices with purpose is through sound assessment practices. The problem is that too often, we as teachers adopt grading practices that do not align with effective assessment practices (Schimmer, 2016). Some commonly used grading practices may be in direct opposition to assigning a grade that reports student mastery of learning objectives, including averaging scores, assigning zeros, giving extra credit, and assessing penalties for behavior (Guskey, 2015; Schimmer, 2016; Dueck, 2014). The problem with these grading practices is that they distort the ability of the grade to accurately report student understanding of the learning objectives. Next, we will present some questions you can ask yourself when you begin to set up your grading policies and discuss some potential strengths and weaknesses of common approaches.
How are various assignments and assessments weighted?*
Students typically complete various assignments during a grading period, such as homework, quizzes, performance assessments, etc. Teachers have to decide—preferably before the grading period begins—how each assignment will be weighted. For example, a sixth-grade math teacher may decide to weight the grades in the following manner:
|Weekly quizzes||35 percent|
|Performance Assessment||30 percent|
|Class participation||20 percent|
Deciding how to weight assignments should be done carefully as it communicates to students and parents what teachers believe is important, and also may be used to decide how much effort students will exert (e.g. “If homework is only worth 5 percent, it is not worth completing twice a week”). Notice in the presentation below how your choices in how many points to assign a particular assignment may impact the final grade calculation.
Should scores be averaged to calculate the final grade?
How we think about learning influences how we grade, and our actions (grading) show our students what we value about learning. One teacher action that a common grading practice is to average scores to tabulate a final grade. When averaging grades, teachers calculate the sum of all points earned during a grading period and divide that sum by the total number of points possible. This process determines the mean, or average, which can be reported as a percentage or letter grade (i.e., C- may be equivalent to 70%). The problem with averaging scores to determine grades is that it may not accurately describe current levels of student understanding. Consider the example of two students in Figure 1. Student 1 completed all homework assignments (HW) for full credit but showed limited understanding on quizzes (Qz) and tests. Student 2 did not complete assigned homework but demonstrated sufficient understanding on quizzes and tests. Critics of using the averaging approach would argue that averaging the scores for these students does not provide an accurate representation of their current level of understanding.
Should zeros or penalties be assigned for missing and late work?
In the previous example (Figure 1), Student 2 was assigned zeros for missing work. This practice of assigning zeros is similar to assigning penalties to student work based on behavioral issues such as late submission. Penalties decrease the accuracy of our grading and are not proven to increase student interest or effort (Schimmer, 2016). Especially when using a 100-point grading scale, using zeros unproportionally pulls a student’s grade down. Similarly, penalties are used to encourage things like timeliness, but that is not reported during the grading process, only the lower score, which, after being penalized, now reflects a lower degree of understanding.
Should homework scores be included in the final grade calculation?
To give homework or to not give homework? This question has been debated and researched with mixed results. John Hattie’s work looking at the effect size of homework on student learning suggests that overall, homework has a small to modest effect on student learning. However, there seems to be a greater effect for students as they age (HS > MS > Elem), and that homework seems most impactful when it is short, focused on material students are ready for, and when students have input. In the end, the question may not be whether you should give homework, but what you should do with it once students complete it.
In a classroom using traditional grading practices, homework typically accounts for a significant portion of the final grade. Even if the homework is a small percentage of the final grade, it is a form of summative assessment. In a standards-based classroom, homework is often viewed as practice and an opportunity to receive feedback without a score or for a very small score. In other words, using homework as a formative assessment.
A common concern teachers have is that if homework is not graded, students will not do it. Schimmer (2016) argues that adopting the mindset of, “if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it” suggests that students have no interest in learning and reduces school to an exercise of accumulating points. Another disadvantage of including homework in the final grade calculation is that it can distort the final grade due to factors such as cheating, confusion, unreadiness, and factors outside of the student’s control.
Should social skills or effort be included?*
Elementary school teachers are more likely than middle or high school teachers to include some social skills in report cards (Popham, 2005). These may be included as separate criteria in the report card or weighted into the grade for that subject. For example, the grade for mathematics may include an assessment of group cooperation or self-regulation during mathematics lessons. Some schools and teachers endorse including social skills in the grading process, arguing that developing such skills is important for young students and that students need to learn to work with others and manage their behaviors to be successful. Others believe that grades in subject areas should be based on cognitive performances—and that if assessments of social skills are made, they should be separated from the subject grade on the report card. Clear criteria, such as those contained in analytical scoring rubrics, should be used if social skills are graded.
Teachers often find it difficult to decide whether effort and improvement should be included as a component of grades. One approach is for teachers to ask students to submit drafts of an assignment and make improvements based on the feedback they receive. The grade for the assignment may include some combination of the score for the drafts, the final version, and the amount of improvement the students made based on the feedback provided.
A more controversial approach is basing grades on effort when students try really hard day after day but still cannot complete their assignments well. These students could have identified special needs or be recent immigrants that have limited English skills. Some school districts have guidelines for handling such cases. One disadvantage of using improvement as a component of grades is that the most competent students in the class may do very well initially and have little room for improvement—unless teachers are skilled at providing additional assignments that will help challenge these students.
Teachers often use “hodgepodge grading,” i.e. a combination of achievement, effort, growth, attitude or class conduct, homework, and class participation. A survey of over 8,500 middle and high school students in the US state of Virginia supported the hodgepodge practices commonly used by their teachers (Cross & Frary, 1999).
Should grades be calculated on a curve?*
Two options are commonly used: absolute grading and relative grading. In absolute grading, grades are assigned based on criteria the teacher has devised. If an English teacher has established a level of proficiency needed to obtain an A and no student meets that level, then no A’s will be given. Alternatively, if every student meets the established level, then all the students will get A’s (Popham, 2005). Absolute grading systems may use letter grades or pass/fail.
In relative grading, the teacher ranks students’ performances from worst to best (or best to worst); those at the top get high grades, those in the middle moderate grades, and those at the bottom low. This is often described as “grading on the curve” and can be useful to compensate for an examination or assignment that students find much easier or harder than the teacher expected.
However, relative grading can be unfair to students because the comparisons are typically within one class, so an A in one class may not represent the level of performance of an A in another class. Relative grading systems may discourage students from helping each other improve as students compete for limited rewards. Bishop (1999) argues that grading on the curve gives students a personal interest in persuading each other not to study as a serious student makes it more difficult for others to get good grades.
What kinds of grade descriptions should be used?*
Traditionally, a letter grade system is used (e.g. A, B, C, D, F ) for each subject. The advantages of these grade descriptions are they are convenient, simple, and can be averaged easily. However, they do not indicate what objectives the student has or has not met or students’ specific strengths and weaknesses (Linn & Miller 2005). Elementary schools often use a pass-fail (or satisfactory-unsatisfactory) system, and some high schools and colleges do as well. Pass-fail systems in high school and college allow students to explore new areas and take risks on subjects that they may have limited preparation for or is not part of their major (Linn & Miller 2005). While a pass-fail system is easy to use, it offers even less information about students’ level of learning.
A pass-fail system is also used in classes taught under a mastery-learning approach in which students are expected to demonstrate mastery of all the objectives to receive course credit. Under these conditions, it is clear that a pass means that the student has demonstrated mastery of all the objectives.
Some schools have implemented a checklist of the objectives in subject areas to replace the traditional letter grade system. Students are rated on each objective using descriptors such as Proficient, Partially Proficient, and Needs Improvement. For example, the checklist for students in a fourth-grade class in California may include the four types of writing that are required by the English language state content standards
- writing narratives
- writing responses to literature
- writing information reports
- writing summaries
The advantages of this approach are that it communicates students’ strengths and weaknesses clearly, and it reminds the students and parents of the objectives of the school. However, if too many objectives are included, the lists can become so long that they are difficult to understand.
Grading Practices to Consider
There may be no perfect answer to the problem of assigning student grades. However, there are a few practices that you might consider making a part of your grading policy if your goal is for your grades to accurately depict student achievement of learning objectives.
Identify Standards to Assess
The first place you should start is by identifying specific learning targets for your grading period. The best way to fight grade inflation (or deflation) is through clearly defined standards and quality assessments that align with those standards (Guskey, 2015; Heff, 2019). Similar to writing learning objectives for your daily lessons and assignments, identify the main objectives that you plan to summatively assess for the semester up front. From there, you can track student progress throughout the semester. You might also consider having your students track their progress, see how Dan Meyer used a concept checklist in his math classes.
Use a 4 Point Scale
Consider switching from the traditional 100-point grading scale to a 4-point scale. According to Guskey (2015), a four-point scale provides a smaller number of grading categories, which will result in a more reliable score of student learning. In the traditional 100-point scale, each grade category has a 10-point spread (ex. C 70-79). In addition, there are 60 levels of failure (0-59) and only 40 levels of passing (60-100). This creates an imbalance in the final grade calculation. The 4-point model removes this issue by assigning each grade level a single-point spread (0-F, 1-D, 2-C, 3-B, 4-A).
A 4-point scale is familiar to students as it reflects the GPA format and can be converted to a percentage score for grade reporting. Schimmer (2016) suggests that 4-point scores could be averaged at the end of the grading cycle and converted to a traditional grading scale. For example, averages between 3.25 and 4.0 would equate to an A, 2.50 to 3.24 equal a B, 1.75 to 2.49 equal a C, and 1.00 to 1.74 equal a D. Some schools have even suggested reviewing all of the scores for student learning and considering the median and mode scores rather relying solely on the average score. For example, see how Bremerton Schools outlines how student grades will be calculated using a 4-point scale.
Remove Grade Distortion
The potential for grade distortion when applying penalties and zeroes to students’ grades has been addressed earlier in the chapter. Removing these practices from your grading may help your final grades more accurately reflect student understanding. A similar practice is offering extra credit. When extra credit is added to a student’s score, the grade may or may not reflect the student’s current level of understanding. For example, suppose a student was to earn extra credit points for bringing items to class, attending an event, or completing some task that is not directly aligned with the objective(s) of the assessment. In that case, the additional points earned distort the grade. An alternative to offering extra credit to improve a score would be to allow students to revise their work without penalty. Reassessment is a key component of ensuring that your grades reflect the current level of understanding of your students. Consider adjusting scores to reflect current understanding after students have either revised work or completed alternative assessments. For example, see how North Jr High allows students to retest and revise assessments (slides 10 & 11).
Examples of Standards-Based Grading Approaches in Different Content Areas
- Do grades motivate learning? Why or why not?
- What does a grade represent? What does it tell us about a student? What does it not tell us?
- If I get an A and you get a C, is that “fair”? Does it need to be? Is that a reasonable expectation in a classroom?
- What are some potential problems with the traditional A–F grading system in a classroom? What are the benefits?
- What are some potential pedagogical benefits of removing grades from a classroom? Are there potential downsides? How could we avoid those issues?
- How have grades affected your approach to learning in the past?
- Think of a time when grading helped you improve. What was helpful about it specifically? Why has it stuck with you?
- Think of a time when grading has impacted you negatively. How did it impact you? How did it affect your approach going forward? Why has it stuck with you?
Discussion Questions by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
There are many things to consider before entering your classroom for the first time, and how you grade your students should be one area that you give some considerable thought. You probably won’t have your perfect grading policy figured out the first time. However, you should begin by asking yourself, what is the purpose of grades in my classroom? From there, you can review any policies your district might have and ensure that your thoughts about grading align with your district. Regardless, you should take the time to think through how your grading policies will encourage students to engage in the learning process and how your final reporting will reflect student learning.
Extend Your Learning
- I strongly recommend Dueck’s book, Grading Smarter Not Harder. It is an easy read and has a lot of great ideas and resources for use in the classroom.
- If you are interested in hearing more about Dueck’s ideas, consider watching his webinar. I think this might be a great conversation starter with other teachers.
- If Rick Wormeli’s ideas interest you, then you can find numerous videos online where he discusses these ideas in greater detail. If you start with his video on Redo’s, Retakes, and Do-Overs, then you can follow the trail to other videos. Or, google “Rick Wormeli grading videos” and you can pick based on your interest.
- If you are teaching or plan to teach math, then you should check out Dan Meyer’s The Comprehensive Math Assessment Resource. The ideas presented here could easily be translated into any content area, so don’t shy away just because it is math related.
- Can’t get enough? Check out these Suggested Readings
Summarizing Key Understandings
References & Attribution
Attribution: Sections noted with “*” were adapted in part from Ch. 15 Teacher made assessment strategies by Kevin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Brookhart, S. M. (2009). Grading (2nd ed.). New York: Merrill.
Dueck, M. (2014). Grading smarter not harder. ASCD
Guskey, T. R. (2015). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press
Popham, J. W. (2017). Classroom assessment: What teachers need to know (8th ed.). New York: Pearson
Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through standards-based mindset. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press