IS your grading system sabotaging your students?

Five Signs Your Grading System is Sabotaging Your Students (and How to Fix It)

Tensions in the room were running high. I sat with the chair of the English Department and the mother of a struggling student. At issue was one question: Did my grading system offer a fair reflection of this young man’s work?

“What do you have against him!? This is his junior year! His future is at stake? Why are you ruining his life!”

The meeting was like a trial. I presented my evidence and explained each artifact. The department chair nodded in agreement, confirming to the distraught mother that everything was in order. At the time, I felt vindicated.

What this mother didn’t know, was that his grade, a C+, was close to the class average. In fact, if I were to raise his grade, I would have to lower someone else’s.

You see, he was in “regular” English, not the “honors” class. School policy stated that class averages should be 90% for honors and 80% for regular classes. 

In a traditional grading system a ‘C’ — around 75% — is supposed to be average. But as in Lake Wobegone, all the children are above average…at least according to their parents. So teachers are pressured to increase grades. C’s become B’s and B’s become A’s. Eventually, the grades become meaningless.

The ‘80% average’ policy had been put in place by the school to combat such “grade inflation.” Of course, we weren’t allowed to tell parents we were using this system.

So rather than confronting the harsh reality that her son’s work was slightly behind his peers, she confronted the person responsible for recording the grade. And no evidence I presented would convince her that she had a ‘C+ child.’

A Grading System on Trial: Guilty as Charged

At the time, I was glad the school was “standing up” to grade inflation. I was a perfectionist when it came to grades. Papers were measured in four categories: Ideas, Mechanics, Organization, and Style. (A system borrowed from my junior English teacher and mentor, Rob Myslik). Test questions balanced factual recall with deeper thinking. I even looked through CliffNotes to make sure I was asking questions that weren’t found there.

I now realize that, despite my complex system, my grading system was completely arbitrary. Not only that, but almost every grading system in every school is just as subjective.

Teachers decide what questions to ask and which to omit. We decide how to ask the questions and how to award partial credit. Sometimes we offer ‘extra credit.’ Sometimes we allow retakes. All of these open the door to inaccuracies in grading.

And that’s before we consider inaccuracies in how grades are calculated. Some educators used a fixed percentage weighting. With this system, tests may be worth 40% of the total, while homework may be worth 10%.

It’s not unusual for students to have only one test per quarter. If that test has 40 questions, each is worth 1% of the final average. If a student answers 10 questions for homework each night, each homework question is worth .02%. And that assumes the teacher corrects every homework question.

And if the teacher gives two tests the next quarter, suddenly each question goes from 1% to 0.5%. In the class down the hall, tests may be worth 20% and homework 15%. These are just a few of the many ways a fixed-weighting system creates distortions.

A point-based grading system addresses some of these issues. By creating a point value for each assignment, it can be easier to ensure a fair weighting. But that still doesn’t address the many other variables that make calculating grades extremely arbitrary.

Are Standards-Based Grading Systems the Answer?

In response to the variability of grading systems in many schools, there is now a movement to ensure that grades only reflect ‘mastery of standards.’

Standards-based grading is a strategy designed to make report cards more “accurate.” Rather than an overall average, students are rated on each standard. Teachers cannot factor in participation, completion, or “bonus points.”

And while accuracy is a concern, SBG actually misses the bigger question of “Why?” Why do we grade students? Does a more accurate grading system improve the learning experience?

If we believe our job as educators is to rate and sort students, SBG is a major step forward. But I question this job description. I think teachers should be champions for our students. And by rating them, we compromise this relationship.

Relationships are the real reason that teachers have created our own personal and “inaccurate” rating systems. We look for ways to help our struggling learners. We try to measure their positive qualities that the standards overlook. Whether it’s extra credit, effort grades, or just a bump for the student who comes to see us after school.

SBG forbids teachers from measuring any of these things. Homework, effort, participation, extra credit. Standards-based grading says ‘no’ to all of the above. According to SBG, these introduce inaccuracies, which may not be factored in to our grades.

Most teachers I know have no interest in becoming a hyper-accurate, hyper-efficient “Assessmentron 2000.” We want to be human teachers. We want to cultivate relationships with our students. And we want to build their confidence and their positive feelings about school.

Can a Grading System Actually Drive Learning?

If schools prioritized student needs, we would design a very different grading system. One that motivates students. One that helps them understand their strengths and areas for growth. And one that prepares them for the world outside the classroom.

I still haven’t found a job where performance reviews emphasize what an employee knows over what he produces. The real world doesn’t disregard participation and completion. In fact, an authentic system might only measure participation and completion.

A student-centered approach would provide students with a non-judgmental way of understanding their strengths and needs. It would recognize that comparing students to their peers is not the best way to build intrinsic motivation. In fact, the evidence suggests that over time, the way we use grades actually erodes student engagement in learning.

“There are many other means to communicate progress to students,” says Amy Butler Tillman, Assistant Principal of McDavid Jones Elementary in Alabama. “I don’t NEED a grading system to do that.”

Five Ways Your Grading Systems Is Sabotaging Your Students

Grades tell parents whether their child is “ok” or “not ok.” We send grades to schools, summer programs, and scholarship committees. We use grades to decide who goes to the honors track and who goes to the resource room.

When we consider alternatives to grading, it’s not because reporting is unimportant. It’s just hard to imagine that the same system that rates and sorts students is also the best for nurturing individual learners.

If we are going to grade students, we should do so intentionally. And not just to be more accurate. We should design our grading systems to help students reach their potential.

In a recent Facebook poll, we asked teachers and administrators what they believe is the primary purpose of grades.

Teachers overwhelmingly chose “communicating performance to students.” Administrators overwhelmingly chose “communicating performance to parents.”

It’s clear that educators want their grades to support students and help families. But too often, even the most accurate grading systems are seen as a judgment rather than a support.

Here are five signs that your grading system is actually sabotaging your students.

1. Struggling Students Give Up

We like to assume that grades motivate students. But as Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, addressed in Mindset, motivation is tied to an “internal locus of control,” a belief that your efforts matter.

When students struggle year after year, many feel that their efforts don’t make a difference. And when students start the year significantly below grade level, it’s nearly impossible for them to earn high grades.

Personalized learning is one way to empower struggling learners. This approach lets students work at their own level and have a voice in setting goals. Grading students on work that is on their level (as opposed to grade level) may not be as accurate, but it certainly increases motivation.

2. Advanced Students Get Complacent

Traditional teaching methods rely on a “teach to the middle” strategy. This approach leaves some students overwhelmed and others bored. Many top performers have become so accustomed to good grades, they lose the drive to work for them.

Some schools address the issue by creating honors tracks or gifted and talented programs. But these solutions create other problems, particularly with regard to equity.

There are a number of ways to keep our top performers engaged. One approach is acceleration – just as personalized learning can provide foundational work for struggling learners, it can also allow advanced students to move ahead to more challenging content. 

Another is enrichment. With this approach, rather than moving students ahead in the same learning progression, we expand our definition of student success. Inquiry-based learning is a great way to incorporate rigor and help students go deeper, while still working on the same content.

By incorporating projects and using rubrics, we can measure students on what they produce, not just what they know.

3. Strained Student-Teacher Relationships

Throughout my teaching career, nothing challenged my relationships with students more than grades. There is no way for teachers to serve as a mentor and guide, while also being responsible for rating and sorting their students.

Few teachers have the option to stop giving grades, but there are some things we can do. For one, make sure to differentiate assessments. This gives each student a chance to play to her strengths. The strongest writer may not be the strongest public speaker. By grading one skill and not the other, we send a clear message about who we value in our classrooms.

I also do everything I can to keep grades high. There is no evidence that giving students low grades increases their drive to work harder. In fact, what does motivate students is having strong relationships with their teachers.

We need to get past the myth that low grades get students to work harder. Grades compromise the student-teacher relationship, and actually have the opposite effect.

4. Wasted Teacher Time

Grading was always my least favorite part of classroom teaching. While some amount of feedback is essential, some is just wasteful. And grading takes away time that could be better spent planning engaging lessons.

If you spend hours writing detailed feedback, only to see your students flip to the grade, you know what I’m talking about. The system is broken. I find students benefit more from a short conference than from pages of written feedback.

For repetitive grading, such as fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice, use technology. A Google Forms Quiz or online personalized learning platform can shave hours off your grading time each week.

But be sure to balance these objective assessments with subjective assessments. This way, students with different strengths can all have an avenue to success in your classroom.

5. Reduced Student Ownership

One of the saddest side-effects of grading is how it can make students feel like spectators of their own education. Rather than pursuing learning that excites them, they do what what they need to get the grade.

Cheating and grade-grubbing aren’t inherent human qualities. They’re signs that students have learned the system we taught them. Such lack of ownership creates a passive mindset that I see too often among students and even recent college grads. They become so accustomed to receiving direction and being graded on what they know, that many are unprepared for the world outside of school. Instead of exploring options and taking initiative, they wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Look for ways to give students agency over how they are graded. Incorporate goal-setting and reflection to balance teacher-assigned grades. Not only will your students be more motivated, they’ll be better prepared for life after school.

Ready to Update Your Grading System?

Are you ready to make your grades work for you and your students? A student-focused grading system can increase student engagement, improve behavior, and save grading time.

It’s not easy to change the way you grade. It may require investing time in setting up a new system. Or you may work in a school that doesn’t give you the freedom to set your own grading system. In this case, you’ll need to get teachers and school leaders on-board with the change.

If you’d benefit from talking to someone about improving your grading system, schedule a free consultation with one of our expert instructional coaches.

 You can also get input from innovative educators from around the world by posting your question in our Facebook community. Or read more stories and strategies like this one by subscribing to our weekly Educator’s Newsletter.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff


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