IS your grading system sabotaging your students?

Five Signs Your Grading System is Sabotaging Your Students

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 her son’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 felt a bit 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.

What this mother didn’t know, was that to raise his grade, I’d have to lower someone else’s. The school’s policy pegged class averages at 80% for all non-honors classes. Fall below the mean, and find yourself in ‘C’ territory.

At the time, I felt vindicated by the meeting. My department chair confirmed that the grade was fair and accurate. And I was glad my school was taking a stand against grade inflation.

But the meeting left us on opposite ends of a chasm. One that commonly divides teachers from students and parents. And even separates students from their parents. Nothing we said could convince this mother that she had a “C+ child.”

And the bigger question is ‘why.’ Why is it so important to rate and sort students, or assign them a percentage? Does it motivate them? Help them grow? Does it ensure that only the best and brightest made it into Harvard…or the honors class?

Most of us working in education assume that grades do all of these things and more. But it’s time we take a hard look at those assumptions.

A Grading System on Trial: Guilty as Charged

What I realized much later, was that it wasn’t me or my grades on trial.  It was the grading system itself.

I used to believe that one of the secrets to great teaching was measuring my students accurately.  I broke down grades on papers into four parts: ideas, mechanics, organization, and style. (A system I borrowed from my high school English teacher and mentor, Mr. Myslik). My tests carefully balanced factual recall with literary analysis. And I had an intricate system that weighed quality against timeliness in grading homework.

But looking back, I realize that even my grades, intricate as they were, were pretty arbitrary. Just like every other grading system, in every other school.

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

And that’s even before we consider how the grades are calculated. Most schools have fixed weighting for different categories: e.g. tests 40%, homework 10%, and so on. In a semester with four tests, each is worth 20% of the overall grade. If you have two tests the next semester, each doubles to 20%.

What’s more, a single test question may be worth more than one percent of the final grade. But the same question on a homework assignment might be 1/100th of a percent. And until the last assignment is entered in the grade book, no one knows what they’ll be worth.

A points-based system fixes some of these problems. But such issues are just the tip of the iceberg. When we factor in all the variations and sources of error, we’re left with a simple conclusion: Grades don’t measure anything particularly well.

So why do we give such unreliable measures so much power in our schools? And what are the consequences?

Five Ways Your Grading System Is Sabotaging Your Students

The underlying problem with grades is that we expect too much from them. We use one grade to communicate different messages to many different audiences.

Internal Communication: Grades can be for an individual teacher’s reference, or to communicate to admin or other teachers in the building. They can be used to decide who gets on the honors track and who goes to the resource room.

Students: Grades are meant to tell students how they’re doing compared to their peers, and to motivate them to work harder. In theory, they should also help students learn from their mistakes.

Parents: Some parents pay close attention to grades, and encourage (or nudge, or punish) their children when necessary. Others push back and challenge teachers on the grades we assign.

External Reporting: When students apply to competitive schools, summer programs, or scholarships, their transcripts usually go along. This reporting is what gives grades most of their power, as students need to worry about their “permanent record.”

These multiple audiences make changes to grading difficult. We may want to boost a student’s grade, but worry about giving her an unfair advantage. Or want to send a “wake-up call,” but worry about pushback from parents, or costing our student a scholarship.

The external reporting aspect is often cited as a barrier to change. “We’d love to do away with letter grades, but colleges expect them.” I’ve  even heard these arguments from elementary teachers who want to “prepare their students for later grades.”

Here are five signs that your grading system isn’t helping your students reach their potential. For each red flag, there are ideas for for making your grades more intentional (not just more accurate).

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.

Grading systems tend to position the locus of control externally, with the teacher. Shifting to an internal locus of control can increase motivation.

Students who fall behind have a hard time catching up. And those who start the year significantly below grade level find it nearly impossible to earn high grades. After years of struggling, most feel that their efforts don’t make a difference. For these students, grades become a powerful anti-motivator.

Solution: A Grading System that Rewards Effort

When the bar is too high, students won’t try to clear it. So we need to — gasp! — lower the bar. Lowering the bar is not selling students short. Nor does it (as some claim) magnify inequities.

Making things easier is a humane response that acknowledges the legitimate challenges some students face. Not to mention, after you’ve jumped under the bar a hundred times, you don’t learn much from the hundred and first try.

Give students credit just for engaging. Assign a grade for something you know they can do. If they do it, gradually increase the rigor.

This will build their confidence and their trust in you. It will also help you understand their learning needs. Then, you can create a path that gradually takes them where we want them to be.

One way to do this is with Personalized learning — using an adaptive digital platform to provide students with content on their level. When done well, it rewards students for effort and gives them a voice in setting their own goals

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 programs. But these solutions create other problems, particularly with regard to equity.


Resources for Planning and Organization


Solution: Redefine Success

Acceleration is one way to keep our top performers engaged. Just as personalized learning can provide foundational work for struggling learners, it can also allow advanced students to move ahead.

But acceleration can create other problems. Students can get the idea that the goal is to rush through content to get to a higher level. Research also shows that students who enter accelerated math tracks experience no benefits in future math achievement. Another study found that students who take calculus in high school are less likely to pursue advanced math in college.

An alternative is enrichment. Rather than moving students ahead in the same learning progression, we expand our definition of success.

Inquiry-based learning is a great way to teach the same content, but with increased rigor and depth. IBL consists of both problem-based and project-based learning, and is graded with rubrics. These allow us to provide students feedback on how they learn and what they produce. Not just on what they know.

3. Strained Student-Teacher Relationships

Throughout my teaching career, nothing challenged my relationships with students more than assigning them grades.

I’ve come to believe that grading our students is a conflict of interest. Our job is to teach our students. So if we rate them on what they’ve learned, aren’t we also rating ourselves?

And because grades have inherent value, students view them as punishments and rewards. There is just no way for teachers to serve as a mentor and guide, while also declaring winners and losers.

We need to be champions and advocates for every student. By issuing grades, we’re forced to pick and choose.

Few teachers have the option to stop giving grades, but there are some things we can do.

Solution: The ‘Pay it Forward’ Grading System

Instead of seeing grades as a reward for hard work and learning, see them as an investment in your students.

On the first day of graduate school, my professor, Dr. Martinez, told us we would all be getting an ‘A’ in the course. He said he wanted us to write papers that were authentic and meaningful. Not to try to figure out which ‘hoops’ he wanted us to jump through.

To be honest, I was annoyed at first. “If I work hard, shouldn’t I get a better grade than students who don’t?”  But by the end of the course, it all made sense. I’d worked just as hard as I would have otherwise. We all did. The idea that the grade was motivating us was an illusion.

In my own class, I started to see myself less as a gatekeeper, and more as an advocate. I looked for every way to award points, instead of looking for every reason to deduct them.

Another way to be a champion for every student is to differentiate assessments. This gives every child the chance to play to her strengths. After all, the strongest writer may not be the best public speaker. By grading one skill and not the other, we send a message about who we value in our classrooms.

We need to get past the myth that low grades get students to work harder. In fact, what does motivate students is having strong relationships with their teachers. Since strict grading can compromise the student-teacher relationship, it usually decreases student motivation.

4. Wasted Teachers’ 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.

Then, add in the time preparing and “adjusting” grades at the end of the marking period. The time spent haggling with students over every point. Meeting with parents and responding to emails about grades.

You could easily spend half your working hours (or more) on grades. Every minute spent on grades is a minute not spent creating engaging learning experiences. Or cultivating meaningful relationships with our students.

Solution: Eliminate, Automate, and Delegate

These three little words can do wonders for your time management: eliminate, automate, and delegate.

Start by eliminating any tasks that don’t produce the desired results. Students don’t read your comments? Stop writing them. I find students benefit more from a short conference than from pages of written feedback, anyway.

Then, automate anything that can be done by a computer. Multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank assignments are the low-hanging fruit, here. Simply set up Google Forms quizzes or use online learning platforms to shave hours off your grading time each week.

Finally, delegate anything that can be done by your students. Pair students to review their assignments before they turn them in. They’ll catch a lot of mistakes that you won’t have to.

Instead of writing out corrections for your students, just put a mark where something needs to be fixed. It becomes their job to find out what’s wrong and correct it.

5. Lack of 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 opportunities that excite them, they do what what’s required to get the grade.

This lack of ownership has other side effects. Cheating and grade-grubbing aren’t inherent human qualities. They’re signs that students have learned the system too well. Their lack of ownership creates a passive mindset, and one that is all-too-common among students and even recent college grads.

They become accustomed to receiving direction and to being graded on what they know. When they leave school, instead of thinking strategically and taking initiative, they wait to be told what to do. They expect to be given credit for showing up and “paying attention,” without having to produce results.

Solution: Choices and Goal-Setting

There are countless ways to give students more control over their learning.

The simple act of reflecting on their learning is a great place to start. They can reflect on individual assignments, or on their general experience of the class. These reflections are beneficial on their own. But they will also give you insight into how students see the quality of their own work.

A similar way to give students a voice is with a survey. If you haven’t surveyed your students lately, do so tomorrow. It’s not about asking them to ‘rate you.’ It’s about expressing their experience of the class. I guarantee, you’ll learn something. And they’ll be motivated just because you asked.

You can also give students some agency over how they are graded. Few teachers would allow students full discretion in how they are graded. But the more collaborative the process, the better. 

One approach is to conference with students and discuss their grade with them before assigning it. It may not change much, but even small changes will increase buy-in. You can also have students set goals and grade them on how well they work towards their own goals. 

Not only will your students be more motivated, they’ll be better prepared for life after school.

Can a Grading System Actually Drive Learning?

At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine that our grading system will actually drive learning. If anything, grades are a necessary evil. The less we let grading affect our ability to teach our students, the better.

However, some education thinkers are on a misguided quest to use grades to improve learning. Advocates for Standards-Based Grading believe that making grades more accurate will improve their impact. They believe we should banish extra credit, formative assessment, and “completion” from our grades.

And since grades should only reflect mastery of content, students can retake assessments until they succeed.

If 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 when we rate and sort them, even more accurately, we compromise this relationship. 

Others take the opposite tack, believing we should eliminate grades entirely. While I’m sympathetic to the idea, it leaves many unanswered questions. How do we communicate to students and parents about progress? Will students stop doing their work? What about transcripts and college admissions?

Most teachers I know have no interest in becoming a hyper-accurate Assessmentron 2000. But we also appreciate the need to assess our students and communicate about their performance.

The key is finding balance. We need to minimize the role of grades so that they don’t occupy so much of our time and energy. And we need to get past the idea that rating students is as important as teaching them. Or that we need grades to motivate students.

Ready to Update Your Grading System?

It’s time schools start thinking about a very different grading system. One that motivates students, while promoting their well-being. One that helps them understand their strengths and areas for growth. And one that prepares them for the world outside the classroom.

A student-centered grading system helps students understand their strengths and needs, but without judgment or manipulation. It recognizes that comparing students to their peers is not the best way to build intrinsic motivation. And it accepts the evidence that most grading systems erode student engagement.

If your school is ready to implement a grading system that works for students, the Three Bridges Design for Learning is a great place to start. Three Bridges ensures that your grading system supports innovative instructional practices, instead of holding them back.

For education leaders, we offer private workshops and consulting that help you design and implement the right grading system for your school.

And for teachers, our online instructional coaching will take the mystery (and the drudgery) out of grading. We’ll work with you 1-on-1 to create a grading system that saves you time and builds student motivation.

To learn more, schedule a free consultation today. Our team will talk you through your  biggest challenges and help you find a solution that meets your needs.


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