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Breaking Free of the Status Quo - Grading Strategies That Work

When it comes to how we approach our grading practices, why do so many schools continue to embrace the status quo in the middle of a crisis when all evidence points to the fact that students are suffering? The systemic inequity of traditional grading policies may have existed before the pandemic, but continuing to support what we have always done and expect that things will be just fine can only result in more damage if students are punished for what they cannot control. The strategies below recognize that while it may be impossible for school districts to go gradeless, there are simple ways that teachers can structure their grades to retain meaning while meeting the needs of all students in these challenging times.


Both students and teachers are overwhelmed, and more is not better right now. Instead of grading multiple assignments each week, creating one short formative assessment that can be repeated throughout the week has multiple benefits. The first day, a teacher can use the results to see what students know and then continue to provide the same assessment (or an almost identical one with different questions or problems) as the week continues to determine growth. Ideally, this process should only take a few minutes, and it can occur during class time so that the worry of not receiving homework is not an issue. For example, if I want to know whether my third-grade students can grasp the main idea of a short passage, I can give the class a different passage every day and continue to look for growth on their recognition of the main idea as the week continues. That way, I get important information, but I’m not reinventing any wheels as I loop the same assessment through the week.

Brevity is Best

Class time has been shortened in many districts, which can lead to stress about pacing and coverage. When we think about less being more, that does not just apply to the number of assignments; it also applies to the length of the task. For example, a page with twenty math problems is not more valuable than a page containing ten. If I want to see whether a fifth-grade student really understands how to divide two or more quotients, a very small number of problems will give me that information. By shortening assignments to only target specific skills, we can learn a lot more about what students need to focus on, and what we need to address.

Grace Over Grades

If ever there were a time to get off our high horses about due dates and deadlines, now is the moment. I distinctly remember a teacher in my department venting about student late work, and I could not help but notice that this was the same teacher who never submitted a timesheet for pay on the due date. That aside, I’m not sure where some of us got the idea that timeliness is our top priority when learning is far more important. Isn’t our primary goal to facilitate student achievement, not to be the deadline police? If we’re being frank, adults in the so-called “real world” miss deadlines all the time, and we should have the consideration to extend some grace to our students who are suffering now more than ever. If we have the time to grade something later, we should. It is that simple.

Zeros Out

I recently heard a teacher describe a grade of zero as a motivator to spur students to turn in work, which is a highly flawed perspective considering that for many students, zeros quickly discourage them so much that they give up entirely. A zero does not indicate a lack of mastery of content knowledge; all it represents is a complete lack of data about student performance. Instead of bottoming a grade book at zero, think about making the distance to success shorter (if permitted) by making partial credit the lowest grade possible. That may still equal a failing result, but students who have missing work will have a shorter hill to climb when they work on raising grades. We might not choose to keep this policy in place once things normalize, but for now, we need to have more flexibility and stop stacking the deck against student success.

Heave-Ho Homework

For many students, attending our classes is a difficult enough task. Whether virtual or in-person, the struggle to focus after hours is plaguing us all, especially if Zoom fatigue is a reality. In the spirit of making sure that we focus on student mastery and not a series of tasks, a temporary stall on homework will not cause any learning loss. Instead, we can grade what we get in class hours and give students the time to get off their screens and have personal lives once class ends. They will appreciate it, and we will still teach them what is important if we prioritize our instructional focus.

We may not have control over much, but as usual, we can influence what happens in our classrooms by responding to student need with flexibility and kindness. It is absolutely possible to maintain high expectations of our classes while recognizing that the status quo will simply not work right now. Figuring out how to adjust our grading strategies to fit our currently unstable situation is one of the most important things we can do to help kids right now.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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