Search form

Making the Grade

Educators are looking at various options for grading differently

Nearly all familiar facets of the school classroom are being scrutinized – from desks lined up in rows to the assignment of homework and use of use of worksheets, pencils and paper.

And over the last decade there has been increasing attention on another fundamental feature of American education – the grade.

There are several new approaches to how we evaluate students – and even advocates who suggest they should grade themselves or that schools should go gradeless. Parents are often confused by the options – as are some educators. So here are some descriptions of the various initiatives:

Standards-based grading. Most often used in elementary school but spreading to other levels, SBG evaluates students based on a variety of criteria. Some experts believe The Common Core standards will result in schools more often using grades that describe various skills (sometimes letters that abbreviate student competency in certain areas such as MT for “most of the time” or a 1-4 scale for each skill).

Bexley, OH, schools implemented it primarily in elementary schools, explaining in a note to parents that they were using it because “grades are so imprecise that they are almost meaningless”.

“Many of the leading educational experts in the world have found that timely, actionable feedback is one of the most powerful influences on student learning,” the district said in announcing the change. A traditional grading system reduces everything that a student does to a single letter grade, making it neither timely nor actionable. The most effective feedback teachers can provide to students comes in relationship to predetermined learning goals.”

In Racine, WI, schools all levels are using SBG, and administrators reported two primary differences in the classroom – the way students are assessed (more often based on how they meet certain goals) and the pace of learning, with students able to progress at their own pace to a degree.

Matt Townsley, an administrator in Cedar Rapid, IA, schools who was instrumental in his district adopting SBG in all schools, says teachers find it makes them look at their teaching in a new light.

“Through a more focused approach to grading, assessing and reporting through SBG's requirement of providing feedback to students based upon the standards, teachers are more aware of the standards they should be teaching,” he says.  “It may seem simple, but some of our teachers admitted they were merely teaching through the textbook from chapter to chapter without a conscious effort towards instruction aligned to the standards.”

He also notes that SBG also changed teacher connections with their students.

“When students seek assistance on the standards they do not yet understand, there are more opportunities for one-on-one and small group instruction,” he says.

Other school districts have pledged to focus more on standards-based grading, some with greater success and diligence than others. But Townsley says interest is growing.

Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky has described how his state became a leader in implementation of SBG, and says school boards and particularly parents approved.

“They became our strongest supporters because it gave them more and better information,” he said. “When parents experience this they can see the value.”

Changing old scales. Advocates of SBG also suggest that A-to-F and 100-point systems are unfair, imprecise and demoralizing. For instance, some call a grade of zero on a 100-point scale an “academic death penalty”, noting that to recover from zero for incomplete or poor work might take about 10 perfect papers when passing is 60-65 percent. Averaging grades also is not fair, critics of traditional systems say.

Competency Based Learning (CBL) moves students through material based on mastery rather seat time, and has been growing in popularity among educators considering alternative ways to assess student knowledge. There is concern about at least two issues ­– the college application process where traditional grades may be expected by schools, and potential changes to traditional final assessments or grade level boundaries. It might eliminate them.

Townsley explains while CBL and SBG should both set standards for assessing learning and competency while evaluating students often and expecting them to be able to communicate about what they’ve learned, CBL allows students to advance at their own pace and teachers use alternative methods of assessing students, neither of which is always true with SBG.

No Grades.  Alfie Kohn has perhaps been the most prominent critic of traditional grading system – in fact, grades entirely. He says they are designed to simply check on students and report to parents, without helping student really learn, and that there are better ways to accomplish that. He recommends conferences where students, parents and teachers review progress and set goals.

Arthur Chiavalli, one of two teachers who founded teachersgoinggradeless, says grades harm students and classrooms in a number of ways.

“Grades are sorely limited in their ability to support and communicate learning. Instead, they rank and standardize students and detract from motivation,” he says. “Going gradeless allows teachers to communicate learning with students and parents more authentically and makes revisions and re-attempts part of the learning process so students can be challenged at an individual level.”

He says grading harms student-teacher relationships and eliminating them “breaks down barriers and allows for more trust and interdependence between student and teacher”.

He also says teachers should have confidence their students will perform and get good information about their learning without grades.

“And if teachers are really concerned students will not do the work, maybe they should reconsider the value of the curriculum and consider how they can make the assignments more meaningful and interesting.”

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at