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Why Behavior-Based Grading Backfires


Last week, my son came home from his first day of high school and shared the school attendance policy with me, knowing that it would set me off. “If we’re absent for 10 days, even if some of those days are excused, we get one percentage point taken off our semester grade in each class,” he told me. With a little smile playing around the edges of his mouth, he sat back and waited for me to explode.

I did not disappoint him.

Among the many dysfunctional status quo systems that currently exist in education, the practice of grading students for how they behave rather than for how they demonstrate their learning growth is long overdue for extinction. When we grade attendance, participation, cooperation, or any other element of behavior, we not only skew our performance data away from achievement and make it harder for anyone to see how students are doing with course content; we also play into an education system that was built on marginalizing specific groups of students in order to elevate others. To rid ourselves once and for all of the notion that grading students for their behavior somehow works to everyone’s benefit, let’s think about why current norms are simply unacceptable.

Behavior Grades Do Not Measure Learning

When teachers assign grades based upon student behavior, that sends a message (intentional or otherwise) that we are afraid students will not listen if there are not clear consequences for acting in any manner deemed unacceptable. By penalizing students with lower scores, one might think that will help them fall in line, but that is rarely the case. In fact, relying on an external motivator (in this case, a grade) to elicit cooperation often backfires, particularly when kids feel that teachers do not like them or believe in them. That objection aside, there is another obvious issue with evaluating subjective impressions that are unlinked to achievement: grades exist for the purpose of measuring learning outcomes. They are meant to be an unbiased, objective way for students to see their progress. When we add behavior to the mix, that both muddies the waters about what grades are for and negatively stigmatizes the entire process so that achievement in a class becomes about a person rather than a product. The result? Resentment and fear, certainly, but not better performance.

Behavior Grades Reinforce Inequity

Who suffers the most with behavior-based grading? As the endless consequences of microaggressions and implicit bias continue to harm students of color (not to mention the more explicit and overt forms of racism that also act as significant obstacles), teachers who grade students for a lack of compliance penalize them unfairly. As Grace Chen (2022) shares in this article, a longitudinal study examining the disparity of behavior interventions “looked at data from the past 15 years and found that minority students face a disproportional number of disciplinary actions in schools across the country, from those in affluent suburban neighborhoods to those in the poorest urban areas.” Grade penalties lead to decreases in motivation and (by extension) achievement in students who are unfairly targeted, setting off a vicious cycle that is hard for any child to break.

Behavior Grades = Scare Tactic

Too often, teachers grade behavior to scare students into submission. At least, that is the intended purpose. However, if docking grades for infractions were an effective form of classroom management, then every teacher who threatens the class with punishment would be instructing in rooms full of engaged learners. Most teachers know better: building trusting relationships is key to helping students be successful, and that cannot be accomplished if we deduct points for behavior. Let’s think about it this way. Suppose a few students have developed the habit of being late to class almost every day and to make it stop, we decide to enact a policy that takes off five homework points for every three tardies students accrue. Will that remove the issue? Depending on the kids involved, it might solve the surface-level problem, or it might not. Either way, however, students will perceive they are being punished, they will see a link between their behavior and the grades a teacher administers, and they are likely to start feeling (perhaps rightfully so) as though there is a tenuous connection between how they are assessed and the work they do, which weakens or delegitimizes any performance-based grade.

There might be a place for behavior-based grading if it is carefully and sparsely implemented, but for the most part, the way students are evaluated should be connected to their learning goals. If teachers are worried about classroom management, there are any number of consequences that are not attached to grades that can be enacted to address discipline issues. For example, a student who comes late to class each day might be asked to engage in a restorative process, though a good first step is to determine why the tardiness is such a recurrent issue. The bottom line is, by treating our students like people and coming from a place of understanding rather than threatening them, we will see far better results as the school year progresses – and so will they.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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