Elements of Grading by Douglas Reeves


Whether you are a teacher or administrator, parent, or student, policymaker or academic researcher, there are four essential questions to answer on the subject of grading:

1. How can we make grading systems accurate? What we ascribe to a student must be not only a matter of judgment but the consequence of evidence and reason

2. How can we make grading systems fair? What we describe as proficient performance must truly be a function of performance, and not gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

3. How can we make grading systems specific? Telling a student he or she is “average" of a "C" does little to help students, parents, and teachers collaborate for improved learning. Students must receive detailed information on their performance so that they use the feedback to improve.

4. How can we make grading systems timely? Even if grades are accurate, fair, and specific, students cannot use that feedback to improve performance unless the grades are provided in a timely manner. On this page, we will consider grading practices that meet all of these criteria, and provide practical ways for teachers to save time while providing effective feedback for students


      Accuracy, fairness, specificity, and timeliness- these criteria are at the heart of any discussion of grading.  We have to consider not only how to answer these four questions, but also how to conduct constructive discussions about grading policy. Perfection is impossible in grading, and therefore our quest is not for an ultimate answer. The goal is not perfect accuracy but a more accurate system; not perfect fairness, but a system that is less subject to bias- both unintentional and deliberate- than was the case before; not absolute specificity, but a feedback system that helps students know what they must do to improve. Finally, while feedback does not always need to be immediate, the prevailing practice in which grades are delivered to students far too late for them to respond is unproductive. Many teachers work very hard to give students detailed feedback, but when the feedback is provided several weeks after the students performance or, worst of all, after the semester has ended, then teachers have wasted their time.

There is no way to offer a simple recipe that readers can adopt with the confidence of certain success. What is offered instead are the following:

·         A rational process for evaluating the grading systems now in place for your classroom, school, and educational systems

·         A collegial process for discussing some of the most contentious issues in grading

·         A communicative process for bringing all stakeholders- parents, board members, the media, students, union leaders, and policymakers- into the discussion

The importance of good communication about grading policies cannot be overstated. It is not sufficient to be "right"- that is, to have research, logic, and moral certainty on our side of an argument. If our ultimate goal is to improve the accuracy, fairness, and effectiveness of grading systems, then we must not only be right on the merits of an argument but also successful in reasoning with people of different points of view.


Why is Grading so Important?

For teachers and school administrators, the feedback on student performance that perhaps gains the most attention is the annual exam. In Australia, the United Kingdom, and China, national tests are the coin of the realm, the assessments that mark students, teachers, schools, and entire educational systems as successes or failures. In Canada, provincial scores are used to assess students, schools, administrators, and teachers. In the United States, annual state testing determines whether or not a school meets a complex definition of "adequate yearly progress," and it appears that the United States may soon follow a policy of national testing.

Despite all of the political emphasis on annual tests, however, students and parents have a distinctly different focus than school personnel. Their attention is on classroom grades, report cards, and honor rolls. The question parents ask most frequently is not “What was your score on the national exam?" but "How did you get that grade?" Moreover, grades determine academic honors and class rank, and they have a direct impact on college admissions and scholarship opportunities. A 2008 study conducted by Fairfax County Public Schools indicated that 89 percent of colleges responding to a survey use grades to compare applicants, 39 percent of colleges require a minimum grade-point average (GPA) for admissions into honors programs, and 33 percent require a minimum GPA for merit scholarships. More than half of colleges do not recalculate grades based upon the rigor or content of the course. Therefore, the grades that teachers assign can have profound impact on future opportunities for their students. In addition, the grades that students earn in middle school often influence their eligibility for college- preparatory coursework in high school. Similarly, decisions about which students qualify for advanced courses in middle school are influenced by the grades assigned by elementary school teachers. Grades are also important for both emotional and financial reasons, and it is therefore completely understandable that the topic is sometimes fraught with contention.

Thomas Guskey and Jane Bailey (2001) documented the history of grading controversies for more than a century. In just one system- again, Fairfax County, Virginia- there have been more than half a dozen different grading policies since 1912, with a variety of descriptive, numerical, and letter grading schemes. If we take into account the different systems in use at different schools, then the variation is even greater. The "standard" 100-point scale with 10-ppoint intervals (90-100 = A; 80-89 = B; 70-79 = D; lower than 70 = F) is of relatively recent vintage, dating from the 1960's, and it is now the most widely used system in the United States, according to high school and colleges responding to the Fairfax survey.


What Influences Grades?

Most teachers, parents, and school administrators assume that the major influence on the grades a student receives is the performance of the individual student. At first glance, such an assumption seems reasonable, but as you will learn in the following pages, a variety of other influences, including the ways that computerized grading systems are programmed, ancient administrative policies, accidental errors, and idiosyncratic judgment of teachers and administrators determine student grades. If a school system aspires to have a grading system that is accurate, fair, specific, and timely, then it must create grading mechanisms that focus more on the performance of students and less on subjective factors unrelated to student achievement.

Let us begin with the premise that people want to be successful. Students want to learn, teachers want their students to excel, and educational leaders and policymakers make their decisions in pursuit of the best interests of students. Teachers also want their students to arrive in class ready to learn, finish their assigned work, respect teacher feedback, and leave at the end of the year ready to enter the next level of learning with confidence and success. When we assume good will by students, teachers, and leaders, we influence in a positive way even the most difficult discussions. Rather than presume that we must convert bad teachers into barely acceptable ones, let us instead focus on how to help excellent teachers, administrators, board members, students, and parents make better decisions about one of the most important and emotional subjects in education- how to grade for improved student performance.

Of course, grading is only one form of feedback, but it is the form that gets the most attention. Thomas Guskey and Jane Bailey (2001) have argued that feedback other than grading is actually more influential on student learning. This contention makes sense; consider, for example, the encouragement, corrections, and immediate improvements that are the result of effective feedback from coaches and music teachers. However, if a school has an excellent system of feedback but ineffective grading practices, that school will undermine many of its own efforts, and is a school is able to implement effective grading practices, it will reinforce all of its other educational endeavors.

Reconciling Experience and Evidence

There is a version of the ancient- and sometimes deadly- falsehood that personal experience is superior to evidence. While students have learned to scoff at medieval superstitions and to value the testing of hypothesis, prevailing discussions in education often remain stubbornly focused on experience instead of evidence.

Casual assertions have a way of becoming accepted with insufficient challenge. Some readers will recall futurists of the 1980s predicting that by the year 2000 schools would be paperless and student’s writing would give way to dictation into voice-recognition systems. Ten years after the turn of the millennium, neither prediction is close to reality. Today, educators endure similar assertions about their profession and about grading policies. Rhetorical certitude, however, is not a substitute for evidence. When considering how to improve grading policies, one of the most important agreements that teachers, parents, students, and school leaders must reach is that their conclusions will be guided by evidence.

Try this experiment with your own colleagues. Ask them for the following questions:

·         What enduring principles have you learned in your career? What, in brief, do you "know for sure" about teaching, learning, and student achievement? (If you are in a group, it will be useful to write down all the answers.)

·         What beliefs did you have ten years ago that you now know are no longer true? (Write these down as well.)

Compare the quantity of responses to the first question to the quantity of responses to the second.  "The primary causes of student achievement are..." or " The most important components of good teachings are..." However, the responses to the second question require some effort. The admission that what we knew a decade ago in education was imprecise, uncertain, or downright wrong appears to require a rare degree of candor.

Now, pose the same questions to an ophthalmologist, climatologist, marine biologist, cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, or international aid worker. Members of these professions have little difficulty acknowledging that what they know today surpasses what they knew in previous decades. They accept the fact that today's evidence trumps yesterday's experience. A cardiologist knows that twelve years spent in a heart surgery residency years ago taught her noting about the powerful effects of behavioral modifications on heart patients.

Thankfully, the use of evidence in medicine and many other fields has led to meaningful and life saving reforms (McAfee, 2009). However, even is a field that is presumably governed by scientific evidence, practitioners may resist plain fact. Surgeon and author Atul Gawande (2009) describes international evidence that supports the use of checklists in surgical suites and emergency rooms, yet a majority of physicians resist using them. Tellingly, Gawande's survey concluded that more than 90 percent of those same physicians would insist on a checklist if they or a family member were the patient.

This elevation of personal preference over evidence is not unique to education but appears to be part of human nature. We prefer the comfort of the familiar over the discomfort of the new, even if evidence supports the latter. That is why the most rational and reasonable people can do irrational and unreasonable things in resisting change (Deutschman, 2007).

 Education in particular- a profession that prides itself on progress- is rooted deeply in past convictions. We lay claim to 21st century learning by placing an electronic board at the front of the class. Yet we lecture as if electricity had not yet been invented. We praise collaboration yet assess our students in a manner that punishes and berates peer assistance.

It is not unlike the 19th century, when physicians did not accept the "superstition" of hand washing, even though they knew infant mortality levels were lower when midwives washed their hands before delivering a baby. However clear the evidence, personal experience remains triumphant in too many discussions of educational policy.

How can professional learning communities distinguish experience from evidence? The most effective way I know is to use the following five levels of certainty:

1. Opinion- “This is what I believe, and I believe it sincerely."

2. Experience- " This is what I have seen based upon my personal observation."

3. Local evidence- “This is what I have learned based upon the evidence that includes not only my own experience but the experience of my friends and colleagues."

4. Preponderance of evidence- "This is what we know as a profession based upon the systematic observations of many of our colleagues in many different circumstances in many different locations and at many different times."

5. Mathematical certainty- "Two plus two is four, and we really don't need to take a vote on whether that statement is agreeable to everyone."


In a world subject to relativism in every sense- political, moral and even scientific- mathematical certainty seems elusive, particularly in controversial topics such as educational practices. Nevertheless, there is an appropriate place for the definitive language of mathematics when we approach discussions of grading. For example, when teachers use the arithmetic mean, or average, to calculate a student's grade, they reach a different mathematical result than when they focus on the student's final scores. When teachers use a zero on a 100-point scale, they reach a different mathematical result than when they use the zero on a 4-point scale. There are not matters of conjecture, but calculation.

The first step toward reconciling debate in education, or any other matter of public policy, is for the rhetorical combatants to be intellectually honest about their claims and capable of distinguishing among what they believe, what they see, what they hear from colleagues, and what they have learned from a general examination of the evidence. The problem with the debate over grading, as with every other educational debate, is that we too frequently leap from the first to the fourth level of evidence.


Starting the Conversation About Change

There are two ways to begin a conversation with classroom teachers and building administrators about changing practices. The first is characterized by one sided enthusiasm. Those zealous advocates who adopt this method typically have good will, good research, and good intentions, but their audiences soon turn from boredom to frustration to active opposition. What began as a collegial conversation focused on questions of practical application ultimately becomes entrenched opposition. Yesterday's reasonable challenge becomes tomorrow's grievance. Thoughtful dialogue and professional conversations are transformed into rancor. Colleagues become opponents, with each side wondering, "Haven't we been down this road before?"

The second way to begin the conversation is with a question, not a statement. Rather than telling teachers and administrators what they need to do, we can ask, “What prevents you from being the very best teacher and administrator you can be?" the following is a sample of the responses to that question that I have heard in the past year:

·         “The kids don't care."

·         “The parents don't care"

·         “Many of the students don't come to school."

·         “Students who do come to school are disengaged, inattentive, preoccupied, and angry."

·         “Administrators don't support teachers who demand quality student work."

·         “Leaders at the system level tolerate poor teachers and administrators."

·         “Colleagues won't cooperate and collaborate."

If we were to consider the additional complaints of teachers in rural areas ( "I'm expected to teach three different grade levels simultaneously in a variety of subjects") or urban areas ("I'm expected to make up for years of inadequate nutrition, housing, and medical care in a few hours each day"), the list gets even longer. Nevertheless, it is a question worth asking.

This page is not a prescription. Rather, it poses a number of questions and suggests the creation of boundaries. Officials, coaches, and athletes know the boundaries of their sport well. Within them are the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Outside of them is the zone of irrelevance. This page suggests four essential boundaries:

1. Grades must be accurate- The grade must reflect the performance of the student.

2. Grades must be fair- The grade must not be influenced by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political attitudes, or other factors unrelated to academic performance.

3. Grades must be specific- A grade is not only an evaluation, but feedback. Students, parents, and teachers must understand not only what the grade is, they must also have sufficiently specific information that they can collaborate to use the teacher's feedback to improve student performance.

4. Grades must be timely- While there is, inevitable, a "final" grade that appears on an official transcript, particularly in secondary school, that is but a postscript to a very long letter. Much earlier than the final grade, students should receive a steady stream of feedback, much in the way that students in music and sports receive from coaches feedback that is designed not merely to evaluate their performance but to improve it.