Examining Traditional Grading Practices


"Why would anyone want to change current grading practices?
The answer is quite simple: grades are so imprecise
that they are almost meaningless."
–Marzano, 2000, p.1

Very few topics have produced more debate among educators than those related to grading and reporting student achievement.  These policies and practices used in many schools today remian, for the most part, unchanged regardless of various appeals for change based upon our ever-increasing knowledge of what works and what does not work in grading (Guskey, 2009). 

By tradition, teachers use grades to motivate students; schools often use grades to rank or classify students; parents anticipate grades as a means of measuring their children's progress and effort.  “A practice that serves so many roles is not one easily discarded” (Kohn, 1994). Although teachers by and large try to develop honest and impartial grading policies, strong evidence shows that their practices fluctuate significantly, even among those who teach at the same grade level within the same school (Guskey, 1996).

According to the 1992 statewide study of grading policies presented to the American Educational Research Association, the passage of compulsory attendance laws at the elementary level during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in a rapid increase in the number of students entering high schools.  Between 1870 and 1910, the number of public high schools in the United States increased from 500 to 10,000.  As a result, subject area instruction in high schools became progressively more specific and student populations became ever more diverse.  While elementary teachers continued to use written explanations and descriptive commentary to provide evidence of student learning, high school teachers, now that the student population was increasing, needed a simpler approach for measuring student progress.  Thus began the use of percentages and other comparable markings to verify students' accomplishments in different subject areas.  Few American educators questioned the move to percentage grading which continues to serve as the foundation of grading and reporting systems today (Austin, 1992).

                “Whenever I hear statistics being quoted I am reminded of the statistician who drowned while wading across a river with an average depth of three feet” (McMann, 2003).  In 1912, Daniel Starch and Edward Charles Elliot conducted a study that questioned the accuracy of percentage grading. The study showed that high school English teachers in different schools assigned extensively mixed percentage grades to two identical papers from students (Starch, 1912).  They repeated their study the following year using geometry papers submitted to math teachers and found even greater discrepancy in math grades.  In the end, Starch and Elliott concluded that percentage grading is not a reliable measure of student achievement (Starch, 1912).  Similar studies revealing wide variations in grading practices led to a steady move away from percentage scores to scales that had smaller quantities, but larger divisions. One such scale was the well-known five-point range of Excellent, Good, Average, Poor, and Failing, (or A, B, C, D, and F).  Even though vast quantity of research exists which proposes grading on scale is not a reliable evaluation of student achievement, regrettably the American public continues to support this system (Guskey, 1996).

Some experts believe the real issue concerning traditional grading practices is not how, but why.  One reason for evaluating students is to be able to label students on the basis of their performance, and then consequently sort them into the right “piles”. Another purpose behind traditional assessment practices is to motivate students to work harder so they will receive a favorable evaluation. While other educators maintain the purpose in evaluating students is neither to sort them nor to motivate them, but merely to offer feedback so they can learn more efficiently tomorrow than they did today (Kohn, 1992). 

According to Ken O’Conner, a curriculum expert on grading and reporting practices, labeling students through a sorting process is a game of winners and losers, which makes students compete against one another for the few scarce rewards (high grades) allocated by the teacher.  As a result, students quickly see that encouraging other classmates to be successful threatens their own chances for success (O’Connor, 2007).

In regards to increasing student motivation through evaluation, over three decades of research studies reveal that the more students are encouraged to think about what they will get on an assignment, the more their aspiration to learn fades, and, paradoxically, the less well they do.  “Even in the case of rote learning, students are more apt to forget what they have learned after a week or so and are less apt to find it interesting if they are initially advised that they will be graded on their performance” (Grolnic, 1987).  “When Japanese students were told that a history test would count toward their final grade, they were less interested in the subject and less likely to prefer tackling difficult questions than those who were told the test was just for monitoring their progress” (Kage, 1991). “Children told that they would be graded on their solution of anagrams chose easier ones to work on and seemed to take less pleasure from solving them than children who were not being graded” (Harter, 1978).

“We must constantly remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of evaluation is to enable students to evaluate themselves” (O’Connor, 2007).  If the true purpose of teacher feedback is to provide students a way to monitor their own progress, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and use that understanding to achieve at higher levels, then why are many students left out of the evaluation process?  Grades are “broken” if students do not understand how grades are determined, and if they are excluded from assessment, record keeping, and communication (O’Connor, 2007). 

In “A Survey of America’s Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers” conducted by The Center for Survey Research & Analysis, the University of Connecticut, teachers were asked about their teaching philosophies, teaching methods and practices, their academic expectations for their students, and their opinions on other issues of education policy. More than seven in ten teachers indicated that “learning how to learn is most important for students;” a clear majority of teachers surveyed (56%) describe their teaching philosophies as leaning toward student-directed learning, rather than toward teacher-directed learning (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, 2009).  Self grading by students is an important compenent of promoting a mastery direction to lerning.  Self assessment also enables students to internalize benchmarks and criteria, developing a sense of ownership and responsibility along with intrinsic motivation (Guskey, 2009).   

 Nevertheless, the realignment of power taking place when assessment decisions are shared has proven to be one of the greatest challenges for teachers. Data collected in a research project conducted by the Center for Development and Learning (Ross et al., 1998a) proposed that teachers found it difficult to share control of evaluation decision-making, an accountability measure which plays a central part in the teacher's authority. Such difficulty emerges when teaching students to become self-evaluators, thereby employing fundamental changes in the relationship between teachers and students in the classroom. Modifying original beliefs, behaviors and relationships is difficult and takes time. Consequently, another challenge is time, the time to work out how to adjust to a more modern system that involves sharing control of a central part of teaching with their existing ideas about teacher and learner responsibility, the time   to understand what self-evaluation is and how it transmits to their learning, the time to learn how to do it (Hogaboam-Gray, 1998). 

However, the central concern that has dominated education for the past twenty years is to “get serious about standards” (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996). Standards have become the basis for aligning entire educational systems throughout the United States, as well as around the world (Guskey, 1996). 

In a study conducted by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC), schools at seven districts that employ the RISC model (standards-based grading) and eight non-RISC districts (traditional grading) were compared on the percentages of students who scored proficient or above on state tests for reading, writing, and mathematics.  Schools and districts were selected by RISC for this comparison study based on similar demographics including urban/rural, ethnicity, and size of student populations within each of the following states: Alaska, Colorado, and Florida.  In the RISC schools, the knowledge and skills students must learn as they progressed through developmental levels to high school graduation were made transparent to everyone.  In addition, students were encouraged to move in and out of levels in different content areas, at their own pace.  Furthermore, students were given support to own, lead, and collaborate with their teachers in every phase of learning.  Finally, students were told they must demonstrate proficient or better knowledge or skill (equivalent to a grade of B or better) in every required standards area. When comparisons were made between RISC and non-RISC schools on the number of students who scored proficient or above (grades 3 to 10 combined) on state tests for reading, writing, and mathematics, the following results were obtained.  At RISC schools, the probability of a student scoring proficient or above were 2.3 times greater on state tests for reading, 2.5 times greater on state tests for writing, and 2.4 times greater on state tests for mathematics than the odds of a student scoring proficient or above at the non-RISC schools.  Additionally, students at RISC schools were 37% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for reading, 54% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for writing, and 55% more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for mathematics than students at non-RISC schools (Haystead, 4, 5).

With the increased spotlight on standards-based education, more and more states, districts and schools are concentrating on developing standards-based grading and report cards. Hawaii, for example, is a state that is working diligently on its “Standards Implementation Design” (SID), jointly with standards-based report cards. In addition, Maine law proposes these common requirements as an element of Maine’s Local Assessment System, schools have the need to report student progress as it relates to the four (4) performance levels as defined by the Maine Education Assessment (4th, 8th, & 11th grade testing):

1. Does not meet the standard;

2. Partially meets the standard;

3. Meets the standard; and

4. Exceeds the standard.

(The Principals Partnership, 2005).

Yet, there is a consensus among experts of several widespread school policies that continue to plague successful implementation in any standards-based reform program: grading “on the curve”, grade distortion, using grades as punishment, assigning zeros, and hodgepodge grading.

Grading “on the curve” communicates a student’s relative standing among classmates rather than what the student has learned; therefore is able to do.  Strong evidence indicates this creates harmful relationships among students themselves, as well as between teachers and students.  If grading and reporting is always supposed to be done as an indication of exact learning criteria, then grading “on the curve” tells nothing about what students have learned or are able to do. Teachers of different standards levels are likely to assign different grade distributions to their classes (Hanushek, 2004).  

“Grades based on specific learning criteria and standards have direct meaning and serve well the communication purposes for which they are intended” (Guskey, 2009).  Grade distortion occurs when teachers include factors in the grade unrelated to achievement such as effort, participation, and adherence to class rules. Penalties for student work submitted late and assigning extra credit or bonus points; do not demonstrate achievement of specific academic standards.  “Grades are broken when they do not accurately communicate achievements” (O’Connor, 2007).  

Punishing students with low grades in the hope it will bring about greater effort in the future may result in students feeling helpless to make any improvement and subsequently withdraw from learning altogether. Grading policies that give threatening feedback frequently impede students’ concentration on learning. When it comes to work is missed, neglected, or turned in late, most teachers assign zeros as a grade. The zero, nevertheless, rarely indicates what a student has learned or is able to do.  The effect of assigning zeros is exaggerated even more if combined with the practice of averaging to arrive at a student’s overall grade.  Since such an extreme score so drastically skews the arithmetic mean, students quickly find out that receiving a single zero leaves them little chance for success. No study supports the use of zeros or low grades as a means of punishment; instead of motivating students to work harder, low grades often have the opposite effect (Selby-Murphey, 1992).  Rather than trying to punish students with zeros or low grades, teachers can inspire students to provide additional effort by considering their work as incomplete.  Some schools have implemented grading policies that do away with the use of failing grades in general.  Students are required to accept responsibility for their actions and be held accountable for their work,   they are not “left off the hook” with a zero and soon learn that their actions have specific consequences.  Not finishing assigned work on time means attending special academic intervention sessions to accomplish incomplete work.  

 Finally, teachers obtain evidence from many sources to determine student’s grades.  However, the primary purpose of grades is to communicate student achievement.  Learning is a process in which learners improve their knowledge, understanding, and skills as a result of effort, instruction, and feedback.  Information from formative assessments and practice (hodgepodge grading) should not be used to determine final grades.  Students will seldom perform at the highest levels on difficult learning tasks on their first attempt.  High levels of proficiency and meaningful understanding are achieved only as a product of trial, practice, adjustments, and more practice.  For that reason, students must believe it is worthwhile to take risks, to make mistakes; it is not necessary to always “get it” the first time (O’Connor, 2007).



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