Why should I change how I grade?

Grading reform is near and dear to my heart. I am a huge advocate of healthy grading practices that support learning for our students. Yet I still get asked the questions – Why should I change the way I grade? What difference does it make how I grade? Grading doesn’t impact the way I teach or my students learn, does it?

The truth is, grading has a huge impact on our kids. It sets the tone for classrooms and schools, and suggests where students’ focus should lie. The way we view and practice grading communicates its importance. Should a major emphasis be placed on grades, scores, and points? Of course not – but many teachers and administrators don’t realize how much traditional grading practices interfere with the learning process. Grading is what makes many kids nervous to come to our classrooms and be assessed. Grading makes it easy for some kids to hide behind numbers and good behaviors for proficient marks. Grading contributes to fearfulness of risk taking and trying something new. Wait a minute…if our students never try something new, how are they learning? How are they growing? How are they preparing for the next steps in their educational experience?

In order to shift the focus from grades to learning, educators must lead the way and demonstrate its positive impact. Students need to see that motivation exists and is enhanced when grades are in the background. So many of us have spent countless hours developing our scales, weights, and points for every assignment and assessment, but the time can be much better spent. The time should be used to create valuable learning experiences and to provide opportunities for kids to take risks, try new ideas, and maybe even fail a few times on the road to success. Students need us to lead the charge and show that there is more to education than point chasing and high stakes assessment. They require a role model in the classroom that not only values learning, but also what each student contributes to the process.

When we make this change, feedback becomes the norm for new growth and achievement.  Authentic self-assessment becomes a purposeful endeavor that previously may have seemed like a doubtful guess at a point total. When we do assign a grade, it carries accuracy and meaning. Scores and grades are criterion referenced, evidence based and defensible to all stakeholders. The mystery of how grades are determined vanishes and we ensure an honest, genuine reflection of learning. With the abundance of feedback prior to assessment, students develop confidence in their abilities.

So, after all this enthusiasm toward grading reform, what perpetuates stagnation? What compels so many to continue using a traditional grading system that maintains a competitive, extrinsically motivated (or extrinsically unmotivated) culture? Is it the fact that grading is personal for educators and can seem like the only piece of our practice that is autonomous? Is it a power struggle for teachers to keep ‘control’ of student behavior? Is it that many retain a fixed mindset and fear unfamiliar territory?¬†

So I return to the question at hand…Why should I change how I grade? To be a role model of progress for students. To find healthy grading practices that support learning. To take on old traditions that undermine a focus on growth. To make a difference for each student that is bored, unmotivated, or inappropriately challenged. To communicate that learning supersedes everything else, and lasts for a lifetime.

15 Replies to “Why should I change how I grade?”

  1. I always find it amazing that teachers can be open to new technology, new products, and new innovations but are still so entrenched in the old time grading system. It seems to be the one area where “that’s what has always been done” seems to be OK to say. I encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zone and start to explore how evaluation can actually encourage kids to improve instead of using it as a weapon which does nothing more than make kids incredibly nervous about everything they do in class. I want a room full of curious, knowledge-seeking kids, not a room full of kids grubbing for the last point possible so they can raise their grade.

  2. Excellent work. I am going to implement SBL in my classroom next year. Your post captures my frustration with Ss mindless pursuit of points in order to achieve an A. Of course, I perpetuated the problem.
    My phrase for describing students in the ‘point feeding frenzy’ is that they become ‘intellectually constipated.’ Their brains get so wrapped up about points that learning is the least of their concerns, especially high achieving students.

  3. Well done, Garnet! I found myself yelling out, “Amen!” during several parts of your post. It took me some time to realize that how I view grading in my classroom is directly linked to the culture I want to create. It is the most important thing to focus on. Everything else stems from this main idea. For so long, I failed to realize how I treated my students’ learning impacted our classroom culture. Over the last few years, I changed to allow all my students to retake and/or redo any assignment they chose. My comment is always the same: “If you think you understand it better, let’s meet and talk about it.” Thank you for shedding light on a critical component to a successful classroom. Bravo!

  4. Garnet, I agree whole-heatedly that the way we assess students needs to change. I get really frustrated when teachers give assignments and they cannot be convinced that they are not grading what a student knows or can do but that they are grading a behavior. I mean, how many times have we seen teachers give points merely because a student has something completed on-time?

    The following quote intrigues me: “Authentic self-assessment becomes a purposeful endeavor that previously may have seemed like a doubtful guess at a point total.” How do we get to the point of authentic self-assessment? I would really like to get there, but I’m not quite sure how to.

    Thanks for leading the way in SBL and SBG.

    1. For self-assessment, I have students explain what they have done in relation to the standards before allowing them to pass judgement about the proficiency level of the work. It has been effective and a great source of reflection for my students. It gives my students purpose to figure out where they are on their learning journey and what they can do to improve.

  5. I struggle with changing how I grade, not because I don’t want to or don’t see the merit of different grading styles that support learning better, but because I don’t know how to change. I need to see it in practice, how it work for individual assignments, different types of assignments, units, over the course of the year, and then how it would fit in with my school’s digital grade book. Once I understand that, I would be able to find time to change my grading.

      1. During the school year I co-moderate a twitter chat on standards based learning and grading. It is a wonderful forum to gather ideas. I am also putting on a summer conference at the end of June in Oakbrook, IL. Please contact me if you are interested in attending! @garnet_hillman or garnethillman@gmail.com

  6. This morning, I have spent a couple of hours listening in on student conversations while I work. I hear them planning how they are going to improve their grades in their other classes without learning anything by playing tricks with the teachers’ point-based systems. Those who want to improve their grades in my class are asking their peers questions about chemistry. That culture shift alone is reason enough to justify my shift to grades that reflect learning and nothing else.

  7. Garnet,

    Great post that really drives the point home: we need to think critically about how we grade and why.

    How do we convince the great majority of teachers who use archaic and destructive grading practices, often because they believe in the results that they get, that they need to change?

    1. Your question of how to convince other teachers to change their grading practices is one I have as well. I am a special education teacher that co-teaches in our high school’s inclusion classes. Not only should we look at grading practices, but we should look at the lessons themselves. You can’t expect a teacher to change the way they grade if their lessons are built around a lecture and worksheets. Special education kids don’t do well with this, and the teachers don’t understand why they don’t “get” the material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *