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If Grades don't Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them?

Warning: I'm more than a little grouchy today.  

It's probably because I spent close to four hours hunched over a stack of student work in the back of a dirty McDonalds grading papers yesterday.  It was a total grind -- marking errors, leaving comments and looking for patterns in the mistakes made by close to 100 middle schoolers so that I can plan my next instructional steps is a heck of a lot harder than most people realize.  And that all has to happen BEFORE I transcribe student marks into a paper version of my gradebook and then entering scores into our district's online gradebook program.

All of that time was essentially wasted, however, the minute that I turned the assignment back to my students.  The simple truth is that my kids weren't all that interested in the comments that I'd written on their papers.  Some quickly filed their papers in their binders and moved on.  Others dropped their tasks into the recycling bin like too much intellectual detritus and wasted energy after asking the question that makes every teacher cringe:  "Do we have to keep this?"

Sound familiar?

Chances are that it does. Grading practices -- think writing letter grades or simple percentages on student papers as an indicator of mastery -- are almost universally recognized and repeated in American schools.  And while our traditional grading practices might feel comfortable to parents and policymakers, they are stifiling progress.  Isn't it hypocritical to preach about the importance of innovation in education while simultaneously clinging to a system which is almost as archaic as it is useless.

What's even more frustrating is that feedback and assessment experts have been pointing out the flaws in our grading practices for a long, long time.

Need proof?  Consider these quotes from three of the biggest feedback and assessment experts in the business:

Dylan Wiliam:  "When students receive both scores and comments, the first thing they look at is their score, and the second thing they look at is...someone else's score.  Being compared with others triggers a concern for preserving well-being at the expense of growth" (p. 34 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Grant Wiggins:  "The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback.  Grades are here to stay, no doubt -- but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback"  (p. 15 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Alfie Kohn: "Most of the criticisms of grading you’ll hear today were laid out forcefully and eloquently anywhere from four to eight decades ago (Crooks, 1933; De Zouche, 1945; Kirschenbaum, Simon, & Napier, 1971; Linder, 1940; Marshall, 1968), and these early essays make for eye-opening reading.  They remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization" (in this blog entry).

This all begs the obvious question:  If I know full well that grades are ineffective, then why do I keep giving them?

My answers to that question leave me more than a little ashamed, y'all.  I'm giving grades because there are times when my students don't seem to respond to anything else.  "Is this going to be graded?" is often the first question asked when I introduce a new assignment in my classroom -- and my answer can be a hinge-point for students, determining the amount of effort that they plan to invest in the task at hand.

And I'm giving grades because some part of me is convinced that I am being judged by the number of tasks that I score each quarter.  The narrative that I write in my own mind is that people -- parents, principals, policymakers -- see classes with dozens of individual grades as more rigorous and see teachers who are scoring machines as more professional and determined.  After all, we ARE data-driven organizations, right?  How can you make effective decisions without a heaping cheeseload of scores to sift through?

Finally, I'm giving grades because I've learned over the years that families can be consumed by averages.  I've seen the panic that sets in at the end of every quarter when the kids in my classroom realize that their letter grades aren't where they want them to be.  Bs are inherently dissatisfying, Cs are a real disappointment and Ds are a complete disaster.  Giving more grades means giving students more chances to raise their scores -- and giving students more chances to raise their scores feels like the right thing to do when averages are a priority for both parents and students.

Did you see what was missing in my rationale for grading papers?  

I spent four hours last night grading papers because my kids wouldn't have invested in the task unless they knew it was going to be scored.  I spent four hours last night because I am worried about the perceptions of my peers and principals.  Now, I can wear my paper grading grind like a badge of professional honor.  And I spent four hours grading papers last night because I wanted to get a few more grades in the gradebook in order to help my kids maintain their averages.

But I didn't spend four hours grading papers last night because I'm convinced that it will make a meaningful difference in what my students know and can do.  In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the four hours that I spent grading papers last night will have almost NO impact on the learning of my students at all.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

And then explain to me why we are still giving students grades.

#sheeshchat

____________________________

Related Radical Reads:

Learning about Grading from the Baljeetles

Are Grades Utterly Useless?

Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient

 

20 Comments

Renee Moore commented on September 18, 2015 at 10:08pm:

Can we give grades meaning?

I am totally with you on the grading grind (well, except for the dirty McDonald's), and on the frustration of watching what happens to all that hard work.

Among English teachers, this debate has raged a long time. Many have stopped giving letter grades at all, replacing that with giving feedback to students while not after they complete a writing project or assignments. Others use various forms of rubrics and grading scales in an attempt to give the grades more objective meanings. After all, what's really the difference between an A and and a C? What's the difference between an A from Mr. Ferriter and a C from Mrs. Moore?

Our English department went through a lengthy process to develop scoring rubrics for student writing that tied each grade to a specific set of criteria based directly on our student learning outcomes for composition courses. We spent hours blind cross-scoring dozens of student essays to calibrate our scoring, until we were reasonably certain that each of us was consistently scoring according to the criteria. For all that effort, the reaction of most of our students the next day to getting graded work was the same as what you describe. Worse yet, many students treat the grades as a judgment not of their work, but of themselves.

I've tried (with varying degrees of success) to help students think through the grading process with me (since I and they are required to deal with grades at this point).  We discuss the departmental scoring guides in some detail, and practice using them on different models. Then, I require students to "grade" their own work with the scoring guide before they submit it to me. When I give it back, the scores and explanations are on the scoring guide itself, but that's not the end of the lesson. Students not only have to save the work in their portfolios, but they also have to explain (usually in writing) the difference between their pre-grade and mine, and which is more accurate. Sometimes, we meet to discuss these grade reflections during the semester; sometimes they go into the portfolio for later. At the end of the course, they have to use the portfolio to take the final exam--which for my class is a reflective essay on a) what have I learned as a writer; b) how has my writing changed; c) what aspects of my writing do I think need more improvement. The essay concludes with the student telling me what s/he believes her/his final grade for the course should be based, not on the grades, but on the actual writing evidence in the portfolio.

It's my attempt to give grades meaning and to give students opportunity to and responsibility for evaluating their own learning. My thinking is if they are going to work on their assignments, and if I have to devote valuable time to grading it, then we all should reap some lasting benefits. That's my process, but it may not be practical or possible for every setting.

Would love to hear other alternatives people are using.

Cathy commented on September 19, 2015 at 7:17am:

What do the students think?

 Renee, I love your thinking and the description of how you grade student work with your students. I wonder how the students react to that process and if you see a difference in your student's growth over and after the course?

When I tried non-traditional grading processes (I am retired from teaching now) not only did I have some pushback from parents, because THEY did not know how to compare their child's grades. I also had questions from administration and other teachers (not a bad thing, but a thing!) about the number of grades compared to the number of assignments or pieces of assignments and the impact of a few grades on students averages.

I found grades are so entrenched in our system that there are district expectations for the minimum number of grades and like Bill, I found myself making up work in the middle of big experiments simply to allow students (and parents) more data points. I tried feedback before grades, but they kept asking, "but what did I MAKE?"

This is really a thorny topic, and there are so many different approaches.

 

bdaniels47 commented on September 20, 2015 at 10:41pm:

Can we give grade meaning

 Have you ever thought about using true formative assessment?

Renee Moore commented on September 22, 2015 at 9:37pm:

Can you clarify...

...what you mean by "true" formative assessment because I've seen that term applied to many different practices, some of which I would not consider sound or ethical. Want to be clear on what you're referencing.

Muhammad Usman commented on September 24, 2015 at 12:38pm:

Grading system

Hi, 

I'm a student and so I have no teaching experience at all and also I'm not a really brilliant student but I think student should have an option to mark each other work and then teacher should have check how their grading is different what s/he thinks as a teacher about their work . Student shouldn't whom work he is marking so he/s don't judge other works on the basis of the perception they have . Mostly grading system based on memorising skill which isn't fair it should be based on more of task oriented how one apply his/her mind to complete the task .

Joseph Miceli commented on July 22, 2016 at 11:05am:

Writing & Grades

I'm going to plug a tool we use in our district to score student writing.  Like you we went through the process of training and scoring against rubrics.  Students responded the way they always did.  Then we started using WriterKey and changed the conversation.

One of the benefits of WriterKey is that students do not see their grade until they have read your feedback.  Feedback is what the students need to improve their writing, not a grade.  So we don't give them the grade until they have accepted the feedback.

 

Check them out at www.writerkey.com

 

Dr. Joseph Miceli

Director of Curriculum & Instruction

Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology

NJ

Bill Ivey commented on September 18, 2015 at 10:52pm:

Here's what I do

My school's middle school program currently uses a skill-based assessment system. My list of skills is here (for both Humanities 7 and Rock Band). We use a "Consistently - Frequently - Intermittently - Rarely" scale. Some teachers record skills on individual assignments, quizzes, or tests with either the IB scale ("Excellent - Very Good - Good - Satisfactory - Mediocre - Poor - Very Poor") or the old middle school scale ("Proficient - Developing - Needs Attention") and then use those as the basis of skills assessments for Progress Reports. The "Academic Skills" are learned across all courses. Feedback on individual assignments and narrative comments on Progress Reports are the main focus.

Personally, I'd like to stick to feedback and narrative comments alone and remove even the skills assessments. But, one step at a time!

Mark commented on September 18, 2015 at 11:48pm:

Secondary ELA

In my heart I am on your side. In practice, I do everything I can to engage kids in ungraded activities... And prefer using growth scales where kids can monitor their own progress toward those long term big understandings. 

But there is the reality that extrinsic motivation is part not only of our culture but also of being human. Would it be great that everyone followed an intrinsic drive to do what is right and best? Of course. Everyone has a ROI threshold, though... How hard will you work if the compensation fails to feed your family? Great teachers, doctors, nurses, and so on certainly have a high intrinsic drive... And though the pay may not always be as much as we'd like, in the grand scheme it must be enough to let us follow our intrinsic drives. 

If I were in a job where I was asked to do a task about which I cared not at all...assembling widgets or whatever....no matter how much my boss loved the endeavor, I'd still be working for a paycheck...and would disengage if asked to work not for pay but for the joy of the work and the sense of accomplishment I feel at being a better widget-assembler. Sadly, I care far more about what I teach than some of my students do. Of course I try to light those fires, but in reality, school is what they have to do. 

The further trouble is that I don't believe that bad grades function to motivate anyone. Overgeneralizing: Those at the bottom develop a sense that work is futile, those in the middle feel entitled to those higher grades that are just out of reach, and those at the top will battle you over a tenth of a point in an effort to preserve their status. Sounds a lot like our economy. Maybe that's one more reason to ditch grades. 

Bill Ivey commented on September 19, 2015 at 9:11am:

P.S.

Rereading your piece makes me think of those kids who come to us fully invested in grades. Most of them are desperately seeking external validation of how they are doing, and for most of them, that means external motivation is driving them, too. Furthermore, they are more likely to view grades (and school) as primarily a competition. They may or may not genuinely like learning anyway, but life for them is essentially one constant (and, I would think, depressing) question: "Did I do well enough?" In a girls school, too, kids are more susceptible to growing up believing they need to be pleasers (though to be more nuanced, not all have succumbed to it, and conversely some are genuinely born to it).

I remember talking about this once with Larry Ferlazzo. I cling to the belief, and he kindly supported me, that maintaining external motivation of any sort is no way to counteract years of indoctrination. These kids, I strongly believe, have to essentially go cold turkey - if I don't leave space for their own instincts for learning to emerge and their sense of internal motivation to grow, then... they won't, and it won't. Some of them, often those with driven parents living out their lives through their kids (i.e. supplying external motivation of the most powerful sort), never quite completely break free, and relax into familiar territory when they move up into high school ("Finally, someone's telling me how I'm doing."). But others, touchingly, gradually acquire a sense of self, an awareness that school-based learning is a continual and joyful process and not just a series of checkboxes to get through. And either way, that sense of competition is at least muted in a worst-case-scenario year, and disappears altogether in a best-case year.

Finally, the last time I had to give letter grades (teaching an "upper school" French course that happened to be 67% middle schoolers), I wiggled around it by giving skill-based feedback except during Progress Reports, when I would convert mountains of information into a single, pointless letter grade. I would include the (somewhat more useful) skills assessments by category in my narrative comment, as well as descriptive and prescriptive feedback. None of the kids or parents complained (though I'll admit that some of them, by then, may simply have given up on me ever yielding to their requests for "traditional" grading).

Lisa commented on September 19, 2015 at 10:08pm:

Elementary-2nd Grade

I remember spending hours upon hours each evening my first year of teaching, grading just their homework alone, let alone the classwork, quizzes and tests.  I completely understand the frustration with feeling that what we are doing is first of all, on our own time, probably something that students could care less to even glance at beyond the grade circled at the top of the page, and something that is not a true form of feedback.  I feel like sometimes we are stuck in between a rock and a hard place.  Feedback should be immediate for it to be most beneficial, yet with our class sizes and the constant interferences during instrucation, how is that ever possible for every student, every day?  

Another issue with the grading system that I see is that it is so inconsistent.  It is inconsistent from teacher to teacher even in the same building in the same grade level, inconsistent vertically, inconsistent within a district and I could go on and on.  I remember at one point my first year of teaching, our grade level team all gave the same writing assignment and exchanged our classes' papers and graded them and then of course conferenced with each other.  This was a useful tool to try to become more horizontally aligned.

The grading system is one of those things where you wonder is there a right answer and if so, what is it?  

Tori Mazur commented on September 20, 2015 at 11:19am:

3 Ps

Bill,

You mentioned the three People Ps (parents, principal, policymakers) and it reminded me of the first piece of the grading pie that made me rethink my practice.  

Steve Peha was the first Person to help me reflect on my grading practices.  He actually calls his the 3P Grading System (pdf).  It changed the way I thought of assessing my elementary students.  It truly was Teaching That Made Sense - Participation, Progress, Performance.  It forced me to reflect on what I was truly valuing from my students and ultimately, my teaching.  I can't evaluate your progress or performance if I don't get you to participate first and that should be valued.  Are you willing to put forth effort in revising?  If so, I value it.  Are you willing to come to school and engage in learning conversations?  If so, I value it.  Nothing good can happen without you, the student, first "showing up" to learn. 

The next Person to challenge my thinking is Rick Wormeli of Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. He made me rethink the practice of taking points off of late work. Do we want to teach kids to be responsible and adhere to timelines?  Yes, so how does docking you 5 points indicate what you've improved or mastered?  It doesn't.  Here he is, explaining the rationale and reality of kids mismanagement of time.  (His other snippets from the Stenhouse channel are also worth the 3-7 minutes of viewing). 

The final Person to challenge me to move from theory into practice, which I did with my seventh grade ESL class, is Cris Tovani.  She continues the theme of grading for progress in Chapter 7 of her book So What Do They Really Know?  I incorporated her "three major categories when assigning points: attempt and completion; growth and improvement; and mastery and understanding".  

You, Renee, and Bill mentioned scenarios in which students were motivated by grades.  I often found myself working with students with a fixed mindset who no longer felt they could do anything to change their grades. Many were satisfied with a D or showed enthusiam when they moved it "up to" a C.  I always began my classes by explaining my philosophy (that I think I again usurped from Pena pdf):

A = Above and Beyond (and we need more A people in the world)

B = Basic work, Basically good (a majority of people walking around the world)

C = Could do/be better (Preach, Maya - "When you know better, you do better)

D = Didn't try/care/put time in

These three practitioners changed the way I view grading forever.  

While I no longer work directly with student, I still consider grades to be highly subjective.  I cringe when I see some of the current grading practices around me, but I know that change is slow.  I hope we continue to reflect on what the real purpose of assessment, feedback and grading is so that we can indoctrinate fewer students every year. 

Mr. Gross commented on September 21, 2015 at 1:58pm:

PreCalculus

I have to give grades.  We are all part of a system that requires grades.  I do not want to give grades but unless colleges stop using them to determine who gets into college and who gets scholarships they will never go away.

Bill Ivey commented on September 23, 2015 at 8:39am:

Context does matter...

... and I have every sympathy for people who don't want to use grades and are compelled to. That said, kids who are homeschooled or who come from Sudbury Schools and others who don't use letter grades do get into college, sometimes with scholarships. It definitely can be done. To me, the question then becomes how to build support for the concept to create irresistible momentum for change.

Tammie Niffenegger commented on September 21, 2015 at 2:22pm:

Science

I grade papers and use the information as a formative assessment.  The assignments show me what the student actually knows and doesn't know. If there are concepts that need work I call up that student and work one on one with them and use their work as an example. If they did not do well, they can do the work over and show me that they understand the concept. It also shows the student what they do and do not know. I do not accept poor quality work that is half done or answers that are were guessed at. If that is done, they must come in during their study hall and redo it with me. When they see that the assignment is important, then they spend time learning the material and asking questions until they understand the concept.  It is not just about the grade, nor should it be.  It is about learning the concepts. But unless teachers give adequate feedback by grading papers and talking to students and helping them improve, it will just be a game about the grade.

Tim Brinker commented on September 21, 2015 at 3:42pm:

If you get away from letter

If you get away from letter grades and look at a standards based evaluation model with the chance of redoing work that did not meet the standard , the work becomes a learning experience in itself.

Bill Ivey commented on September 23, 2015 at 8:53am:

especially if...

... combined with student self-reflection.

Stevan Kalmon commented on September 21, 2015 at 8:08pm:

Language Arts, Social Studies, Math

Many thoughtful comments and excellent suggestions have been made regarding the use of grades. It seems to me, however, that almost all of them miss an essential point in Bill's excellent post -- that grading, regardless of how it's done, undermines learning. Because the grade crowds out the meaning that a student might derive from the other feedback. The Dylan quote isn't mere rhetoric; it's based on the research findings: The grade is the message.

Like others, I wonder whether the culture of schooling enables learning without extrinsic motivation. Even if it doesn't, it seems to me that we could do a better job of making the grade the finish line and rely entirely on feedback in building towards the finish. The culminating project; the demonstration of proficiency. That approach works just fine in non-"core" areas of school, like music, theater, athletics, career learning, and robotics. How could we use those models more at the "core?"

Rebecca commented on May 21, 2016 at 1:49am:

Classrooms should mirror the real world

In my middle school math class,  I came up with a grading system that allows most any kid to pass, so long as they try. 

When i went to school in the 80's all my grades were based on mastery. Every assignment and test was grade based on how much of it I got correct.  Back then,  it meant something to get an A. It meant I paid enough attention,  read enough,  & practiced enough to get at least 90% of the work correct,  the first time,  without the chance to make any corrections. Now for me,  that wasn't much of a challenge,  because I found most my teachers were easily impressed,  or rather their standards were easy for me to achieve.  Which is why i personally don't put a lot of faith in grades, especially not when they contribute to student anxiety.  Conversely,  many kids automatically think they can't reach these goals so they give up and don't try at all.  

 

So i tell my math students,  half their grade comes from their effort,  or engagement in the learning process,  and half comes from mastery of the subject matter... Just like in the real world,  half your success is what you know and the other half comes from how hard you work at it. Sure, I know the 2 are connected,  but students don't and they're more likely to try if they think they have a chance. 

In my class,  you only fail if you don't try. A genius can get 100% on every test but still only end up with a failing 50 average of they don't do their homework.  Conversely,  if you do all your homework (more on this in a bit) and only master 50% of the test, you will still pass with a 75% average. 

My homework consists of the learning process,  try,  make mistakes,  try again, and again,  until you get it right.  It's a process.  I tell students the right answer is not as important as the learning process.  As a matter of fact,  I give them the answers and they check their own work as they go along (while i supervise), if they get it wrong,  I help them to understand why and they try again.  If the dry complete 100% of the process,  they get a 100 as a grade.  No matter how many times they get it wrong,  as long as they learn to do it right.  Amazingly,  they will find their test grades match their efforts, and even tests can be retaken. So in my class,  when a parent asks why their child is not passing, usually it's because they are not trying. 

Stevan Kalmon commented on September 21, 2015 at 8:09pm:

Language Arts, Social Studies, Math

Many thoughtful comments and excellent suggestions have been made regarding the use of grades. It seems to me, however, that almost all of them miss an essential point in Bill's excellent post -- that grading, regardless of how it's done, undermines learning. Because the grade crowds out the meaning that a student might derive from the other feedback. The Dylan quote isn't mere rhetoric; it's based on the research findings: The grade is the message. Like others, I wonder whether the culture of schooling enables learning without extrinsic motivation. Even if it doesn't, it seems to me that we could do a better job of making the grade the finish line and rely entirely on feedback in building towards the finish. The culminating project; the demonstration of proficiency. That approach works just fine in non-"core" areas of school, like music, theater, athletics, career learning, and robotics. How could we use those models more at the "core?"

Cheri Parker commented on September 21, 2015 at 8:10pm:

First grade all Subjects

I believe in Grades in that as teachers and parents we need to conference with the children to help them think "How can I do this differently so I understand."  A grade can be as simple as a smiley face or check minus. I have found in 28 years experience teaching at some point Kindergarten, First, Second, and Third grade the learning from grades happens when I can explain one on one how to make it better, re teach in a small group, or when a parent does this at home with their own child. That is when I have found grades make a difference. Unfortunately, we are judged by the grades. Just as we receive a pay check, students receive grades. I told my son the other day when he brought home an undesirable grade, "I do my job and I get paid so we can have food. You get a report card with grades so you can play X Box.  Bad job, no food. Bad grades; no X box." Of course within reason of abilities.  Grades are a measure of understanding and growth after all.

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