Grading: A Duct-Taped System In Need of an Overhaul?

This post is the first in a series of reflections on our current grading system where I try to tackle these questions: Is the current system fair and relevant? What is the relationship between grading and learning? What alternatives to the 100 point system do educators have? Throughout the series, you will hear from other classroom teachers, my current students, and researchers who have delved into these questions with a scientific lens. In the final post, I will share what I plan to do in my own classroom as a result of these conversations and reflections.

I invite you to view this series as a conversation. One where I invite divergent perspectives, welcome respectful disagreement, and applaud any who dare to share their own struggles, resources, and triumphs with this issue. Please add your voice to the comments. My final post is not yet complete because I am waiting to see what I learn from publishing these initial posts. Perhaps you will be crucial in my final decision! I welcome you to learn and struggle through this with me. My journey begins with a conversation within my own department this past January.

The Gaming of Grading

Our high school English department was discussing whether to change the basement grade from a 50% to a 40%. Was it fair for students to even have a 40% in the grade book if they turned in 0% of their assignments? What about the students who would intentionally game the system by slacking off in the first half of the year only to kick it in high gear in the second half and pass?

Then someone clarified the basement grade’s original intent: to keep a student from “giving up altogether” after a disastrous first marking period grade. But my view? We are kidding ourselves to think this discussion is about student motivation. Also, I’m starting to feel that basement grades are just one way to duct-tape an outdated grading system.

What we are actually discussing in this meeting are the counter-moves in an elaborate game called the 100 point grading scale. By playing this game, an “us vs. them” mentality overshadows this discussion: us, the teachers vs. them, the students. Us, the teachers trying to promote learning; them, the students trying to game the system. But, who created that system in the first place? Certainly not the students. They are merely responding to the rules, looking for the loopholes, and working for the carrots. We, the teachers are trying to close the loopholes, work within the rules, still emphasize learning through it all.

Couldn’t we just reject the “Us vs. Them” system?

In the current debate between 40% or 50% for a basement grade, I don’t feel we are scratching the surface of “fairness” or equity. If a student was so disengaged that he/she didn’t complete any assignments in nine weeks, than receiving a 40% charity bump will NOT address the real issues of that student’s learning success. We need to have the more challenging discussion of how we–the teachers and the system–should be reaching this student. Yet, we were asked by our administration and colleagues to have a basement grade discussion, so we did. We discussed our preference of 40% or 50%, found consensus, and then moved onto the next agenda item.

But I was left unsettled.

Who else feels the grading system is broken?

The very next day, an article by anti-grade revolutionary Mark Barnes caught my eye: How Eliminating Grades Changed Everything in my Classroom. Barnes writes: “Grades are just a math game…If you know how to work the numbers, you can get a good grade.” He goes on to detail how he felt by the end of that year: “I wasn’t teaching students anything, except failure or, worse, how to manipulate traditional grades enough to build report cards that would be acceptable at home.”

So he decided to eliminate the traditional grading system in his classroom. In its place, Barnes provided his students with ungraded feedback as well as challenging questions. He asked students to self-assess and take ownership over their own learning journey.

Upon reading this short post, my feelings of being unsettled distilled into a restlessness for action. I too felt that our current grading system was broken, but what was I going to do about it? I started asking myself tough questions like: what did I believe was the purpose of grades? Could I help my students by taking a risk to try a different system of accountability and assessment?

I shared Barnes’ post on my Facebook feed. Almost immediately teachers and parents in my network began responding. A few wanted to get rid of grading altogether while others admitted that this issue was also a “struggle” for them in their classrooms. We all seemed to sense that something was deeply wrong about our current grading system, but also weren’t sure the alternatives. So many teachers seemed eager for this conversation. And so many have already begun to challenge the status quo.

A comment I wrote on Barnes’ original post was shared by an EdWeek Teacher editor on Twitter. You can see how many times it was retweeted. Not Lady Gaga numbers, but for an educational tweet, still indicative that this idea strikes a nerve with educators and parents.

Restlessness to Action

Our grading system seems up for review. Teachers care about learning and about students meeting their potential; teachers are worried about the lack of joy and the proliferation of stress in our schools today. These teachers are ready to have a conversation beyond duct-tape options. We are ready to reexamine the system, look at the research, and have that bigger discussion of fairness and equity.

Two teachers who have agreed to walk this journey with me are linked below.

Sandy Mertz: Jesse Pinkman’s Wooden Box

David Cohen: Don’t Give a Pass to Failed Grading Systems

In my next post, I’ll share with you the responses from my students when I asked them about their relationship with the grading system. Until then, I invite you to share your own perspective on our current system. Does it seem to be working for the students in your classroom? Do you feel that it is a fair assessment of student learning? What have you done to manipulate the system to create fairness?

For the next post in this series, click the following link: Grading: A Duct-Taped System? Students Weigh In.

This post was edited 12:00PM Friday, 2/27/2015 to reflect David Cohen’s updated blog link in this conversation.

This post was edited 12:00PM Thursday, 3/4/2015 to include the link to the second post in the series and modify the end teaser to reflect that post’s content.

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  • Jennifer McClelland


    In my own classroom this year, I've been experimenting with the ways I communicate skill level to students. We focus on skills, so that each English assignment has a skill on which it is being graded — say, a paragraph repsonse is being graded for the ability to cite textual evidence with elaboration and commentary. A student gets feedback on a four-point scale: advanced thru below basic. For students, this makes a lot of sense, and has helped steer us away from, "how can I get my grade up to an A?" My biggest obstacle so far has been how to communicate these grades in the software system my school uses to interface with parents and students. It's set up for the traditional system. Ideally, I'd like to use numbers on a 4-1 scale, but I have to use letters instead, such as A for advanced, which works fine, but is still a system is progress. As we move forward with revising grades in the secondary level, we have to think about creating software that allows standards-based grading, much in the way elementary report cards are set up. We could still assign traditional grades at the end of the term — we have to or it will make college admissions very hard. I look forward to some changes. Thanks for letting me weigh in. 

    • BriannaCrowley

      Skills-based Assessment

      For all my dour outlook on the grading system at my school, I will happily report that we’ve been moving toward a skills-based curriculum with specific skills-bases assessments. I believe that change has helped students feel more in control of their learning and also helped them to see their growth and progress more clearly. 

      I almost never have arguments about the grade I give students only because I will provide a reason for why every point was given or taken away on writing assignments, projects, and grammar quizzes. The students know specific expectations before they are assessed, and they receive specific feedback through that assessment to explain where they might have missed the mark. 

      But I like your suggestion about simplfying the scale even further and naming the increments with language that reflects learning rather than currency. Others in their comments have made similar suggestions, which are helping me to reflect on what could be in my grading next marking period and year. 

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! I look forward to further reflections as we take this journey together 🙂

  • AndreaSchueler

    World Language

    I’ve been struggling with this very issue since I was a student who was very unconviced that the A’s I received meant anything.  In my heart I want to dump grades entirely, and yet I know that other demands (college entrance and tradition being two big ones) make that a very difficult proposition.  It may not even be the right way to go.  So, thank you for this frank discussion and for engaging in it in hopes of finding an answer rather than with the intention of sharing the answer.

    In my own grading journey, the past eight years or so I’ve experimented with grading my AP Spanish students on a final portfolio for almost the entire second semester grade.  I’ve never quite felt satisfied with that system either.  I’m still searching for the system that best reflects learning and growth as well as skill and achievement.  As with the previous commenter, I’ve been frustrated when trying to convert an attempt to move towards standard-based grading into the rigid 100 point system of our reporting software.

    • marsharatzel

      Can you tell us more?

      Hi Andrea,  When I read your post I was very intrigued.  I wondered if you could explain more about the portfolio.  Is this something that you formatively evaluate as the course goes along and then students use the portfolio to syntheisize or analyze what they’ve learned?  or do they use it more as a archived set of evidence to prove they’ve mastered/learned different concepts.

      I’m so hopeful you’ll share more with us.

  • Hilary

    Systematic Change

    I agree wholeheartedly that the grading system needs to change. However, until colleges decide that they will accept something other than GPA, we're a bit stuck. 

    • CarlDraeger

      Colleges and GPA

      I’m not sure how much value colleges and universities place on GPAs. I am also keenly aware that honor students transfering in from another district do not necesarily meet the ‘honor’ criteria of our school. Similarly, our honor student might not exceed their standards either.


      Even if colleges and universities might struggle with the lack of grades, how is that our problem. What do they do with home schooled students? Foreign students? They’re smart. They’ll figure it out faster than we can implement it anyway.


      The problem is the parents wondering where their child fits in the ‘competition’. Are their kids ‘winners’ or ‘losers’. Every game has both winners and losers. It’s kind of a fixed mindset. I want my child to grow as much as she can regardless of how she is ‘racked and stacked’ by her grade.I don’t want to play the student comparision game. I want to know which standards my child meets, exceeds, or needs improvement in. 

      • Rhonda Bernard



        Your last paragraph summed it up best!  I work in an community that has highly competitive parents.  Grades are another way that parents can see if their own children are "winners" or "losers".  It is definitely a fixed mindset.  It is a difficult undercurrent to work against when you are a parent and a teacher with a growth mindset.

      • Andrea Isabelli

        I disagree that all systems

        I disagree that all systems have winners and losers. I believe there can exist a system in which everyone can be winners; students learn at different paces, and some may take longer than others, but given time and the right supports I believe that all students can learn. The problem with our current system is that we herd students along by classes as if they all learned at the same pace. In my dreamworld, gradebooks would be set up not by assignments but by skills mastered, and the grade would only reflect which skills were mastered. In this respect, some students would have more skills than others, but they would only be graded on what they have done. I teach French, so the idea is that once students have mastered all of the skills for French I that are listed in the curriculum, they can advance to level 2, etc. The flipped classroom lends itself very well to this type of grading. I am currently investigating how to possibly combine these two concepts, but am not yet sure how that would translate into our current defunct system. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

        • CarlDraeger

          I’m not sure we are disagreeing.

          I’m referring to the grading system in place in most schools throughout the country. There are grades A to E (or F). Teachers arbitrarily set up some calculation to arrive a single number which supposedly ‘measures’ what a student has done to indicate their proficiency. This numerical result determines the students standing in comparison to other students (hence winners and losers). I think that we agree that this is a bad thing. 


          It is a far better thing to grade each student against standards instead of each other. The system you discribed does exactly that. I was arguing against the idea that colleges’ use of GPA is a sticking point for grading reform. I would like my daughter to graduate from a school which has pushed her to learn as much as she can without her calculating what she needs to maintain her ‘A’ or ‘C’ or whatever her target grade is. It is a total mind shift away from treating grades as currency (My honor roll student is better than your LD child) to making student growth the new bullion. Wouldn’t we like to have students saying to each other, “Wow, I didn’t see it that way. Have you considered…”? We could ask questions that we don’t know the answer to. “Oh, the places we will go!”

        • kitbrizuela

          Skills-based school reports

          I’ve seen some high school reports from Australia and New Zealand that are similar to what you describe: the skills mastered are listed, along with a narrative on how they were achieved. Some skills/standards say “not attempted”, so the student and everyone else knows what they need to work on next.  Not sure what kind of software they use…

      • Mark Lasater

        Foreign students and grades
        I can answer at least a couple of points your brought up regarding foreign students in the US. I’ve worked in international schools now for 12 years, for about 10 of those years I’ve worked with HS students to find pathways into US schools.

        Currently, if you can demonstrate that you have enough money in the bank to pay for a 4 year degree, you are probably going to be admitted. This is The Case if you are applying to state schools and many of the small to midsized private institutions. This is also The Case if you are applying to some of the more prestigious institutions. A bank statement from your banker in Berlin or London, that you have 1 million or so dollars in an account there, is, for at least a few of the kids I’ve worked with over the last decade, all they needed for admission.

        Barring a huge bank account, there is the SAT and IGCSE (what were once called A and O level tests in the British System). Many international schools are accredited with either US or UK bodies. This points their curriculum at these two well known tests and generally means that a student will at least make an average score. Of course, there are kids who excel at taking tests. If you break 2000 on the SAT, you will probably find a school in the US who, if they can’t appreciate the size of your bank account, at least appreciates your intellect.

        Of course this means that the SAT becomes the be-all-end-all of getting into colleges. Think you teach a pointed, content oriented, testing focused curriculum? You’ve not seen anything till you seen some of the factories in Korea that are intended to push every student who walks in the door through the 2000 point mark on the SAT. That fantastic push and the corruption that goes with it (my Korean kids tell me a copy of the SAT in Korea goes for about $50,000) lead SAT to suspend testing in the entire country last year.

        Of course, there is the tried and true tactic of just being an exceptional athlete. I had kids in Uzbekistan who would come to our school to take the TOEFL who already had scholarships to small and mid-sized schools, but who just needed to demonstrate minimal English proficiency. Of course, when this becomes the pathway you find interesting twists. My landlord in Uzbekistan was also the head of he Uzbek Tennis Federation. If you wanted a scholarship, he had the connections, and for a given amount of money, he could arrange for you to make your way to the top of the player rankings for their regional association. He could also help you out with a US Visa. If you just wanted to get into the US for a couple of years and work in your brother-in-laws cleaning business to make a little cash, he could arrange for you to look like you were a much better tennis player than you really were so you could get a “training” visa to the US.

        I’ll bet home school kids in the US have to jump through similar hurdles if they want to go to college. We could do what they do in many countries, just not give grades, make everything dependent upon a test, that is what millions kids do across Asia. Teachers in India really don’t give grades. There are what I would think of as course-based exams at the end of the school year that are standardized by regional boards. What you do on the test is what you do in the course. University admissions (public) are then decided based upon how those scores stack up. You also don’t get to choose what you study, your testing profile decides if you are offered a seat in the which department.

  • Patrick


    I think ALL grades are arbitrary and capricious. They have been used as tools for compliance and control for too long. No two teachers will necessarily grade any two students consistently over time unlike "blind" comparison might. Barnes is right – only student self analysis and evaluation is consistent – not to mention an incredibly important life skill to learn.

  • Bloolight


    When implemented carefully, standards based grading practices can solve a lot of the problems associated with traditional "point-accumulation" grading.  I broke my curriculum up into specific learning goals, each of which represents an entry in my gradebook.  Every time I assess them over a learning goal, I report the result on a 1-4 rubric scale reflecting on their current mastery level.  Every subsequent test over that goal replaces the old score, for better or worse.  I have multiple versions of every test which I can give, and each test takes about ten  minutes to complete and I grade them face-to-face at my desk.  If a student wants to be tested again, they can do so at any time without limit.  The score in the gradebook is always the most recent attempt. 

    Because we have to create a single "average" grade, I end up giving each goal a multiplier to indicate how involved or important it is.  This multipilies the score by up to three times when the average is being calculated.  That way, the most important learning goal scores have the biggest impact on their grade. 

    If you simply take a point-accumulation grade and slap it into a rubric-score mold, the result will be worse than useless.  Using rubric grading requires a massive change in instructional/testing philosophy.

    • Ruth Still



      Thank you for joining the conversation!  I teach with Brianna and struggle with switching over to a non-traditional grading system.  Our elementary schools are graded on the standards based system and I often wanted to try to convert my physics grading over to the same method….but based on skills like you did.   I would love to discuss how you went about converting over to this system.  


    • CarlDraeger

      Physics is phun!

      I work with a Physics teacher who adopted standards-based grading 6 years ago. His students don’t ask if they get points for their work and seem to get immense joy out of working the problems to better understand the physical world. Amazing transformation. Physics teachers, in my limited experience, seem to get this quicker than others. Thanks for being the change!

    • BriannaCrowley

      Grading Contortions

      Thanks for sharing your system here–It sounds like the focus of your classroom is truly on student mastery of skills and content. Your feedback is immediate, and you allow students to be successful at different paces. It’s awesome!

      I also agree that the way you provide your students with feedback requires a huge instructional shift from the traditional model of grading.

      But my question is this: in the end, when you have to report a marking period grade to students and parents, are you required to do so within the 100 point system? If so, all your work may be providing valuable feedback for your students, but it is also contorting to still fit within that unfair, reductionist 100-point grading system.

      Another question: how many teachers in your district grade this way? One of my struggles is that no matter what I decide, if our district and building continue to use the 100 point scale, my impact feels limited. Parents will receive mixed messages about what a “grade” in my book represents vs. a score in another teacher’s room.

      I believe that every school building should have a strong, strict, specific, and clear system of reporting student acheivement. As another commenter pointed out, an “A” in one class may look completely different than that same mark given from another teacher. The 100 point system is a terrible way to communicate learning to our communities. So no matter how we individual teachers manipulate the feedback loop within our rooms, the greater system still operates unfairly and parents are still not given consisten information about their students’ learning.

      Does that make sense?


    Elementary Gifted Magnet Class

    I love the idea of alternate grading systems because children learn and express themselves in so many different ways.  One caution is the use of only subjective assessments such as class discussions and certain performance assessments.  I have many times found my personal impression of a child's knowledge or ability to be far different than their "testable" a ability.  Often times I underestimate their knowledge.  I like to use a variety of assessments.  I love the idea of student created systems as a component of an existing system.  


    Elementary Gifted Magnet Class

    I love the idea of alternate grading systems because children learn and express themselves in so many different ways.  One caution is the use of only subjective assessments such as class discussions and certain performance assessments.  I have many times found my personal impression of a child's knowledge or ability to be far different than their "testable" a ability.  Often times I underestimate their knowledge.  I like to use a variety of assessments.  I love the idea of student created systems as a component of an existing system.  

  • Carole Lonneman

    I am a counselor and I also taught psychology in high school. One year in the chapter on motivation we had a discussion about intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. I think teachers agree that intrinsic motivation is the preferred motivation for lastly learning. I asked my students what they thought would happen if I didn’t give any grades but corrected their work and added notes on the side. The class was divided. Students who found learning important for their future said they felt they would do better because they didn’t have to worry about grades and could just learn the subject. Poorer students said that if I didn’t give grades they wouldn’t do anything. I think that is one of the difference that we often forget. I don’t feel there is a perfect system, a one-size fits all.

    • BriannaCrowley

      Digging In

      I’m so glad you thought to ask your students about this–I did as well, and will be publishing their answers tomorrow in my next post on grading. But I had results simiar to yours: mixed.

      You stated

      Students who found learning important for their future said they felt they would do better because they didn’t have to worry about grades and could just learn the subject. Poorer students said that if I didn’t give grades they wouldn’t do anything.

      This is a very interesting split and observation that you make, but I feel that it offers more questions than answers. Perhaps those students who “found learning important for their future” also had supports to make sure that tradition school environments offered them success. Perhaps they had modeling at home about what an education can bring in the way of lifestyle and opportunity. Perhaps “poorer” students had just given up on intrinsic motivation because compliance was the only thing they saw as an option. Rather than “accommodate” this split as you suggest, I would prefer to try to understand how to reach these “poor” students’ intrinstic motivation–reignite the possibilities school could offer them. I may not be successful, but I don’t think sticking with extrinsic, compliance-driven learning is the answer for lifting these students into greater opportunity for their future.

  • Nina


    First, I must say I', pleasantly surprised to see this topic being discussed.  As a middle school teacher I am also in the process of figuring out another way to grade that better represents my students' learning.  Our school has a policy of not giving an average lower than 60% which is a huge nightmare in itself.  There are just so many issues with the 100-point scale ESPECIALLY in classrooms where students are performing below grade level.  The grading scale must also indicate a student's growth toward mastery of grade level coursework.

  • Debra Rook

    The Grading Games

    This is a very interesting post. I look forward to reading what your research has revealed. Thanks for setting up this discussion.

  • RochellePascual

    Thank you for this blog!!!

    I’m currently in TLI in Hawaii & my capstone is on changing the grading system so that elementary, middle, & high schools match their systems to what’s expected of students in college. If our goal with common core is to prepare our children to be career & college ready, then I feel there needs to be consistency in grading. I will be following your blog to help me with my capstone if you don’t mind. 

    • BriannaCrowley

      Amazed and Excited!


      I’m both amazed and excited by how much of a response this post has generated. I’m all about working smarter, not harder, so I welcome both you following and joining in on this conversation as we go. Thanks for sharing about your project! Would love to see the final results!

  • ReneeMoore

    A Bridge Between

    Thank you for this discussion, Brianna, and I’ll be watching to see what you and your team of teacher-researchers (Sandy and David) discover.

    I share many of your concerns and your restlessness with the traditional grading system. Many places have tried to break away from it, but usually it is pressure from parents that brings them back into the grade-by-numbers fold. Carl is exactly right–colleges can work around whatever evaluation system is sent to them. The one where I work admits students who are homeschooled; others come from alternative settings that don’t give grades, etc. The truth is, most colleges don’t put as much stock in grades as parents or secondary teachers may think. That’s why they usually required college entrance exams…it’s the section scores on the ACT (here in the South) that determine which English or math course  students take in college, not their high school grade point averages.

    At the college level, by the way, when we went through our most recent accreditation, we were required to show what the grades we issued actually meant students knew and could do. For our English department, that meant aligning our grades with our department writing rubric criteria. It also meant that we began to spend at least one day a year, blind-cross scoring student writing until we developed an acceptable interrater reliability, based on the standards taught in our classrooms and measured in our writing rubric. So, this discussion is happening across grade levels, and hopefully we will see a major shift in attitude and practice.

    • CarlDraeger

      Shouldn’t all grades indicate students’ level of achievement?

      Disclaimer: I’ve already drank the Kool-Aid. I’ve read Wormeli, Guskey, Jung, O’Connor, Wiggins, and McTighe. What does an ‘A’ mean? How much better is a 90.1 % than an 88.6 %? Is a 70% in Ms. O’Connell’s class better or worse than an 80% in Mr. Dumbledor’s class? Can an ‘A’ in Mrs. Moore’s Writing class really tell you what the student learned in a whole semester?

      “We’ve always done it this way” doesn’t work for teachers anymore that it did for the wall plaster contractors when drywall came out. Once you’ve flown from New York to Los Angles in under 6 hours, you won’t take the nearly 3 day trip by train again.

      • Andrea


        But, I might drive.

  • DavidCohen

    More detail on points, averages, and flawed rationales
    Yes, I did it too – for the first 12 years or so that I was teaching, I used points and averages and percentages. So I won’t pretend I always had this figured out, and I won’t pretend I’m done figuring it out. I haven’t gotten really radical yet – but I’m open to anything that moves us towards better learning and less gaming-the-system for extrinsic rewards.

    Here’s my blog post contribution to the discussion – please come on by!
    (The link will go live after midnight on Friday, PST)

  • Kate Amate

    Fellow Grade Experimenter

    I have gone through just about the same evolution with grading as you have. After discovering the standards-based grading chat on Twitter last year and Mark Barnes' Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group this year, I have made significant changes to my philosophy and several changes to my grade book. 

    What I have found to work for me (teaching 8th grade English with a traditional grade program that is expected to be updated and accurate weekly) is to used what I call skill-based grading on a 10 point scale (10 = shows mastery of skill, 6 = attempted but  no evidence of skill, others in between). Assignments receive 10 point grades for the 1-5 skills that I am directly assessing. 

    While it's not perfect, I feel that it does communicate student achievement more fairly and transparently, and the math works out so that it works with the traditional view of what an A means for Honors recommendations, GPA, and other required district grading policy. 

    My philosophy is moving towards Barnes, but I'm not there yet in practice. 

  • SandyMerz

    Related thoughts

    My students are as tired of me saying, “Why do you care about a mark of ink on a piece of paper, when what matters is what you know and can do with what you learn in this class?”

    When they ask, “When will you grade the test?” I think of a movie I saw. A woman takes a lie detector test and ask the detective when the results will be available. He says they’re available immediately. “Really?” she asks. “Yep,” he says, “You know if you lied or not, don’t you?” So I tell the kids, “You know if you know the material don’t you?” 

    For all the debate on grades – and I think there are huge holes in our current practices, the best (in the pure sense, not the number games sense) usually do get better grades, so there is some alignment between grades and achievment in most systems. But gaming the system – by teachers or students – drives me crazy, even though I was really good at it as a student and have done it as a teacher.

    I cringe at giving 40 or 50% to a student who did nothing. I get that it’s a tool to account for there being no REALLY BIG A that can offset a REALLY BIG F, but that’s weakness of using percentages. We use an 8 point system. Meeting the standard means 4 points and a C, and Fs, Ds, Bs, and As are determined by how far above or below the standard students fall. When we have to convert that to a percentage for our electronic grade books, which parents can access, the scale is streched out. So a C might be 45 – 60%. We have to train kids to realize that 50% doesn’t mean they got half the problems right, but maybe 7 out of 10 right. We have a user friendly description of each grade – for example a C is “I get it” a D is “There are gaps in my understanding” and an A is “I could teach this.” 

    • BriannaCrowley

      Pointing to the Problem


      I like your use of descriptors for the different increments of learning. I am considering creating something like this for my own class and using it as a consistent feedback tool across assignments. But I’m also considering your first point about the necessity of the basement grade–and again, by giving it to offset the tremendously heavy failure of a 0% seems to implicitly point out the pointlessness and arbitrary nature of a 100 point traditional system. It’s like the professor who curves the grade based on how the group of students peformed–it’s comparison grading rather than standards-based or mastery grading. I just don’t agree with it.

      True that greater grades usually align to greater student achievement, but how many more students would be “proficient” if we dropped out the terrible yawning hole of the bottom 0-59%?

  • Patricia Flad Edmiston

    LInking grades to standards

    As a high school mathematics teacher I too struggled with giving number grades to students as someone pointed out earlier they provide no inidication of what the student knows. Unfortunately the school I currently work for has a basement grade of 50% so long as the student turns an assignment in, regardless of accuracy. At the beginning of my teaching career many moons ago we didn't have mandated numerical grades only alphabetical A,B,C,D,F and I was able to set up a grading system as follows.

    I divided my curriculum into 16 units with the "meat" of the curriculum in the first 12 units. Each student had a check off list with the standards for each unit and assignments to complete before they would be allowed to take the assessment. Lectures (this was before the days of the internet) were done on a spiraling basis and students worked at their own pace to complete the assignments for each unit.  The student indicated they were ready for assessment by demonstrating they had completed the unit assignments. For each assessment the student needed to get > 80% of the problems/questions, which were based on the specific standards, correct to move on to the next unit.If you didn't get > 80% you had to complete an additional assignment and retake the assessment. Repeating this process until you scored > 80%.

    Students were graded as follows: Complete 4 or more units in one quarter you received an A, 3 units a B, 2 units C and 1 unit D. My students loved this! It reduced test anxiety because you could earn 4 81%  assessment grades and still earn an A if you completed 4 units. It provided incentive to complete the units and students who had home life or work issues going on could complete the unit assignments on their own schedule. Parents loved it because they had a record of exactly what standards students were proficient in and I loved it because my students became more self-motivated and worked more collaboratively. I also provided incentives like pizza parties and ice cream if everyone in the class completed at least 3 units. Yes it did require me to create numerous assessments for each unit and I had to invest in earphones so that students taking tests were not disturbed by others working together but it was well worth it.

    This type of grading would be so much easier in this age of technology, if only the administration would allow me to do it.

    • BriannaCrowley

      Thanks for sharing your system!


      Thanks so much for sharing the system you have in place. As I read and process it, I recognize the amount of work it takes to set this up and keep it moving. You too found a way to work “within” the traditional 100-point system, while still offering students personalized learning experiences.

      Why won’t your administration allow you to do this type of system currently?

      Also, I’m wondering if you were freed from the 100-point system entirely how you would expand or improve on the system you describe….

  • Steve Stork

    Physical Education

    In PE grading is generally based on the wrong things (attendance, changing clothes, behavior). Teacher education faculty (researchers) have developed multiple strategies for objectively evaluating age-'related' skill development and knowledge of game strategies. Yet, even among the small minority of PE teachers who strive to give 'real' grades, grade reporting remains age-'dependant'. Beyond the discussion of percentages and largely arbitrary grade-level standards, there remains the problem of 'individual differences' (11 month age span; genetic winners and losers; developmentally advanced vs. delayed; disabilities, etc.). Perhaps a larger issue than proving college readiness at age 18 is the rigidity with which schools adhere to lockstep age and grade level expectations. So, I agree, students are consigned to a sense of failure when expectations favor the lucky children with providential genetics and absence of distractions.  

  • Richard M Marshall

    Grading Systems–no matter how you dice it

    Several years ago, I wrote an article entitled, A Zero In Not An Intervention.  It was written out of frustration with our current grading system, and it focused mainly on the role that the grade of zero plays in K-12 education.  To put it simply, our grading problem is the result of a rather simple mathematical error. And if we would just fix the math error, most of the other problems would go away. 

    Here's the error:  The letter grades A through D have an interval of ten points.  A grade of A ranges from 90 to 100, a B from 80 to 89, a C from 70 to 79, and a D from 60 to 69.  An F, therefore, should have an interval of 50 to 59.  But for some inexblicable reason, we have made the interval for an F 49 to 0.  You can't do this.  It doesn't matter what the interval is, but it has to be the same interval for every grade.  You can't just arbitrarily decide that one grade will have a bigger interval than the others.  Think of it this way.  What if the interval for an A  was 40 points, say from 60 to 100?  Anyone who got a grade of 65 would get an A instead of a D. 

    People would laugh at such a proposal.  But is it any less fair than having this same difference attached to a grade of F? It's the larger interval that causes the problem, no matter where you put it. 

    People often argue that we must give students a zero if they do not do an assignment.  That depends.  If zero is the lowest grade, then give the student a zero.  But you still must have equal intervals.  The problem is the interval, not the zero.

    I hope you keep this topic alive.  The current grading system is in error and making equal intervals is a very simple solution to a problem of our own making.      






    • kitbrizuela


      The interval is the problem. So in my Spanish 1 class (a couple of years ago) my grading system departed from that of most of my colleagues. In addition to using 4-point rubrics for skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening), when it came time to adapt to the grading software, the scale was:

      0-19% = F

      20-39% = D

      40-59% = C

      60-79% = B

      80-100% = A

      Students, coaches, and others scratched their heads a bit at first, but quickly agreed on the goal of removing the black hole of the zero grade, which usually means, “lack of evidence”. And lack of evidence can indeed be given a zero in this scale, because students have more of a chance of moving themselves gradually out of the hole by completing the missing work.   

  • Matt Johnson

    Special Education

    As a former intentional non-learner, I can see the value of raising the floor so a student has a chance and will not figure out the mathematical impossibility of passing and really shut down which translates to being off-task and disruptive full time. However, the real culprit is a 100 point system that seems to rule the lives of kids. I think if we can create a better system it will go a long way to making the learning and not the score so relevant.

  • BillIvey

    In my school,…

    … we went to standards-based assessment years ago. Honestly, I’m not sure I could ever work in a school with letter grades again. I see them as that destructive to the learning process, and for that matter to the cause of social justice.

    I’ve written a post on the topic which, if (as it is 99.9999% likely to) it passes muster with our Director of Communications, will go live on my school’s blog on Monday. Always delighted to be part of this conversation.

    (P.S. One of my students was singing a little random improvised song today, at first about our being an all girls school but that doesn’t matter because her mom won’t let her date anyway, but then after some other ramblings, she suddenly came out with this: “And you should come here because we don’t have grades.”) 🙂



    • CarlDraeger

      Sir William;

      Please share the link to your blog.

      • BillIvey

        Sir Carl,

        Thanks for asking! My blog is now live on my school’s website: “We have no grades!

  • Anonymous

    4 point scale

    My colleagues and I have implemented a 4 point scale this year and it is working beautifully. 0 – 0.4 = F; .5 – 1.4 = D; 1.5 – 2.4 = C; 2.5 – 3.4 = B; and 3.5 – 4.0 = A. We have very few F's and A's…it's like the scoring naturally curves the grades. We teach 7th grade math in a public school. We are very lucky to have administrators that allow us the flexibility to create our own system!


  • blhuth1

    Rubrics That Judge Success Differently
    I have thought a lot about this issue. I find that students are playing the numbers game often and disregarding the main reason that they are completing an assignment, to acquire new skills and build a foundation of knowledge. Although right now I have not found a way to completely combat this in the classroom, I have created ways to mitigate the effects. Whenever possible I make project based learning assignments based off rubrics that have a different measurement of success. I want my students to know that it is the process of learning where they gain the most lifelong skills and not necessarily the end result. I explain to them, if they try, they can not fail. Since it is learning as a process that I am looking for, some students or many, learn that even procrastination takes immense planning and in the end it isn’t worth it. I know as a student myself, some of the classes that I received the lowest numerical grades in, were the ones that I gained the most, because I immersed myself in the process of learning. I have found with project based learning, where my students take ownership of the process, they end up accomplishing so much more, than what I originally planned. I am currently trying to find a way to make this the norm in my classroom, even though I realize that students are in the end judged by a standardized test.

  • Mark Lasater

    Parent Based Grading
    I think many of you are looking at the issue of grading from a minority perspective. In any classroom there is one teacher and many students. And well, just how things work, twice that many parents. Those parents vote for bond issues, elect school board members and buy houses next in your attendance area because they believe the schools are good. I am not sure that for many of those registered voters, that their number one issue is how much their children are learning. I really suspect that they are most concerned about good grades in that they show up on a student’s transcript and are reflected by a student’s class ranking (funny how nobody here seems to be reflecting on the connection between grades and SAT scores). As yours is the minority view, I have to ask, “what happens when you do away with grading in your classroom?” Or “experiment” with something other than traditional grades. I have to say, that, as a parent, if you decided to experiment with my child’s English grades for next year, we would be having one of those three way conferences, me, you and the principal. I would really want to know how your experiments were going to effect my child’s college admissions. If I didn’t like what I heard, I’d be on the phone to my school board member asking what they knew about experiments going on at the high school. Nobody here sees to be addressing this issue and I think it should be at the front of the que.

    • BriannaCrowley

      The Minority Perspective

      First of all, most movements of innovation and positive change start with a convicted, passionate minority who dares to think beyond the status quo. But, you are probably correct in stating that those questioning the traditional system in our society may not reach beyond 50%. However, if you look at educational researchers and experts who study learning, motivation, and advancement, I would guess there are far more questioning grading on a 100-point scale than championing it. But more on the research in a later post; I hope you continue to follow and comment.

      Secondly, you bring up a valid point, and one that I am thinking through carefully as I take this journey: what is the impact of my one classroom’s grading system when the rest of the system (building, district, higher ed) is still using the 100 point scale? I even mentioned this concern verbally to my students as I shared various drafts of this post with them for feedback (I was modeling the pre-writing, revision, and proofreading process for them as they wrote their own posts). You know what my one student said to me? 

      What if you just tried it, Mrs. Crowley? If you tried it and then another teacher heard about it and decided to try it, you could start a change movement in the school.

      So that’s a valid point, and one that resonates back to that minority comment. If a minority of passionate, research-based, student-focused people decide to take a risk, couldn’t that be the start of innovation, change, and the progression of a system?

      I would challenge your assertion that the number one issue for registered voters and parents of my students is NOT how students are learning. I think parents focus on grades because that is literally the only feedback they receive about their student from the system. Past elementary, there are no more parent-teacher conferences where learning and personalized attention can be the focus. So the only way a parent can track their students learning is checking their online grades which are predicated on the antiquated 100-point, A–> F scale. Parents focus on this to help their student succeed. But I think parents care FAR more about their students’ learning, whether they are going to be prepared for future success in a job or higher education, and whether they are learning crucial literacy, digital, research, and citizenship skills. I think you sell your voters and communities short by claiming they just care about grades as a checklist for shallow success.

      Finally, sir, I am conducting this thought experiment publicly to learn. I am speaking with my students about grading, I am doing the research on what the experts have discovered, and I have  invited both my administration AND my school board members (who also happen to be parents) to follow my blog. If I decide to “experiment” with a standards-based or alternative feedback system, I would do so after consulting my principal and also after contacting parents to share with them the reasoning behind it. Your condescension of my professionalism regarding this is not appreciated; however, your perspective and questions are. I hope in future comments, you bring the latter without the former.

  • BillIvey


    … first of all, this “minority view” is supported by no less than the Association for Middle Level Education in the research-based This We Believe (now in its 4th edition) which enumerates the 16 characteristics of successful middle schools. They recognize not all districts will have this flexibility, and discuss ways to handle this. But they are also clear that eliminating letter grades in favour of standards-based assessment would benefit young adolescent students in a number of ways.

    Second, I teach in an independent IB school (grades 7-12) that basically sends 100% of its students to college. Parents sign one-year contracts with us, and so if they disapproved strongly of our practices, they would probably not sign up in the first place, and if they were upset with the results, they would probably not re-up. Yet, we retain virtually 100% of our 7th graders into 8th grade, and the vast majority of parents are happy to ecstatic with our program. For a variety of reasons, we don’t retain as many 8th graders into 9th grade (for example, some kids transfer to their parents’ independent schools for high school, and we always have a number of one-year exchange kids from other countries), but that can’t actually be blamed on dissatisfaction with the middle school standards-based assessment system as the upper school still uses letter grades.

    In short, the bottom line for our parents is “Are our daughters both happy and learning?” And the answer appears to be yes. And I believe standards-based assessment is one important factor.

  • Elizabeth Skelton


    Indeed, the traditional US grading system is in desperate need of a major overhaul.  I wrote a recent blog post about the topic and my daughter's experience with traditional grading at:



  • Richard M Marshall

    Grading Systems–no matter how you dice it

    There is an elegant (and accurate) solution to the grading problem. The first step is to stop debating whether 0% or 50% should be the basement grade. This is an easy one.  If you use a 10 point grade scale, then the lowest grade must be 50.  Here's why.  If A has a 10 point range (90 – 100), and a B has a 10 point range (80 – 89), and C (70 – 79) and D (60 -69) than F must also be 10 points (50 – 59).  Why should an F have a range of 50 points? It can't, you can't just make all intervals 10 point and make one 50 points.  What if a B had an interval of 50 points! That's crazy, isn't it?  

    If you want a 100 point grading system to measure the PERCENTAGE of work a student  has competed, have at it.  That's okay.  But you can't attach a grade to that percentage UNLESS the grades have equal intervals.  If an A spans 20 points, then an F has to span 20 points.  The problem is that we are mixing a percentage grading system with the 10 point grading system.  And that creates a problem unless the interval for each grade is the same.   

    There are many alternatives to our current grading system (and I include them in a manuscript I have written on this topic). But we really need to reach an agreement on the interval problem so that we stop arguing whether the basement grade should be 0 or 50 or whatever.  That's a nonissue and it gets in the way of the important issues you are trying to discuss.


  • JoyKirr

    I’ve jumped in!

    Thanks for this post, Brianna! I added it to the Feedback Instead of Grades LiveBinder I curate: I’m going gradeless this next year in my 7th grade ELA, and have been blogging about it, as well. My journey is near yours, just under a different tab. 😉