Thoughts on Grading Practices

In the classroom, I had a difficult time assigning grades to student work.  Several “team time” conversations amounted to a general consensus that grading is hard work–not the process of grading, but actually figuring out what makes a difference between an 8/10, 9/10, 90/100, or 400/500.  Really, what is a “grade” other than an arbitrary number we teachers, the all-knowing keepers of grading secrets (“You–A,  You–B”), assign to a task.  Having never experienced a course on grading practices in all seven+ years of college, no one has ever explicitly said to me, “This is a good way to grade.”  So I fell into a trap of counting the number of questions/tasks/alternatives, making that the total, and counting the number of errors.  Like magic, number correct divided by number of total options equals an appropriate score–I wave my grading wand and *poof* the student has a grade in the online system.

It makes me sad to admit all of that.  It makes me sad to think of the number of kids I hurt when their one failed attempt at a question caused the assignment to go into the gradebook as a 90%.  How many college admissions transcripts did I smudge with my thumbprint of ineffective grading?  How many A+ students walked away from my class with a C- because I didn’t know how to evaluate them effectively.

This year, before I left my classroom, was really my first attempt at adopting new grading practices.  I was tired of my “bell curve” expectation that so many students should fall within expected grade ranges.  I wanted more meaningful grading, something to better reflect progress rather than single snapshots of practice.

I began thinking about how I graded essays.  In the past, I graded both the progress and the product, assigning 30 points for completed outlines and drafts, and using the district-adopted rubric for grading the final.  Last year was the first year I offered revisions to my students, but I required a writing conference and additional steps (reflective paper requiring them to detail the changes they made and what they learned).  This year, I questioned putting the writing conference after the initial grade–Why shouldn’t a paper be in its best form when the student hands it in?  Why can’t all students receive a 100% on that final product?  If they have completed revisions, conferenced with me, and revised in class, why wouldn’t a final paper be in nearly “perfect” condition (I emphasize “perfect” because we all know there is no “perfect” in writing!).

This morning, I read “Courageous Conversation:  Formative Assessment and Grading” by Andrew Miller (@betamiller on Twitter), which initiated my need to post.  I like the way Miller defines the difference between assessment and grading:

We grade assessments, and assessments reflect learning that has occurred. However, the concept of grading and assessment is complicated, and has further been complicated by the many ways that education reform has manifested itself in the classroom.

Assessment, then, is not the same as “grading.”  I hated “grading,” but I could have given feedback on assessments all day long.  I would have preferred to read an essay (or any other task), write focused comments (“What you’re using as support from the text does not support what you say you are arguing,” for example), and hand the work back for the student to reflect on and either try again, or try differently; I hated marking “wrong answers” and connecting that to the arbitrary numbers.

I want to connect these thoughts back to something I posted before about “I can” statements and the “I can” statements for 9-10 I published.  First, I want to say that my “I can” statements aren’t the best, but they were a starting point when I began looking at the CCSS this summer.  I needed something to work with, so I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.  Now that I know more about deconstructing the standards, which the Kentucky Department of Education has also attempted to do, I know my I cans  were not broken down as far as they could have been, but again, they were a starting point.  In my “How I’m Using Those I Can’s” post, I detailed my development of units around the learning targets.  My grading practices this year changed as a result of using the learning targets.

I found that telling the students the specific learning for the day and talking about 1) What the target means, and 2) What the target looks like helped my teaching tremendously.  Students knew what they were supposed to show in their answers, and they knew if the target wasn’t focused on grammar and spelling, then I wasn’t grading grammar and spelling (and I made sure I didn’t!).  They knew if they were to prove what the text said directly, they needed to show what the text said directly.  We had common language for expectations.

Grading became an easier (though still arbitrary) task.  All of my formative work was worth 10 points, regardless of the length.  If students were progressing toward the goal, they could miss a few problems and still get a 9 or 10 out of 10, because the goal was to learn the target.  If the student was “developing” or at the “beginning” level, he or she might get a 6, 7, or 8 out of 10 with the option to redo the assignment (here was my opportunity for differentiated instruction) and turn it back in for full credit.  The summative test at the end of the unit reflected the targets they were to learn.  I would provide them with a new, but similar, text and ask them questions aimed at those targets.  After all, I didn’t want them to restate everything we discussed in class, I wanted them to apply what we learned in class to a new text.

I knew I was doing something appropriate when one of my struggling students said, “You mean, all I have to do is show you that I can prove what the author says indirectly and you’ll give me credit?”  Sadly, I thought, what did he think his educational experience was supposed to be about all these years?

I’m not saying my system was perfect, but I was making some strides.  I think Miller is spot-on in his discussion of formative grading practices, and I think that is the way we, as a society, should move in terms of education.  Unfortunately, we are “reward-based”; we associate higher pay and higher grades with better work.  Until that mindset changes, until we see learning as something more qualitative than quantitative, we will continue our arbitrary grading practices.

Related Resources:

2/29–ASCD blogger Mark Barnes addresses the problems with assigning grades in “Five Reasons I Don’t Give Grades


9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Grading Practices

  1. Pingback: Feeling Overwhelmed with CCSS? Simplify, simplify, simplify « Turn On Your Brain

  2. Pingback: Creating Units Based on Learning Targets « Turn On Your Brain

  3. As I stare at my desk full of essays, know that tomorrow I will be circling the room as students write more, and read your thought-provoking blog, I realize my brain may explode. Nonetheless, the challenges you put forth and the ideas to meet the challenge are awesome.

    I am going to revisit this blog and probably follow up with questions to gather more information. Thanks for sharing so much knowledge. I had to pass your blog on to our Learning and Teaching, formerly known as Curriculum, Department and the staffs at out district’s two high schools.


    • How wonderful! When I had students, I used to think, “If I can just impact one student, just one, then I have done something significant with my day/month/year/life.” When I hear that what I have written has even the slightest impact on any educator, I feel the same way. Thank you for your comment, and let me know if there is anything I can do!


      • I will. Every Spring I reflect on my teaching practices and begin to plan for the next year. We are working on our Core Curriculum currently and my head is swimming with ideas. (And I am teaching, grading, planning, taking a class, and living the life of a father of four.) I am not complaining; having too much fun for that. Merely explaining that I may not be able to handle major changes this year, but I would like to try a few ideas out on my current classes. I will keep you posted.


      • That’s awesome! It wasn’t until I left my classroom last November that I realized how little time teachers truly have. Now that I actually have free time, I can completely appreciate how difficult the job is–throw in all the other life things teachers deal with, and it’s simply mind boggling they are able to have a life at all! I have true appreciation for all you do. Best of luck as the school year winds down 🙂


  4. Pingback: CCSS Tip Sheets from ODE « Turn On Your Brain

  5. Pingback: RtI, FA, and Paying Attention to Each Student « Turn On Your Brain

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