Why worry about grading?

Portrait of a nervous female student biting her nails over open textbooks with a thought bubble above filled with student dread.

With all of the pressures and demands on teachers, principals, and districts, why focus on improving how we grade?

Grading is more than the final letter on a report card. Grading is woven into the daily practice of every teacher every day. Each teacher decides, often entirely on her own, how to allocate points, whether effort, participation, and growth are included in a grade along with content mastery, if essays can be revised and tests retaken, and if missing assignments receive zeros. Teachers have nearly total power—and responsibility—over their grading policies, with significant consequences for student performance and classroom culture. I have seen teachers use grades to punish or incentivize students, to assert authority or distribute power, to make learning opaque or give students agency, and to encourage cutthroat competition or build empowering classroom community.

Despite the power and impact of a teacher’s grading system, many administrators are wary of discussing grading with teachers. Because grading is so entirely within teachers’ discretion, traditional approaches—asking teachers to reduce the number of F’s they assign, or decreeing schoolwide grading policies—is often met with understandably strong resistance.

Yet teachers have rarely had the preparation or permission to examine grading in all of its complexity; grading is not addressed in pre-service training or school-embedded professional development. Teachers often base their grading practices on the experiences they had as students or the settings of their grading software. Without exposure to broader perspectives and opportunities to revisit their assumptions, teachers may inadvertently use practices that have been shown to be inaccurate, unfair, biased, dispiriting to students, and contrary to what we know about motivation and learning.

Teachers I work with feel empowered when they learn about how our grading practices are an inheritance from the Industrial Revolution, and that other ways to grade are fairer, more accurate, support learning, and actually promote more successful teaching. They feel respected and valued when they aren’t expected to simply adopt new ways to grade and assess, but are allowed to try out new practices in their classrooms, collect data on its effects, and share their data with colleagues. The result? Failure rates of students decrease significantly, particularly among the most vulnerable populations. Furthermore, discussions of grading evolve into reconsideration of core elements of teaching practices: What is the purpose and use of formative assessments? What is homework for? How does a culture of revision and redemption support learning?

Why worry about grading? Because examining grading improves student experiences and outcomes almost immediately, and leads to reflections on critical pedagogical discussions. See some result. As one teacher put it, “This professional development literally forced me to be more reflective on what I do. How does what I’m doing benefit my students? Since I’m being more reflective, it allows me to be more equitable and allows my students to demonstrate more mastery of the concepts, instead of me just saying, ‘Sorry, this is your grade.’”