The Tyranny of Grading Software

Education research and ideation - woman researches and studies on laptop

How do electronic gradebooks undermine teachers’ professionalism and anchor them to an inaccurate and unfair grading system?

Grading has come a long way from the paper grid sheets I used when I started teaching. Grading programs are now integrated into a suite of “Student Information Software”, or “SIS” that promise to make it easier for teachers to categorize and weight different types of assignments, enter student scores, and arrive at a final grade. Even though grading programs and software are designed to make grading more transparent and simpler for teachers, they actually prevent teachers from grading accurately and fairly.

The ease of the grading software has unintended consequences that affect both teachers and students. Because it is so simple for the teacher to have different categories of assignments, I have seen teachers include in the grade nearly every element of a student’s existence—tests, quizzes, homework, classwork, participation, effort, attitude, growth, attendance, preparation, projects, and even extra credit—to which the teacher assigns a percentage weight (for example, tests are 50% of student’s final grade). The following example is from an actual teacher’s syllabus:

Homework: 12½%
Classwork: 12½%
Effort: 10%
Participation: 15%
Tests: 30%
Projects: 15%
Growth: 5%

While this functionality allows a teacher to assign a relative value to different types of student tasks, and to let students know that everything “counts”, it becomes nearly impossible for the teacher to truly understand how a grade is calculated. When a student or parent questions the final grade, the teacher is left with the weak response, “That’s how the program calculated it.” When a student asks what he can do to improve the grade, the teacher cannot with any certainty advise the student about how to increase the final percentage, but can only recommend broad (and generally unhelpful) strategies, like doing better on tests or handing in more homework. Though we believe that these grading programs, which allow one-click progress reports, make our grading more transparent to students, this nearly impenetrable complexity prevents students from seeing the relationship between their efforts and results. Instead, it unfortunately reinforces what many students have learned: their grade is arbitrarily assigned by the teacher, unrelated to their achievement and work, and therefore is a description not of what they know and have accomplished, but of who they are.

Additionally, too many teachers feel dependent and even intimidated by the software. When the grading program calculates the final grades, the teacher can feel no choice but to submit those final grades, even if they do not match her assessment and professional judgment of her students. The bolder teacher will attempt to “trick” the grading program: to manipulate the calculation so that it gives students the grade she believes is correct. For example, if a student has a 89.4%, only .1% away from an 89.5% that rounds up to an “A”, the teacher will scour the scores entered and search for ways to make the calculation add .1%. Perhaps she’ll drop the lowest test grade, or offer an extra credit assignment to the student, or provide a test retake. Teachers might create a category that is entirely subjective—like “effort”—with the explicit purpose of using that category to “correct” the final calculation if it doesn’t match her judgment. Grading devolves into a game of points and manipulation—and that’s for the teacher!

Accepting and relying on grading software entrenches the problems of our grading systems and hogties teachers. In my work with schools, teachers without exception make their grading more fair and accurate only to find their efforts blocked by the grading software. Grading programs don’t allow retakes (i.e., multiple grades to be entered for a single test), a 1-4 grading scale (which allows a more proportional grading scale), or a category weighted at 0% (so scores can be recorded for feedback without being included in the final calculation). Teachers feel so proud of their improved practices and see their students succeeding at unprecedented rates, only to become frustrated at things beyond their control. Their school’s or district’s grading programs, designed by non-educators, force them to use traditional and discredited methods that make grades inaccurate, unfair, complicated, and obfuscating—in short, that make it hard to teach in ways that best help students learn. Let’s be smart consumers and advocates, and demand that the software designers respond to our growing understanding of effective grading practices. We as professionals, and more importantly, our students, deserve it.