Despite over a century of school reforms, grading systems have remained relatively unchanged. The single grade a student gets at the end of a term is usually made up of a combination of information about the student’s achievement, growth, compliance, effort, and behavior. When this is true, what does a grade mean? For example, is a “B” student someone who works hard but doesn’t quite master content, or the student who knows the content but hands in every assignment late? Even though we recognize that grades are such a hodgepodge of information, making it nearly impossible for us to really understand what a student’s grade really describes about them, grades are the basis for major decisions about the student (pass or fail, graduation, college admission, athletic eligibility) and for school resources (what remedial supports are provided and to whom).

Report Card
Report Card from 1918, a handwritten version of the same report card design we have today.

Why isn’t the discussion of teacher grades a larger part of school improvement strategies? In part, because grades seem to be so simple–just the summation of points. Yet a teacher’s grading system is woven into every aspect of her practice, from daily homework to final exams. Every pedagogical practice is implicated in a teacher’s grading system.

For example, if a student doesn’t hand in an assignment, does she get a zero? Are late assignments accepted? How much is the grade lowered as penalty? Is homework graded? Are tests curved? Are students graded on effort or growth? Can students retake tests and projects? Every teacher answers these questions differently, which often results in students’ grades being more reflective of the teacher’s grading system than the student’s academic performance. This should cause us to legitimately doubt whether we are making high-stakes decisions about students based on reliable data.

Additionally, inequity is woven into our current (i.e., traditional) grading practices: categories included in grades such as “effort”, “growth”, and “participation” are based entirely on a teacher’s subjective judgments. We know that teachers interpret student behaviors differently based on the student’s race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Including these criteria makes a grade more reflective of how the teacher interprets a student’s actions than what the student knows and can do.

Finally, in this world of Common Core State Standards and high-stakes national testing, grading is one aspect of teaching that teachers have nearly sole authority over. Unfortunately, teachers aren’t given support to think critically about grading in schools of education, in-service training, or professional development in schools. Instead, teachers often grade and assess based on their own experiences as students, what their fellow teachers tell them, or to accommodate the grading software. We need to support teachers with this critical responsibility.

Crescendo Education Group helps teachers to improve the accuracy and fairness of how they grade and assess by treating them as professional learners. First, teachers learn about the history of grading, and how educators in this country have inherited a 100-year-old system that was never designed to promote learning. Teachers learn about grading and assessment practices that have been proven to be more accurate and fair. Then, teachers try out a practice–whichever one they want–in their classroom, and collect data about the effect of that practice. They share their data with colleagues, and together they make meaning of the data and consider how the practice could be further refined to improve the results. We repeat this cycle–learning new information, trying new practices, sharing our individual results–throughout the year. By learning from and with each other, teachers build a collective understanding of how improved grading and assessment benefits students. This isn’t the normal professional development approach, but one that treats teachers as drivers and owners of their own learning.

Teachers who have participated in our professional development have seen proven results:

  1. Fewer students fail classes and fewer students receive A’s, because students are no longer rewarded or penalized for compliance or perceived “effort”.
  2. Students have a clearer understanding of teachers’ expectations, and students feel more ownership and efficacy–that if they work hard, they can succeed. Students also have greater trust in the teacher that they will receive a grade that accurately and fairly reflects what they know.
  3. Teachers become more thoughtful and deliberate in their lesson and unit planning. Teachers design formative assessments (e.g., homework, classwork) that allow for students to practice and make mistakes without penalty, and that the teacher can use to develop additional supports. Teachers’ summative assessments (tests, projects) are more tightly matched to standards and more authentically capture student knowledge and skills.