Why Do We Grade?
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
What our grading practices say about our values and how the pandemic might be shaking things up
I've been interested in grading for about as long as I've been a teacher. Why do we grade the way we do? Have we really thought about why we give students grades and whether our practices are the best way to achieve our educational goals? How much of our thinking is governed by simple inertia? After all, every teacher was once a student and our first ideas about grading likely formed when we were on the other side of the blackboard (whiteboard? Smartboard? computer screen?). Remote learning this past spring has raised some worthwhile questions about grading and it's possible there may be some space for discussion (and disruption) where it previously did not exist.
Before I continue, here's some context. I'm entering my 13th year of teaching. Most of my career has been spent working in "remedial" settings with struggling learners, mostly 9th and 10th graders. I am now a special education teacher (entering my third year) and this role has exposed me to other content areas and grade levels. I've recently taught self-contained eighth grade math and I've co-taught English and science courses. As a resource teacher, I've gained valuable insight into how students interpret and understand grades across their various classes. I recognize that I come to this discussion with a certain perspective that has some limitations (for example, I am not a parent and I do not teach honors or AP courses).
My school's policies around grading could be described as "traditional" and are strikingly similar to how I was graded when I attended high school in the early aughts. Actually, my parents and grandparents would probably find the system familiar too. Percentages are somehow calculated each quarter and are converted to letter grades (with + or -'s possible). A weighted GPA is produced and a class rank based on this GPA is available to students starting in their junior year. Teachers are given significant freedom to create their own grading schemes and so there are a wide variety of approaches in use. In one somewhat recent development, the use of online grading tools permit students and families to view grades in real time while also allowing teachers to rely on their computers' algorithmic muscle to incorporate more category weighting into their grading calculations.
I think it's often worth reconsidering longstanding practices as we gain new experience and our values shift. In my opinion, it's time to have this discussion about grading. In this post, I'd just like to focus on what motivates grading in my experience and how remote learning might be shifting those motivations.
What are grades for?
I recently made a list of reasons for grades under non-pandemic, or "normal," conditions. Many items from this list appear in Thomas Guskey's book On Your Mark (an interesting read if you're keen to dig deeper into grading) and it shouldn't be considered an exhaustive list. I decided to group my reasons into two categories based on my experiences: those reasons (or values) that are most reflected in our grading practices and those that aren't.
The reasons I placed in the first category above are bolstered by some beliefs or assumptions that educators (and probably parents and students) commonly have. Some of these assumptions might be unconsidered or not explicitly stated, but our practice makes them evident:
Students won’t work on academic tasks if they aren’t graded.
Ranking students according to their grades is a way to celebrate academic achievement and motivate all students.
When a student gets a ‘good’ grade, that means they worked harder. If they get a poor grade, it’s a signal that they need to put in more effort.
GPA and class rank are important for college admissions. Scholarship applications sometimes request information about grades and rank.
Grades are useful as a lever when communicating with students and families to motivate more student effort.
The reasons I put in the second category are less likely to be reflected in grading as I've seen it practiced. For example, the way we grade isn't especially useful for evaluating instruction or curriculum. Grading plans vary widely throughout our school building and even within departments. Scores on some assessments are available to the district and the State Education Department but our experiences with this exchange are mostly punitive rather than constructive (“your students need to improve on this metric”). When it comes to feedback, I believe that we teachers sometimes assume that grades themselves are good feedback for students. There's evidence that there are better ways to give instructive feedback that encourages and motivates students. If giving feedback were really something we valued, we would probably consider redirecting some of the resources currently spent on grading towards more effective approaches.
I placed "incentivizing learning" in both categories because it's a reason that many adults would offer but one that isn't always well-reflected in our actual grading practices. It's true that there are students who are motivated by grades (in fact, most teachers were exactly this kind of student). But the students I work with largely do not consider grades to be a motivating factor. On the contrary, by the time I meet students, many have landed on an self-identity largely shaped by their inability to get "good" grades. A surprising number of these students sometimes ignore grades. This is a reasonable defense mechanism for them but one that leads to cascading problems as they move through the school system. Remote learning gives us an opportunity to reconsider this reason (more on this later).
Grading during remote learning
This spring, the sudden move to remote learning led to some extended hand-wringing about grades. Interestingly, the discussion seemed to focus on the idea of fairness. How could we give students grades when each student's ability to fully participate in remote learning was different? I found this to be ironic as the conditions that made learning difficult during remote learning were certainly present for many students prior to our closure, yet we considered our approach to grading to be fair then. Poverty, food insecurity, and even homelessness were never taken into account when we considered grading before the pandemic. Eventually, we were asked to give students a "pass" or "incomplete" for the fourth quarter of remote instruction. Here are the same reasons I mentioned above but sorted to reflect my experience of teaching remotely:
Remote learning was disorienting for students and teachers to say the least. Grading was just one aspect of our educational model that had to be reworked and adapted for our new paradigm. As a teacher, I often had only a small percentage of my students fully engaged in remote instruction. This fact, coupled with the reality that we didn't get firm answers on how we should grade until late in the spring, meant that most of my energy was focused on non-grade based feedback with the students who happened to be engaged. I used email, phone, and text to talk about school tasks and math problems. I tried to give useful feedback via Google Classroom and PDF annotations. In some ways, this felt more genuine than the grades I would usually be trying to assign. I was without my normal avenues of gauging student engagement and understanding so when I did "grade" student work, I paid heightened attention. Were my methods working or did I need to try that app my teacher friend was doing? I made numerous changes throughout the spring, most of which were based on student input and assessments.
Some reasons for grading seemed to drop in importance during remote learning. Grades weren't used to give feedback about our instructional program. State testing was canceled. Assessments (such as final exams) that could conceivably enable teachers and school leaders to evaluate curriculum were mostly absent. Of the many losses of the 2019-20 school year, I suspect few tears were shed over these retrenchments. That might tell us something about their ultimate value.
Grades also weren't used for identifying or sorting students. Without letter grades during the fourth quarter, GPA calculations had to be reconsidered and academic recognition programs (such as honor roll or student of the quarter) were disrupted. In contrast, a program nominating students for character awards based on staff nominations was able to continue.
Other normal reasons for grading were in flux. Students guessed early on that they wouldn't be held accountable for academic work during remote learning and this turned out to be mostly true. Anecdotally, some percentage of students just decided that there was no longer a need for them to engage in school at all since they were not being graded in the usual way. One exception here was seniors. As usual, teachers were tasked with hounding disengaged seniors to complete schoolwork lest they fail to graduate. Although I do not teach many seniors, this minimum amount of "work" seemed even more arbitrary than usual.
Finally, there was a impetus to continue to use grading as a form of communication as it had been before the pandemic. However, report cards sent home with new grades like "P" probably caused a certain amount of head-scratching. What does it mean to earn a "P"? Is it the same from one teacher to the next? Did my student do exactly enough work or the bare minimum? Did they learn anything? One could argue that the same questions could be asked about our standard letter grades, although their familiarity means many of us haven't considered them carefully in some time (or maybe ever).
Remote learning and grades as incentives
If I asked students, parents, or teachers what would happen if we stopped grading students tomorrow, I expect many would say some version of "without grades, students will not be motivated to engage in school." In some ways, the pandemic could be understood to validate this point of view. Grades were mostly suspended and student engagement collapsed. I don't doubt that some student disengagement could be attributed to students not taking remote "school" seriously. It's telling, however, that grades are so central to the academic world of our students that any hint of their abolition for even a single quarter meant that they quickly decided that they had nothing to gain from participation. I believe that our emphasis on grading (as opposed to actual mastery of skills and content that students find interesting or relevant), has created a situation where grades are the primary reason to participate in our educational system. The tragic element is that this same focus simultaneously causes a certain segment of students to become disengaged during the best of times because they perceive (often correctly) that either grades will never measure their efforts favorably or will never measure anything that is ultimately important to them.
So... what can we learn from this spring? Assuming remote learning continues in some form next school year, what priorities should drive our assessment and grading plans? What lessons can we ultimately apply as we reconsider what grading could look like in the future? I'm hoping to consider these questions in a future post!