What’s in a Grade?

Posted by Whitney Dove on May 2, 2017 6:20:38 AM

In ninth grade, I did a leaf collection project for my biology class. My grandfather, a science professor, and my dad, a medical doctor, helped me make sure that my specimens were correctly identified, prepared, mounted, and labeled. I remember painstakingly typing out the genus and species’ names, capitalizing the genus, and using lowercase for the species’ names. I remember thinking the rule quite odd, but followed it nonetheless. I was very proud of that project, and handed it in with a sigh of relief, knowing I had done my very best work. A few weeks later, the teacher handed my project back to me with every single name of every single species circled in red, and a giant “-5 points” scrawled across each page. I remember fighting back tears and approaching my teacher. “What did I do wrong?” I asked. “Well, you didn’t capitalize the species’ names!” she barked back.

But I was right and she was wrong. I failed that project, and I have never forgotten it. My teacher did something that millions of other teachers do every single day—take points off for not following instructions. I didn’t follow her instructions because it was bad science, and luckily, I had people in my life to tell me that. But it didn’t matter to her. It didn’t match her example and was therefore wrong. She couldn’t have cared less about whether the trees were identified correctly or whether I had learned anything, and she had very little insight into my actual thinking, but by golly, I didn’t capitalize some words, so I failed.

Clearly, this experience still haunts me, and so I sought to prevent it for students in my own teaching. I, too, assigned a leaf project, and I made sure my students used the correct format for labeling the genus and species’ names. I took points off when they capitalized the species’ names!

Maybe I missed the point, too. Let’s investigate further.

What are grades?

Merriam-Webster provides two definitions:

  1. A position in a scale of ranks or qualities, and
  2. A stage in a process.

Airasian (1994) elaborates on this, saying that schools use grades for:

  1. administrative purposes
  2. giving students feedback about their progress and achievement
  3. providing guidance to students about future coursework
  4. providing guidance for teachers for instructional planning
  5. motivating students.

Which of these resonates with you? Do your grading practices support these uses?

I started my teaching career with a strict approach to ranking students in terms of grades and for administrative purposes. I also fully believed that I was preparing my students for the real world: I equated success on the tasks with success outside the classroom. I also held onto the idea that I played a part in making sure that some students were successful in the academic program and others were not. Hasn’t the system always had a way of differentiating between those who succeed and those who don’t? My grades had to support that system, didn’t they?

I can say quite honestly that my grading system did not adequately support the purposes Airasian lists above, but I really wish it had. Let’s take a look at an example. Here is a sample gradebook, showing the averages of five students.


Which student appears to be most successful in this class?

Which student appears to be struggling the most?

If you said Adams is successful and Baker appears to be struggling, you are interpreting the data correctly. Now, let’s look at the assignments to gather more information.

Do your thoughts about who is succeeding and who is struggling change after looking at the assignments?

Hopefully, we start to see that Adams is inconsistent, despite maintaining the highest average, and that Baker may not be struggling as much as we thought. What about Davis? What does our data say about that student? Let’s look even closer.

What do you notice?

Adams’ grade of 90 is quite misleading! It seems that Adams does particularly well on assignments that involve “following directions,” but if the quiz grades are accurate, he does not seem to be fully understanding the content. What about Baker? Baker may be losing points for not turning in work on time, but is doing quite well on quizzes and tests. Is it possible that Baker has mastered the content of cells better than Adams? Do the grades reflect that?

How do our grading practices shape our understanding of student learning?

Look at Elliot’s data above. Assuming these grades denote chronological order, think about what might have happened between the time Elliot took the Cell quiz and time he took the Cell test. Did Elliot have a chance to improve his understanding of cells? Perhaps the teacher was able to spot a deficiency in his understanding of cells and provide some intervention. In this case, it appears that the data informed the teacher’s planning. It allowed that teacher to focus on students who did not do well and help them prepare for the test. In this case, the grades did what grades should do.

In most of the other cases, grades for the study guide, vocabulary, and participation cloud the teacher’s ability to gain insight into each student’s true understanding. Why are grades even in the gradebook? What do they tell us about each student’s learning?

So, your school says that you have to give homework and that you have to grade it. Does the grade have to count towards the student’s average? Let’s try something else.

Here’s the same data, but this time the study guide, vocabulary, and participation do not count toward the average.

Notice that the information about the out-of-class assignments is still available. Because Baker’s parents can see what’s going on when it comes to completing assignments and participation, they might have a talk with their child. At the same time, they can see that Baker seems to understand the content. In the Adams’ household, they might have a very different conversation.

Grading systems are complex and intricate, and I would never try to oversimplify the matter. I am, however, suggesting that teachers take a closer look at how they might be obscuring their understanding of student performance by including grades for assignments that do not reflect mastery of content. Also, consider the effect this has on the student. Does our student Adams feel a false sense of safety under the “old” system? What about Baker? Is it right for Baker to be failing the class? Some would undoubtedly argue yes: if Baker does not turn in assignments, then he should not pass the class. They would say, “It is our job to teach responsibility and prepare them for college.” I understand that argument, and I don’t completely disagree. I just don’t think that we have to use grades as a way to hand out punishment for failing to meet responsibility expectations. Is there no other way to reinforce this skill? Can’t we keep grades separate from responsibility and participation?

In sixth grade, I had an English teacher who would give us all bonus points if we brought candles into her classroom. She complained that her room got stinky after we all came back from P.E. (and boy did it!), and she pleaded for some sweet-smelling candles to mask it. I had not done well on a few assignments and I remember begging my mom to buy candles so I could have better grades. My mom simply wouldn’t stand for it, saying, “Grades can’t be bought!” She was right. Likewise, although we can’t just give grades arbitrarily, many of us are OK with deducting points arbitrarily.

  • You talked during the assignment! -10 points off
  • Your writing is illegible! -10 points off
  • You stapled the pages in the wrong order! -10 points off

With every deduction (or addition) of points, we weaken the value of the assessment’s ability to tell us what the student knows. We use the power we have over the student’s grade to pass judgment on his or her ability to complete a task as directed. If a grade is intended to provide a view into student understanding, we have to consider carefully the types of grades we collect and the methods we use to determine them. My hope is that we can maintain a tight connection between our grades and the learning standards they intend to address, and that a student’s grade is an accurate reflection of the degree to which he or she has mastered those standards.

For more information, please consider checking out the following resources:

Classroom Assessment – Peter Airasian and Michael Russell

Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work – Robert J. Marzano

Classroom Assessment: Principles and Practice for Effective Standards-Based Instruction – James H. McMillan