For the last two years, I’ve been moving farther away from conventional grades. This has been a huge shift for me. I used to grade everything and dump hundreds of points into my digital grade book over the course of a semester. When grades were due, my grade book spits out a percentage for each student and that was the grade he/she received.

There are several problems with this approach. For this blog post I will focus on the top three problems with the traditional approach to giving grades:

  • Grades happened to students.
  • Grades did not require that students think about their learning.
  • Grades did not necessarily reflect mastery of grade-level skills.

Traditional Grades Happen To Students

[clickToTweet tweet=”Like too many aspects of edu, students play a passive role in the traditional grading system. ” quote=”Like too many aspects of education, students play a very passive role in the traditional grading system. “] They submit work, that work is assessed by the teacher, and the teacher enters a score into a grade book. If a teacher uses percentages, then the student may not even understand why a particular assignment impacted their overall grade in the way it did. For many students, the grades they receive when a report card comes home is a surprise. That’s a problem.

Grades shouldn’t be a surprise. They should not happen to students. Grades and the development of skills should be an ongoing conversation between the teacher and student. (For more on this, check out my blog “Conversations Instead of Grades.”)

Traditional Grades Do Not Require Students Think About Their Learning

Grading and assessment are probably the most time-consuming aspect of a teacher’s job. We feel we must stay on top of each child’s progress and attempt to know where they are in their learning at all times. Ironically, students are rarely asked to evaluate their work and reflect on what is says about their learning. This makes no sense to me.

In John Hattie’s work, he states that “self-reported grades come out at the top of all influences [on student achievement]. Children are the most accurate when predicting how they will perform.” Hattie highlights the importance of having students set goals for their academic success. After setting goals, students should be given time to look at their work and reflect on what that work reveals about their skills and academic progress.

This year, I dumped my digital grade book and instead share a Google document with each student that has target standards and skills for each unit. I give students time every single day to open this shared document and select a piece of work to reflect on.

They give themselves a score between 1-4 to indicate where they believe they are on the road to mastering this skill given the work they did on this specific assignment. They link to their work or insert a photo, then write a couple of sentences explaining why they gave themselves a particular score. I like that this approach requires that they think critically about their work and what it reveals about their journey towards mastery. (For more on this approach, check out my blog: Ditching Traditional Grades & My Online Gradebook)

Traditional Grades Do Not Necessarily Reflect Mastery of Grade-level Skills

[clickToTweet tweet=”Some students do well in school because they understand the game.” quote=”Some students do well in school because they understand the game.”] They turn in all of their assignments and manage their time well. These students typically receive top marks for their effort. However, effort is not the same as mastering skills. I felt uncomfortable about this reality for years. I had students who received As on their report cards because they did everything I asked them to do, but I knew that some of those students were not actually A-level students in terms of their English skills.

In fact, I’ve had several tough conversations with students this year about their skill levels. I have students who have always received As and expected to continue doing so in my class. When we look through their body of work during our grade conversations, they have everything submitted but their scores hover between 2.5-3 on most skills. They don’t like hearing that they are not receiving an A because they have not demonstrated mastery of those skills.

Even though these conversations are hard, they motivate kids to keep practicing and working. Students seek me out for strategies about how to develop their research and analytical skills. They are aware that my focus is on their development as learners and not on the accumulation of points.

As another year winds down and many of us are gearing up to send home final grades, I think it’s healthy to question how we approach grading. Do students know what their grades will be? Have they been asked to set academic goals and reflect on their learning? Are their grades a reflection of their skills?

17 Responses

  1. I teach at a Glasser Quality School, based on the ideas of Dr. William Glasser. At our school, we also address the problem of grading taking away the intrinsic value for learning in our students. When they arrive at our school, many students have previously realized that they can get their power needs met, at least short term, by refusing to work hard. No one can make them work or achieve academic success. They feel that their educations are being done TO them by the adults in their lives and they don’t see the point, so they resist doing the work.

    Although we still grade, students can only earn A’s or B’s on their assignments. If they don’t reach the B mark, they must keep on working, trying new methods to get at the meaning and skills they need. They can stay after school for extra help, and we also offer Saturday School, for students who have decided they would like to get complete. It’s not required at all. It’s completely voluntary, yet it’s usually crowded.

    What we see, after decades of this “experiment,” is that our students gradually move toward an intrinsic value to their work. They begin to ask questions such as, “Why did I let myself fall behind in my work and get all these incomplete grades? Why didn’t I work toward a B or an A? Don’t I want to graduate? How do I plan to graduate without getting these credits?” Once this type of self-assessment forms in a student’s mind, then academic achievement of a high order isn’t far behind.

    We lay the blame for the lack of motivation so often seen in high school and middle school students squarely on the back of the extrinsic grading system, where teachers label their students. This is especially damaging because it gives students permission to stop working. We really can’t understand this at all anymore. If we know that a student has poor essay writing skills, for instance, how can we, as the professionals in his life, give him the out to quit working on them by writing down an F in the grade book? Not only does that F tell the student that we think they are deficient, it allows them to give up on learning these skills and to define themselves as no good at writing essays.

    In reality, the fact that students are simply lacking in essay writing skills at some point in their lives is normal. No one is born knowing how to write essays. Everyone needs help to master these complex skills. Just about everyone needs plenty of practice and support. Giving an F or even worse, a D, only gives an excuse to stop working on these important skills. Without further work, how do we expect any student to improve? And we see that once failure starts in many students’ careers, it continues and becomes an inner self-criticism and even a self-hatred.

    We often hear the argument from the schools that use the failure-based grading systems that our mastery learning is too easy. From our students, though, we hear that it is very demanding because in the past, they were allowed to stop working when it got too challenging. They were allowed to just turn in mediocre work and get a C, D, F, or even a 0. Now, they must keep working toward that B. What they soon learn is that a B is not beyond them. An A is not beyond them, either, for the most part. They learn that if they stick with something, especially something difficult, it feels great to realize that they can master it. They are willing to stick with it because they can fail and fail and fail to “get it” until they do get it. Voila! The problem isn’t that they are lacking intelligence. The problem was that they just needed to keep working until they reached understanding, which, surprise, wasn’t actually beyond them at all, though they had, perhaps, feared that it was, based on their experiences in other schools with fear-based grading scales.

    The work of Dr. Carol Dweck, for instance in her book, Mindset, illustrates with a great deal of research, these exact findings.

    It’s time for all schools to give up the A-F grading system, so that our students are encouraged to keep working, not to give up on themselves, or on education itself.

    Charlotte Wellen, NBCT

    • Dear Charlotte,

      Thank you SO much for sharing in detail your approach. I love the idea that students have so many opportunities and built in support to continue reworking assignments and developing skills. I agree that our traditional approach to grades kills intrinsic motivation for so many. As I read Daniel Pink’s Drive and Carol Dweck’s Mindset, I kept returning to our traditional grading system and how little sense it makes in the context of human motivation and growth mindset.

      I appreciate your perspective and love learning from educators who are experimenting with different models!

      Catlin Tucker

    • The achievement or mastery of any academic subject is dependent on many factors. These should be rigorous and challenging. There has to be an evaluation. that reflects the degree that each student accomplishes in any given subject within a set time frame.

      Grades should reflect the degree of success. The 7 pt scale was accepted for decades. 70% was passing.

      What does suddenly lowering this %age to a 10 pt scale say about the excellence and expectations that teacher and parents should expect from schools?

      Are we inflating grades to make lower standards and expectations acceptable? If so, this is a disservice and betrayal to the standards of excellence we had once set as goals for our young people

      Is this another irrational argument catering to ‘lowest common denominator’ causing “The Dumbing of America?”

      Or is it that young people are no longer capable of reaching the once higher expectations? I fear the answer, if there is an actual empirical one and not just subjective opinion.

      I taught high school for over forty years and am confounded by this recent debate about educational excellence and the grades to reflect it for each student. Are they no longer up to the same rigor or of the same intellectual ability that we taught toward a few decades ago??

  2. I very much appreciate the insight into the traditional grading system. It has confirmed some concerns that I have struggled with as an educator. I felt strengthened academically by my teachers who saw this and were pioneers who required self reflection and goal making as a component of their class. Thank you.

  3. Hello Caitlin,
    You have a really great post here, thank you for some of the details shared. I do have a question though, with taking away the basic grading system and going to only As and Bs, don’t you think it takes away from the students who deserve the grade they get? If you aren’t studying you are going to get an F, but if you work hard and study hard you get an A. Why in todays America are we trying to get rid of things that have been here for years but now all of a sudden ” hurt” us. ? Sooner or later the more things we get rid of the less life we will have to live.

    • Hi Tyler,

      I’m not sure where you read that I only give As and Bs. I grade on a 4 point scale that roughly equates to 1-beginning (D), 2-developing (C), 3-proficient (B), and 4-mastery (A). If kids fail to do an assessment, they receive a 0.

      I am also not a fan of keeping structures in place just because they have always been there. The current grading system rewards checking the boxes and too often focuses on points, not learning. I want learning and the development of skills to be the focus.


    • I see it like this;

      I recently started learning to play the guitar. If I graded each of my attempts/skills I would have a a series of “F”s, some “D”s, and then a few “C”s and finally a “B”.

      If you average these attempts I would have a D in my “class”, but at the end of the process I am actually a “B” guitarist.

      It may have taken me longer and I had to change my approach a few times, but I have mastery and I’m currently as skilled as any other “B” guitarist.

  4. I find this very interesting. Wondering how you handle report cards? When all teachers in a school are to follow the same format for reporting grades on the report card, say in a percent, how do you handle that? Are your grades converted to a percent at that time? I am interested in different grading approaches, but always go back to the standard for this reason!

    • Hi Kary,

      No, not everyone uses this approach at my school.

      I do have to manually convert the number into a grade when it is time to report grades, which is a pain in the butt though still worth it. I put my grade conversion scale on my syllabus, so parents and students know what to expect.

      I hope that helps! I know this process is daunting, but after making this change I felt like my grades are finally representative of my students’ skills.


  5. Hi Dr. Tucker,

    I’m not sure if you’ll see this comment, but if you do, I’d love your feedback. I’m a secondary ELA coach, and I’m trying to encourage teachers to rethink their assignments and grading. When I mention evaluating students based on skills and cutting down on daily assignments, they tell me that they fear students will try and “audit” their class and could be disruptive if daily work isn’t worth much. This is a legitimate concern since class sizes are large (over 30 students in each class) and discipline issues are more prevalent than ever this year. Do you have any advice or suggestions for teachers who feel this way? I appreciate your feedback.

    All the best,
    Alisa Mueller-Nicolaou

    • Hi Alisa,

      First, I totally agree with your messaging around grades. I am not sure if this blog will be helpful for your teachers, but it outlines my approach to grading (first as a teacher and now as a coach). The flowchart breaks down where I think it makes the most sense to spend our finite time and energy.

      I also begin my book Balance with Blended Learning focused on exploring the challenges associated with traditional grading practices. The whole book basically makes an argument for teaching metacognitive skills, pulling feedback and assessment into the classroom, offering grade interviews, etc. to get around these types of concerns about grade auditing or the failure to do the practice assignments designed to help students hone their skills (which will ultimately be assessed).

      I hope those resources will be useful in helping you address your teachers’ concerns!

      Take care.

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