grading reform

Helping Teachers to Begin Grading Reform: A Staff-wide Grading Email

If you’ve taken steps to improve your own grading practices to be more accurate and equitable, then hats off to you. But a big part of a teacher’s grading reform work should also be helping other teachers to do the same.

Few teachers, if any, receive any education on effective grading in their teacher preparation courses or in professional development, so it’s often up to teachers themselves to improve their own practices. And without the help of those with first-hand experience in grading reform, the work may seem too overwhelming to begin even for the most motivated.

But it’s also in the best interest of those already implementing grading reform to help others to begin the work. This is because one of the biggest challenges that reformers face is the traditional grading practices of other teachers. Because when a teacher adopts grading practices that better allow her to communicate student learning, they often contradict the traditional practices that students, parents, and other teachers know as a normal part of school. This can be confusing for students and parents, and it’s up to the reforming teacher to ensure they understand the new system. But pushing back against these traditions can be a lonely and tiresome process, so the more who join the fight, the easier it is for all those involved.

And of course the more teachers that improve their grading practices to better communicate student learning, the more students that will benefit by receiving meaningful grades.

So here’s my suggestion: Look for ways to pitch grading reform to fellow teachers. And when they show any interest, be a resource for them.

Below is an email that I sent to the faculty of my school at the beginning of the school year inviting them to begin grading reform. Please feel free to use any or all of it to encourage other teachers to reform their own grading practices.

Good morning,

I hope that your first week of distance learning went well and the weekend has reenergized you to begin week two on a strong note. I know you’re very busy, but I wanted to take a moment to share with you some ideas and suggestions about grading.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an English teacher and department chair here at Highland, and I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time reading, writing, and researching about grading and assessment for close to a decade now.

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard many teachers voice questions and concerns about appropriate grading practices and policies during distance learning. My main message has been  this: Now, perhaps more than ever, students require grading practices that are accurate and equitable. 

But the question is How can we best create accurate and equitable grades?

Here are a few suggestions:

First, begin with a grading purpose statement for you, your students, and parents so that everyone is on the same page. Sometimes we assume the purpose of grades is obvious, but that is often far from the case. But grading experts are clear on what should be the purpose of grades: to communicate students’ current learning of established standards or targets to students and parents. Read more here.

Once this is established, consider one or more of the following grading practices/policies:

1) Leave behavior and effort out of grades.
While good behavior and high effort often correlate with high academic achievement, they aren’t actual indicators of learning. Conversely, low effort and poor behavior aren’t indicators of low or non-existent learning. Therefore, using behavior and/or effort as factors in a grade makes the grade less accurate. 

Further, measuring behavior and effort is extremely difficult and may be at least partially dependent upon the implicit biases that we all carry as human beings. As a result, despite our best intentions, including behavior and effort in our grades results in more inequitable grades.

To address these issues, consider keeping records of behavior and effort, but leaving it out of the actual grade calculation. Instead, include only measures of student learning in the grade to ensure accuracy and equity. Read more here.

2) Be generous with retake policies.
If we create grades only from measures of student learning, then we need to make sure students get multiple opportunities to display their learning. Students don’t all learn at the same rate, so we shouldn’t punish them if they don’t achieve success at the particular date we planned for an assessment in our pacing guides. And even if their initial lack of success was due to their poor decisions, students deserve second chances. They are still kids after all, and they have brains that may not be fully developed for a decade or more.
So here’s what the experts suggest: Allow students to retake, but require them to further learn those skills they didn’t have the first time around. When they’ve proven they’re ready, allow them to retake a different version of the assessment with no grade penalty (grade penalties are addressing behaviors, after all). And allow them a lenient time frame to retake. As soon as we say that it’s too late for a retake, we’re also sending the message that there is no use in learning after a certain time.  Read more here.

3) Avoid the use of zeros.
If grades are meant to communicate student learning, then a zero means zero learning. But how often is that really the case? It’s more likely that the zero means zero evidence of learning, but that’s a different meaning altogether. By giving a zero, we are punishing a student for not completing an assignment or assessment, which is again grades to address behaviors (behaviors should be addressed, of course––just not with grades). This is also an extremely harsh punishment, considering they need to climb 60 percentage points just to get to a D if you use the percentage scale. 

So when you’re tempted to give a zero, ask yourself: Did this student really learn nothing about this standard or target? Then consider looking for alternative forms of evidence of the student’s learning. You may reach out to the student and/or parents to let them know they can make-up the assessment to show their evidence of learning because you want their grade to be accurate. Read more here.

I apologize for the long email, but I hope this information can be helpful to you! Whenever you’d like to talk further about grading and assessment––please reach out!



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