grading reform

10 Common Grading Concerns And Answers

As a high school English teacher, teacher coach, and grading and assessment consultant, I hear lots of teacher concerns about grading reform. Below are 10 of the most common grading questions/concerns that I hear from teachers, along with my short response to each.

  1. Isn’t minimum grading just giving lazy students something for nothing?

A: Minimum grading attempts to repair the inequitable and inaccurate percentage scale by condensing the failure range from 0-59% to 50-59%–equal to the intervals of the higher letter grades. So it’s about grading scale accuracy, not student behavior. If you’re concerned about equitable and accurate grading but are unsatisfied with the minimum grading solution, consider moving to a more comprehensive solution in the form of the four-point scale.

  1.  My students won’t do homework if it’s not graded.

A: Many teachers are surprised that students *will* complete practice (homework or classwork) without grades if students understand (1) why the learning is important to them personally and (2) how it will help them to be successful on the summative assessment. So we as teachers must continue to help our students to understand the relevancy of the learning to their lives and the purposefulness of the learning to prepare them for success. But this takes time, so play the long game. Be patient and persistent.

  1. Isn’t making grades 100% from summative assessment an unnecessarily strict method of grading?

A: This method isn’t about being lenient or strict––it’s about accurately and equitably communicating students’ achievement. It’s also about removing factors like behavior, effort, and participation from the grade that introduces biases and creates inequities. If we intend for our grades to communicate student academic achievement, then we need to create grades from the best evidence we have of student learning: that from summative assessments.

  1. Making homework and classwork ungraded practice might work for AP and Honors students, but it won’t work for the average student.

A: This concern is usually about student motivation, and it includes many assumptions. In the context of traditional grading practices, students of all levels are motivated by points to complete assignments, and sometimes this is even more so for AP and Honors students. But it’s hard to argue that after helping students to understand the importance of the practice to their lives and their success in the class, only the AP and Honors students would be motivated to learn without points. 

  1. If I don’t put a zero in the gradebook for missing work or assessments, students will never do them. 

A:  Zeros send mixed signals. If grades communicate achievement, then a zero means zero achievement. But no evidence is not the same as no achievement. So zeros often reduce the accuracy and clarity of grades. A more accurate grading practice would be to tag the assignment or assessment as missing or incomplete. There are also significant accuracy and equity issues when using zeros in the 100-point percentage scale (read more here from Doug Reeves here).

  1. Participation is a really important part of my class, so I reward students with points when they do participate. If I didn’t give them points, most students wouldn’t participate at all.

A: If you feel student verbal responses are valid evidence of student learning, you may consider using this as a form of evidence in a summative assessment at the end of the learning progression. However, participation is not the same as achievement, so including this information in grades reduces grade accuracy and opens the door for implicit biases.

  1. If I don’t take off points for late work, students won’t turn in their work on time. 

A: If the only reason students turn in work on time is to avoid a loss of points, then removing the threat of reduced points will likely lead to increased late work. But if students understand that completing work on time is important to be prepared for the class and to continue in the learning progression, then they are more likely to demonstrate this desired behavior. To help students understand this importance, teachers must be explicitly teach the desired behavior and provide feedback. They also need set purposeful and reasonable deadlines that align to the pacing of the unit.

  1. If I don’t give a student a zero for cheating, then I’m basically saying it’s OK to cheat. That’s just morally wrong.

A: Cheating is a behavior, and it’s not OK. But if grades are only meant to communicate achievement, then they can’t also be used to address or communicate behavior. So teachers need to develop alternative strategies to teach and communicate behaviors–whether they are desired or undesired (such as using restorative practices). Once the behavior is addressed, students should have an opportunity to retake or redo the task without a grade penalty so that the teacher can collect valid evidence of their learning to communicate in the grade.

  1. I’m short on classroom supplies, and my students will do anything for extra credit. What’s the harm in giving them a few points at the beginning of the year for tissues, markers, or hand sanitizer? Its a win-win situation.

A: This is a much bigger problem than most teachers realize–one that’s about purpose, accuracy, and equity. Giving extra credit at the beginning of the year sets the tone that grades are about accumulating points, not learning. And if grades are meant to communicate student achievement, then including extra credit inflates the grade, leading to an inaccurate communication of learning for some students. Then there is the question about which students are able to bring the supplies in the first place. Most likely, it’s the more privileged students who have the available money, transportation, or time to get the supplies and bring them to school. This means those privileged students get a head start in the class, while those lacking privilege don’t.

  1.  Why shouldn’t I reward hard-working students with an effort grade? They earned it! 

A: While effort correlates strongly with achievement, effort and achievement are two different things. If we define grades as the communication of student achievement, then grade integrity relies on teachers’ discipline to grade only achievement, regardless of good intentions. Further, it’s impossible to accurately and reliably assess student effort, so any attempt to do so will lead to increased teacher bias in the grading process and inequitable grades.

Have a grading question or concern that isn’t addressed above? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@joshkunnath)!

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