It’s important all stakeholders within a place of learning be on the same page regarding grading. If they’re not, problems will appear down the road. It’s similar to building a brick wall. The first row has to be level. If not, misalignment will become apparent as more rows are added. Everyone who sees the completed wall will notice how off kilter everything is, and it won’t be difficult to locate the culprit.

Unfortunately, the culprit may be more difficult to find within education. There are a lot of moving parts within a school, and it’s not an easy task to attribute a relationship between adopted practices and student learning. Fortunately, there’s sound evidence regarding grading.

This is where you should open another window or tab in your browser, go to, and purchase a copy of Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. I highly recommend you read his book because I can’t do justice to the wealth of information he provides concerning feedback and grades. In a nutshell, assigning a grade–even a grade in conjunction with feedback–doesn’t provide the positive results you’d think. In many cases, grades can negatively affect student learning.

This is hard to process for a number of reasons. First, we’ve all grown up in a system that regarded grades as important. Further, we had to work hard–oftentimes completing homework, classroom, and studying long hours–in order receive an “A” or “B”. This obviously shades our thinking. Second, the whole collegiate system relies heavily upon grades. This means high schools can’t jettison grades, and this trickles down to middle and elementary school. Third, the current state of grades is comfortable. Changing grades, whether that means moving to a standards based grades matrix or simply asking teachers to change the way they weigh their grades, scares people.

For these reasons and more, we can’t abolish grades. What we can do is alter the grading practice so it’s more effective. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Make grades standards based. Simply telling students they either grasp a concept or not is less nebulous than an A, B, C, D, or F. When you’re forced to say “yes” or “no”, you can quickly pivot and address a deficiency.
  • If grades can’t be made standards based, then change the weighting so grades are based 100 percent on assessments.
  • Shift toward a model that values constructive feedback opposed to grades.

Grades should be a reflection of learning and nothing else. When you use grades to cover citizenship, extra credit, overall effort, and assessments, the message gets muddled. An “A” or “F” become nebulous. This is because being a “good citizen” can skew a grade, which has nothing to do with whether a concept is understood.

For better or worse, grades aren’t going anywhere. This means the most effective way to mitigate the potential harm grading can unleash is by stating over and over the following mantra: Grades should reflect student learning. This idea will align educators so grading is conducted with similar goals in mind. It also rids both students and teachers of unnecessary work so time can be used more effectively. Ultimately, it will mean that when we look at a student’s grades, there’ll be a better understanding as to whether he or she has learned.

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