Continuing Reflection on Grading

As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoy that our school offers us the opportunity to meet and discuss books about education. Even though I was not able to attend all the meetings this time, our book study for the Fall Semester was Thomas R. Guskey’s 2015 book On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and ReportingHis big idea is that, when it comes to grading, there are a lot of common assumptions or operating based on tradition without reflecting on our common practices. He notes that grades are often envisioned as serving different purposes by various stakeholders, and each school should decide what they want the grades to communicate. He hopes that grades will, ultimately and primarily, reflect students’ academic performance and ability to meet standards (cf. my earlier post on standards-based grading, which I incidentally have not implemented but have kept in the back of my mind).

While much of Guskey’s book focuses on topics which I cannot change, such as report cards or determining class rank, there are many points that could be considered for what we do in our own classrooms. Here are some of them:

  • A 0-100% grading scale implies 101 precisely measurable levels of achievement, with 0-60% often seen as failing (so more degrees of failure than passing). I find this argument to be alluring; but it also seems sophistic. When I grade vocabulary quizzes, I grade students’ performance as the number of questions correct out of the total number of questions, between 8 and 12 depending on the level and vocabulary list in Wheelock’s Latin. I need to convert this fraction (e.g. 7/9) into a percent (e.g. 77.778%) so that students understand what they earned on the quiz and so that I can enter it into my electronic grade book. It isn’t necessarily 101 distinct levels of performance, but a convenient mathematical method for calculating grades with varied denominators.
  • Should “questions correct/total number of questions” really convert nicely into the “percentage grade” in the grade book? After all, a 50% correct may actually be a good grade on really challenging tests. There are ways around this–awarding points for writing their names on their assessments, extra credit sections, or including sections on assessments (like morphology sections) that should balance more difficult sections (like translations).
  • Generally, according to the research Guskey has conducted and read, the more possible grades a student could earn (for example, A+/A/A- instead of just A), the more subjective grades become.
  • Electronic grade books with their multiple decimal points sometimes give the illusion of precision and objectivity.
  • When grades are averaged or are calculated using a weighted average, a zero in the grade book can drag a student’s grade down so much that they cannot actually recover.

Here are three things that I’m considering changing for next semester.

1. Stop averaging the scores on retake quizzes and the original quiz. One element of the “industrial model of education” is that it expects students to be ready for an assessment when we decide they should be/are ready. In an effort to encourage student learning after this potentially artificial and unfair deadline, I have offered students the opportunity to complete test corrections and, this year, to retake quizzes on which they want to improve. Guskey argues that average grades can be somewhat misleading for a variety of factors. In place of averages (for term grades), he argues that we should consider the most recent score, the most comprehensive assessment of the student’s ability, and the score focused on the most important learning standards.

Based on this argument, I am tempted to have the retake score simply replace the original quiz score. On the other hand, a standards-based grading advocate may argue that I should take the higher score because it shows that the student understood the material at some point. Practically speaking, students’ retake quizzes have almost always had higher scores, so both arguments would usually have the same result. The exception is in the last week of the term when students were tired and trying to retake several quizzes in a short amount of time. Therefore, taking the most recent score may be better in that it may encourage students to retake fewer quizzes at once and at least spread out this crunch to retake many quizzes at once. I already verbally encourage students to only take one quiz/day since I’ve noticed they do not perform as well if they are taking multiple quizzes on the same day.

2. No longer always give students a 0% for a missed homework assignment. I grade homework for completion so that students are less afraid to make mistakes on it. If they do not complete it, they earn a 0%. However, as mentioned above, a 0% can rather negatively affect a student’s average grade. Indeed, somewhat rhetorically, if there are 60 degrees of failing, why should a failure to complete homework result in the lowest degree of failure? There are two potential alternatives that I’m considering:

  • Instead of entering each homework assignment in the grade book and obtaining an average, assign students a single homework grade for the whole term. 4 = No missing assignments. 3 = 1-2 missing assignments. 2 = 3-5 missing assignments. 1 = 5+ missing assignments. Each of these 0-4 grades would, of course, require a corresponding percentage if I’m going to continue having homework as part of the term grade.
  • Instead of entering a 0%, I could enter 50%. This would still allow me to give partial credit for missing part of the assignment. If a student did all of the homework, they would earn 100%; but if they did half of the assignment, 75%.

3. Move away from compliance grades and even more towards grades focused on academic abilities. Guskey argues that students should receive multiple grades on their report cards: a performance grade and a behavioral grade. Our school asks us to submit a letter grade and performance category grades (Assignments/Homework, Assessments, Participation, and Conduct). I can use these performance categories and comments on report cards to provide my feedback about participation, behavior, conduct, etc., and I do not necessarily need to penalize students with grades that are designed to enforce compliance. Examples of these compliance grades are the homework (completion) grade, late penalties, a grade for turning in a class contract, and a grade for getting progress reports signed.

Since transitioning from college-teaching to secondary education, I’ve tried various strategies to keep parents informed of their students’ grades, especially of seventh graders’ grades. I have had students e-mail assessment grades home. While I liked seeing parents’ reactions, I disliked students getting an electronic, less personal response from their parents. This year, I tried to have seventh graders’ parents sign quizzes for a homework grade, but I didn’t do that with tests because students could do test corrections. Deadlines also proved problematic especially with parents traveling. Second quarter, I tried sending progress reports home so that parents could see the big picture–quizzes, test, participation, and homework grades–all at once. I also asked for those to be signed and returned. Next quarter, I will probably not ask that the progress report be signed (i.e. no more compliance grades), but I can e-mail parents and tell them to expect a progress report. This will probably, actually be more effective at making sure certain parents see the progress report.


I’d love to hear your thoughts about these potential changes, either here or on facebook.


One thought on “Continuing Reflection on Grading

  1. It would be good to see how this works out in practice. What will be the students’ collective experience over time? That may give some good guidance here. Hopefully, new approaches will help students to learn and develop their abilities.


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