How Better Grading Reshaped My Teaching
A MiddleWeb Blog
Recently I gave my 8th grade U.S. History students a pop quiz about documents that influenced the Constitution. Afterward, an overjoyed student came running up to exclaim, “Ms. Peters! I UNDERSTOOD everything this time!”
This particular student had struggled earlier in the year and had been seeing me regularly to revise previously submitted work and to retake previously failed tests.
What stood out to me about her exclamation was not that she was excited that she did well – most eighth graders would be excited about doing well on a quiz. Rather, this student chose to say that she “understood” the material, not that she “got an A.”
For me, this moment confirmed that the grading policy at my new middle school can alter the way students and teachers approach teaching and learning.
A New Take on Grading
As I started in my new position, I was very skeptical about the school’s approach to grading. A few features of their policy stood out to me as red flags: no homework, group work, or student participation can be graded.
My initial reaction was that of concern – how can we be preparing students to be successful in the increasingly collaborative “21st century world” if we are unable to assess group work?
My approach to teaching includes a lot of project-based learning, where collaboration is paramount. What about that? And on a more basic level, how can I ensure that my students will do their homework?
But…my students do their homework. Mostly. And the ones who don’t probably would have incomplete homework even if it were graded. I am still able to have a class built around collaboration, but instead of giving one grade to a group for a project, I grade the written reflections individually produced by the students after the project has been completed. This has helped ease many tensions that arise during group work.
Though students still can become frustrated with one another, as middle schoolers often do, they don’t have to worry about the antics of their peers lowering their course grade. I get to see who actually learned from the collaborative environment, as opposed to giving the same high grade to students who were potentially loafing off their more productive peers.
New Grading Practices Are Transforming My Lesson Design
I have only been working within this framework for a few months. Already it has transformed the way I build my curricula. My students and I are significantly more focused on in-depth understanding and mastery of concepts as opposed to “the grade” in and of itself.
Alfie Kohn confirms the benefits of this mindset for students: “Students who are motivated by grades or other rewards typically don’t learn as well, think as deeply, care as much about what they’re doing, or choose to challenge themselves to the same extent as students who are not grade oriented” (Kohn, 1993).
While I have always designed my curricula using backwards planning through Understanding by Design, this grading policy forces me to even further scrutinize the alignment of my learning objectives with my overarching unit goals. Because we only grade summative assessments, which are directly tied to unit learning goals, this grading policy helps students and teachers be more cognizant of what really matters in the unit of study and not become sidetracked by tangential content.
Since my perspective on teaching has changed so drastically in such a short period of time, I wondered what kind of impact it could have on a teacher who has been using this method for a while. I sought out a colleague, Rebecca Berger, to discuss how our school’s grading policy has influenced her philosophy of grading in her seven years at the school.
What follows are our collective reflections. We hope that by explaining the rationale behind our assessment policy, we might prompt other educators to further consider their own grading practices.
Grades Should Reflect Learning, Not Completion
Before we came to this school, our students received full credit for classwork or homework that was mostly accurate and was completed in a timely manner. Therefore, students who were successful at playing the “school game” earned high grades on their report card. However, these high grades were not necessarily indicative of content mastery.
It was quite possible (and was often the case) that organized, responsible students might show B-level comprehension of content through assessments but would still earn an A in the class because their grade reflected their tendency to complete their work, not their understanding of the material.
By contrast, at our school, we only grade summative assessments.
All formative assessments are truly formative – they are used as tools for students to gauge their own learning and to inform teachers on the effectiveness of their teaching. In the past, students would complete classwork and homework because they were motivated by grades. Now, students complete classwork and homework because they know that teachers have purposely designed the activities to further their mastery of core concepts.
Final report card grades now accurately reflect what the student knows and can do; an A now represents A-level content mastery as opposed to A-level responsibility.
Improve and Reflect
Because we only grade summative assessments, one might think that this system could lead to higher test anxiety. However, another facet of our school’s grading policy is that all summative assessments are able to be retaken or revised if it is clear that the student did not understand the content.
For example, my Constitution test is divided into three main subjects: Articles of Confederation and why it failed, Articles I-III of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If a student shows that they did not understand one of these content areas, they meet with me so I can reteach the material, and then they take a different mini-assessment on the same content.
This same logic is applied to writing assignments as well. Students are given rubrics in advance for all summative written assignments. If any portion of their rubric-based grade falls below acceptable range, they can meet with me, clarify their misunderstandings, revise for that goal, and resubmit their work.
If they missed the mark on supporting their statements with evidence, or did not provide sufficient analysis, or have factual inaccuracies in their writing, they can revise and resubmit. However, they cannot revise for writing mechanics: if a student did not take the time to proofread their work, or if their writing was not academic in nature, those points cannot be earned back through revision.
To keep the revision process from being endless, all students may only revise or reassess once for the missed learning target. If they demonstrate C-level understanding on their reassessment, that is the score that gets recorded in their final grade. This simultaneously causes students to relax (a little) on the initial assessment and to take the reassessment opportunity seriously.
As Ron Berger asserts, “students need to know from the onset that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing” (Berger, 1993).
Not all students “test” well. Because of that, the onus is on the teacher to make sure that assessments are differentiated enough in nature that all students who understand will be able to demonstrate that understanding.
We make sure that a test has varied forms of questions that assess a variety of levels of comprehension, from basic recall to analysis and synthesis. We also use alternative assessment techniques, including scored discussions, portfolios, and presentations.
Thanks to narrative report cards, we still have the ability to speak to students’ study skills, classroom behavior, participation, etc. We also can give suggestions for the future as to how they can improve. But because of the grading policy, we find ourselves using language like “fully demonstrated content mastery” as opposed to “earned 98%.” If a student is not succeeding in class, it is incumbent upon us to find specific language to name exactly which concepts and skills the student is not proficient in.
At this school, students do not resist revisiting their work as much as we had seen at prior schools. Here, students know that if they work hard enough and take the time to meet with us during Office Hours, then they can succeed. They see the direct link between their willingness to work hard and the end result.
This sometimes means that eighth graders who I might perceive as “C” students end up earning “A’s” because they keep working at learning the material until they have achieved mastery. Even though I am not giving extra assignments to pad grades, most students (who take advantage of revision opportunities) end up with A’s and B’s in my class.
Kohn argues that with this type of grading policy “helping students to improve becomes more important than evaluating them; learning takes precedence over sorting” (Kohn, 1993).
Nothing Is Perfect
This system has been quite successful for our setting (an independent middle school). Our students leave our school and go off to a variety of settings for high school: public, private, charter, academically rigorous, artistically enriched, and everything in between. In what ways is this grading approach preparing them – or not preparing them – for their future endeavors?
In our grading policy, there is no penalty for late work. A student can turn in every assignment late and still earn an “A” on the report card. In the real world, students will face consequences for submitting work past the deadline, yet it is also true that in the real world employers grant extensions on deadlines and rarely is someone fired from a job for a single mistake; most of the time, employees are given opportunities to improve.
Fair question: Does our policy send students the right message about what they will need to be able to do in high school and in the working world?
When working in collaborative environments in the workplace, people are judged on the quality of the final product, not simply the segment that each individual contributed. In inequitable groupings, someone ends up pulling weight for other less productive team members.
Fair question: Is telling students that what ultimately matters is their own understanding and not the group product sending the right message about collaboration? Is it too individualistic, or is it developmentally appropriate at the middle school level?
What’s the Point?
In the end, it comes down to this essential question: “What is the point of grading students?” The answers may vary depending on the culture of your school, the values of your community, and your goals as an educator. Our grading system is driven by measuring student comprehension of content, building facility with skills, and encouraging growth mindset. What values does your grading system reveal about your educational setting? How does your grading system shape your practice?
Berger, R. (2003). Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Kohn, A. (1994, October). Educational Leadership: “Grading: The Issue Is Not How But Why.” Accessed Dec. 27, 2015.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Rebecca Berger, Shara Peters’ colleague and co-author of this article, has been teaching middle school at an independent school for the past nine years. She earned her teaching credential and her M.A. at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion.