Grading is foundational to your role as an educator. If you get grading right, it’ll help everything else that you do like instruction, assessment, curriculum, and evaluation. You’ll also see immediate results three months from now. But if you get it wrong, no matter how earnest your efforts are in these other areas, it’ll cut the legs right under you.
Consider this question. What’s the difference between students who make high marks and those who get low marks?
I’ve posed this question to many educators, and the responses I receive tend to focus on factors like family support, executive function, nutrition, sleep deprivation, or test-taking ability.
But, let’s pause here to perform a quick exercise. In reference to the chart below, your task is to calculate the final score for this student, choosing the grading system you typically use (i.e., letter grade, 100-point scale, 4-point scale).
What was the result of your student’s final score? I’ve administered this exercise to over 10,000 teachers and administrators. Here’s a look at how they believed this student performed:
Aren’t the results astounding? The scores are divided across all letters—but it’s the same student with the same performance!
Perhaps, we must consider that the difference in scores is not what we think it is. The real factor is the idiosyncratic difference of teacher grading policy. Again, if students don’t understand how the game works, they stop playing the game.
How do we fix this?
Here’s the big idea I’m proposing—grading needs to be FAST. Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement if and only if that feedback is FAST: Fair, Accurate, Specific, Timely.
- Fair – No matter how much we might diverge on instruction, fairness is what all students are looking for. Fairness is about consistency, which means the adults agreeing on the rules of the game. If students believe a game is unfair, then they’ll disengage and stop playing the game.
- Accurate – Let’s say I’m a math teacher, and a lot of my students don’t speak English at home. So, that B+ that one of my students received: was that a reflection of their mathematics or what their English language literacy was? Accuracy means we test what we think we’re testing.
- Specific – Now, let’s say I’m a chorus teacher. You begin singing and I’m providing feedback, but I don’t speak generally: “I think you need to be more musically adept.” I’ll say something along the lines of “Sing higher or lower, or louder or softer.” In other words, I should be very specific with my feedback. An effective grading system gives specific feedback that allows the student to know how to get better.
- Timely – A good grading system lets the student know how to improve things over time. One of the least helpful way to give grades is at the end of the semester, when it’s too late to do anything about it. Consider this: even adults dread the annual performance review—when it’s already too late to do anything about it. Feedback needs to be immediate and timely for students to effectively take action and do something about it.
If grading systems are not FAST, then they won’t have any credibility with students, parents, and teachers in the next grade level. Effective grading practices, however, can improve student success, discipline and morale.
Quick Word of Caution
Before you start talking about how to improve grading, it’s important to address what will not change. Since grading is an emotional topic, your team members will have their guards up and be on the defensive. To assuage some of their concerns, we need to assure people of what will stay the same. In this case, we’ll still have: letter grades, class rank, transcripts for college admission and scholarship applications, academic honors, and individualized education plans.
Practical, Helpful Tips
So, what steps can you take to improve your grading? Let’s go beyond theory and talk about some short-term wins.
- Use traditional letter grades: A,B,C,D, and F – Get rid of the Zero to 100 scale. It’s unnecessary and gets in the way of clear communication. It’s an odd, 20th century aberration—just go back to what we used to do.
- As an offshoot, we should also change the consequences of missing work. A student missing an assignment should not result in a zero. (Remember 70 is a C, 60 is a D, but not turning it in is a zero?) You have to believe that a student turning no work in is six times worse than the kid who does wretched work at a D level? It’s just not reasonable. Change late work consequences, maybe with incentives for early work.
- Minimize the weighting of homework – I know a lot of people believe homework builds character—but it also builds cheating. What students need is practice—we all agree practice is important, but the right kind of practice. It happens as it does with our music students or athletic students, where practice comes along with coaching and feedback. It happens during the school day, during the class period. Some kids need more work on offense or defense, layups or free-throws. But we don’t all make them do the same thing. We have to be willing to say, “Let’s work on what’s most important to you.”
- Early final exam – I learned this from some wonderful educators in the midwest. What really motivates our students? It’s freedom and independence. It’s not F’s and 0’s, but freedom. They said in their highest-failure class, if you get an A or B, then you get 10 days of freedom. If you take that early final exam, you’re done. But if you get a C, D, or F, you’ll get feedback for improved performance.
- No averages – Get rid of them. We should be scoring for proficiency, not compliance.
- Use a “menu” system – Lastly, I’m also advocating the menu system—if your student misses an assignment or blows a project, you don’t want to hear, “My dog ate my homework” or “My grandmother passed away” for the eleventh time. Instead, let’s allow our students to take responsibility and choose some other assignment or task from the menu to make up for it.
I’m not saying these ideas are perfect, but I would recommend conducting short-term experiments to see what works in your school to achieve immediate reductions in failure and improvement in discipline. Use the flexibility in your technology systems to improve your grading systems.
Many scholars agree that feedback has the most important impact on student achievement. When you think about grading, don’t just think about A-F grading. It’s crucial to think about it as a form of feedback.
All this work that you’ve done around standards, curriculum, assessment, evaluation—they are all undermined by counterproductive grading systems. If you don’t get grading systems right, then nothing else matters. It’s not about being easy or being soft—it’s about getting consequences right.
Would you like to learn more about grading for learning? We recently hosted a webinar that you can replay.
About the Author
Dr. Douglas Reeves is the Founder of Creative Leadership Solutions, a non-profit with the mission to improve educational opportunities for students throughout the world using creative solutions for leadership, policy, teaching, and learning. To learn more about his work, please visit www.creativeleadership.net.
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