Traditionally, grades have been viewed as a black-and-white point value or percentage that corresponds with a letter on a given scale. These letters and percentages have been assigned meaning through various educational stakeholders to the degree that influential and important decisions are made using them. This ABCDF grading scale is mistakenly perceived as fair and equitable, and it is the most common grading scale used in the United States schooling system today (Brookhart, et al., 2016). While grades are continually determining our students future, they actually lack a standard meaning and can vary hugely from state to state, district to district, and even between teachers in the same building! As a result, this ‘traditional’ method of grading has been under the microscope and is being reviewed in terms of validity. This grading reform has led to a movement that is pushing to redefine the meaning of grades, which in my opinion, is desperately needed.
The recent shifts in grading and reporting have led to a new notion of its purpose‒communication. Within the standards-based grading model, grades are viewed as a mode of communication between the teacher and the learner. This communication then extends to the parents and other stakeholders in the student’s education. The current movement would redefine the purpose behind grades so they accurately report the academic achievement of a student in the specific content area. This issue is centered around the topic of validity. In the content areas (language arts, math, science, etc.) teachers are held accountable for high-quality instruction that is based on content area standards. Teachers are also responsible for meeting the needs of a hugely diverse group of learners, helping them find success and feel competency, as well as mediating the process of developing intrinsic motivation. It has been suggested by many well-known researchers (ahem, Guskey) that in order to accurately report academic achievement, grades should be aligned to these specific content area standards. The result of this alignment and the changes in reporting are referred to as standards-based grading.
In its simplest terms, standards-based grading is a grading tool that reports a student’s academic ability within a given content standard. Most include the progression of a student’s achievement within these standards and report the student’s level of proficiency. This type of grading is quickly gaining momentum in K-12 schools in the U.S., and it is centered around a student’s comprehension and proficiency of course content alone. Within a standards-based grading system, students are held accountable for what they know and can do at the present moment, and are given opportunities to demonstrate their growth through the retaking of assessments. The reason it is considered a more sound grading practice is a result of it being shown to decrease the non-academic factors included in a student’s overall course grade, which makes the grade more meaningful. The focus shifts in this system to generating an accurate and exact reporting of a student’s academic ability.
In a traditional sense, grades have reported far more than just a student’s academic achievement within a content area. There are many factors that influence grades, but studies have consistently shown them to be multidimensional and including far more than a student’s given content knowledge (Brookhart, et al., 2016). Many educators in the K-12 and higher education world have a significant portion of an overall course grade devoted to completely non-academic factors, such as attendance, effort, and class participation. The teachers behind this are often attempting to communicate multiple pieces of information within one single letter grade- which is truly an impossible feat. In addition to the aforementioned attempt, research suggests that many teachers incorporate non-academic factors in the criteria for assigning grades because the consequences of grades are considered more important than clear communication of progress (Allen, 2005). This greatly influences the ability of the grade to be a useful measure of a student’s true academic achievement or progress because the ‘water is muddied’, so to speak, with unrelated factors. Grades, when used in this way, become a communication of how well the student has met the teacher’s subjective expectations of a model student, instead of their true ability. For example, a student’s ability to turn in homework assignments on time is a behavior that is completely unrelated to their writing skills. When a student has points taken off an assignment for it being late, the grade is no longer telling that student or the other stakeholders involved how capable that student is at the given skill.
In a study done to determine whether standards-based grading practices accurately report content knowledge, the standardized test scores of students who experienced standards-based grading were compared to students who participated in a traditional, points-based grading system. The results suggest that in a standards-based system, the grades more accurately report what the students know in a given content area. In fact, it has also been suggested by other researchers that the traditional focus on points and the lack of integrity in how those points can be earned has resulted in final subject area grades being inaccurate reflections of student ability. These point-based systems reinforce compliance and finding the quickest way to earn points, rather than developing an understanding of content objectives. Essentially, the students who are successful at “playing school” are able to find success in some way, regardless of their actual academic ability.
As a whole, traditional practices have rendered grades very difficult to interpret because they communicate a variety of factors and vary depending on the assessor. Many students are left with a rigid GPA that could be a completely inaccurate assessment of their true ability. This implies that many important and life-altering decisions, such as college acceptance, are being made based on false assumptions.
In order for the implementation of any reform to be successful, the major stakeholders involved must be on board. For stakeholders to be supportive of reformation, they must understand the methodology behind what is being put in place. Many teachers hold fast to their beliefs because the grading practices they implement are the very ones they experienced as students, and if they were successful, then these students can be too. While I appreciate the educational experiences that have shaped each person, I would assert that these same educators would be frustrated to hear the argument of a non-teacher about being just as able to teach because they were once a student. This statement is obviously not true and is bound to be met with annoyance, but it is the same mindset being applied to grading practices.
Just because it’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s right.
The shift will require more than surface-level changes. It will require a change in mindset. It will require a shift in the teacher’s beliefs about grading and what is should communicate to learners and parents. Rather than insisting on a set of mandates and required changes, the process should be viewed as a commitment to education that may go against expectations held by the assessor, student, parent, or school district (Iamarino, 2014). Those educators involved must be well-versed in the transition to be supportive, and then they must be sure to develop a common understanding of the information a grade is communicating. This shared vision then needs to be communicated with parents, focusing wholly on a student’s academic progress. Parents also need to be fully aware of the changes being made, mainly so grades can still hold meaning for them and their children. Traditionally, reformation is not handled with as much care or communication, which has led to some brilliant ideas being wildly unsuccessful and controversial.
It is important that the academic achievement grade is based solely on evidence of academic performance. The way these grades are reported must also be taken into consideration, as the traditional points-based system does not work well in a standards-based format. While there is no definitive correct way reporting academic achievement right now, there are several different formats being attempted!
In addition to reporting a student’s academic achievement, when implementing standards-based grading the notion of reporting non-academic factors must be considered. Many researchers suggest a separate report card for effort, progress, and other non-academic factors. Like assessing the learning targets, rubrics to assess goals for preparation, participation, homework, and other behaviors are developed and put into place (Munoz & Guskey, 2015). This not only ensures that content area grades are reported with accuracy, but that they are more meaningful. It allows those parties concerned with the academic ability of the student, such as colleges, associations, etc., to consider their achievement alone. Likewise, those parties concerned with the soft skills, or integrity, of the student, such as scholarship foundations, organizations, etc., are able to consider only those skills. By creating this separation, grades become more the legitimate. The purpose shifts to grades being modes of communication to those concerned with a student’s progression and learning.
In order for standards-based grading to truly take hold, we must ask ourselves the following(and much more):
- What do we, as educators and learners, believe grades must communicate?
- What is the most effective way to communicate the academic achievement of our students?
- How do we ensure that grades measure true ability?
- How do we communicate the non-academic factors that we as educators are also responsible for shaping and developing in our students?
When we ask ourselves these questions, we are starting the process of shifting what we believe about grades and the purpose behind them. We are beginning to prepare our students for the world they will face in the future. We will continue to encourage them to grow and change and progress towards an overall goal. And really, isn’t that what school is all about?
Allen, J.D. (2005). Grades as valid measures of academic achievement of classroom learning. The Clearing House, 78(5), 218-223.
Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., Mcmillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., . . . Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. doi:10.3102/0034654316672069
Hooper, J., & Cowell, R. (2014). Standards-based grading: History adjusted true score. Educational Assessment, 19(1), 58-76. doi:10.1080/10627197.2014.869451
Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues In Education, 17(2), 1-10.
Muñoz, M. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2015). Standards-based grading and reporting will improve education. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(7), 64-68.
Pollio, M., & Hochbein, C. (2015). The association between standards-based grading and standardized test scores in a high school reform model. Teachers College Record, 117(11), 1-28.