Grading? Why Bother.

Vintage Fountain Pen and 1928 Report Card Under Dramatic Light

As a new teacher, I spent most of my time focused on instruction, my primary concern being what I needed to teach and how I was going to teach it. Assessment and grading was at best a nuisance and at worst a necessary requirement. Needless to say, my consideration of assessment and grading was an afterthought, usually poorly developed and poorly constructed measurements of student learning.

I doubt this is uncommon.

Eventually, I grew tired of pretending that my students were learning just because I was teaching. Without defining desired outcomes for students and accurately measuring them, I had no idea whether my work mattered.

Today in my high school Psychology classroom my goal is for students to be able to “define, compare, and apply concepts and research findings.” I design homework assignments and all classroom activity to make sure students know relevant concepts, understand how they relate to each other, and can apply them in their world. I use frequent quizzes completed individually and collaboratively to inform students about their current level of performance without a high level of risk. Only then do students take a final assessment of learning. Grading is no longer a nuisance, but a process that I continue to tweak in order to provide better information on teaching and learning in my classroom.

To Grade or Not To Grade

Teachers often have very little training in assessment and grading and many districts offer only very loose guidelines for grading such as numerical values that correspond to A-F grades. Because of the level of inconsistency and variable quality of grading policies, many educators now advocate for gradeless classrooms. For teachers who find assessment and grading an impediment to learning and instruction, the idea sounds great. Others acknowledge that going gradeless doesn’t mean ditching assessment as much as it means clarifying how we evaluate student performance and provide feedback.

To avoid semantic misunderstanding, we should acknowledge that whether we call them grades, or something else, students deserve to know how they are performing in school. Teachers need to evaluate what students know and can do in order to create a proper instructional context for learning. So, we can get rid of traditional structures of A-F percentages, and call it something other than grading, but we still need an effective system to measure student growth and performance.

Assessment Basics

At the classroom level, teachers should always consider the principles of reliability and validity in their assessments and grading. Do your grades yield consistent (reliable) results? Do your grades measure what you intend to measure (validity)?

When I’m trying to manage my weight, a scale that gives me a different result each time I step on it doesn’t help. Likewise, assessments given in a classroom should provide reliable results. I once heard reliability described in terms of baseball. A game of baseball is the best way to determine which team is better, but the game lacks reliability. That’s why they are played in series. The best team may not win a single game, but over a best of seven series most likely they will. It’s difficult for a classroom teacher to judge the reliability of the tools used in the classroom for assessment, so it is important to use multiple measures recognizing the limits of any single assessment we use.

On the surface, validity seems easier for the classroom teacher to control. If learning targets are identified clearly, instructional activities and assessment tools can be directly linked. Clear examples of classroom practices that reduce the validity of our grades would be extra credit points linked to irrelevant knowledge or behaviors. The intent behind motivating a student to support a school athletic event may be good, but artificially increasing a math grade because a student attended a basketball game confuses the meaning behind the final assigned grade. Even when all class work and activities are focused on the actual content of the course, determining whether a grade is more a measure of student achievement or effort can be difficult. Some would even disagree over whether the grade should measure achievement or effort.

Scaling Up

Recently, our school division (Albemarle County Public Schools) began a process of evaluating current practices around grading and articulating a shared vision of what grading should accomplish and how. Middle and high school teachers completed a survey in the spring of 2018. Results from this survey show a wide variety of teacher beliefs and practices regarding grades. In January of 2019, all teachers participated in small group sessions to analyze the results and provide input on how our division should move forward, sparking many conversations around the purpose of grading and how grading should promote and reflect student learning.

Beyond the classroom, a transparent and shared philosophy of grading should drive the consistent practices that students deserve. I asked our division Superintendent, Dr. Matthew Haas for three ideas that he would hope all teachers keep in mind as we strive to create these practices in Albemarle County. He shares the following:

First, students learn a lot more from teachers than teachers and students can find out through an assessment only focused on the original learning targets. Learning beyond and differently from the targets matters, and we should give credit and credence to what the student has to contribute.

Second, all measurement of learning is indirect. As a result, these measurements are not error free. Always err on the side of the student to build credibility with the student and encourage success. We should avoid creating “winning and losing” streaks that may not truly reflect student learning.

Finally, to make things clear for the student and teacher, feedback should be as closely tied to the learning target as possible with a tight range of performance levels. This creates actionable feedback which helps the student set goals while helping the teacher differentiate strategies.

We may never perfect a system of grading and assessment, but simply calling it broken and dismantling our traditional method of assigning grades without creating a workable system to measure student performance isn’t enough.

About the Author

Steven currently teaches Psychology at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, VA. In twenty-three years of teaching, Steven has taught multiple subjects at various levels in the social studies department. He is also a past member of the APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) committee and served as co-Chair of the Professional Development Strand for the APA Summit on High School Psychology in 2017. In 2018, Steven was a recipient of the APA TOPSS Charlie Blair-Broeker Excellence in Teaching Award. He is a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education.
Matthew Hess, EdD
Matt began his career as an English teacher, wrestling and track and field coach, and part time bus driver in Virginia Beach in 1990 after graduating from Old Dominion University. He served as a teacher and assistant principal at a few schools in the Beach while earning his master’s degree in School Administration (1997) and Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (2002) from The College of William and Mary and Virginia Tech, respectively and moved to Smyth County in 2001 to be Principal of Northwood High School in Saltville. In 2004, Matt Joined Albemarle County Schools as Principal of Albemarle High School. After five years there, he joined the central office staff as Director of Secondary Education. Since 2009, Matt, has held various central office roles and started as Superintendent this past July 1st for ACPS. Matt and Sheri, his wife of 27 years and fellow educator, live with their two children, Mark and Lainey, in Albemarle County. Mark is a first year student at UVA, and Lainey is a sophomore at Albemarle High School. All of Matt’s professional experience has been in Virginia.