Making a case for change in grading kids

If you are an educator, how do you grade your students?  What is the difference between an A and a C-?  How would you describe an "A" student?  

Grading is a very controversial subject.  Similar to methodology, teachers desire autonomy when deciding how to score their students.  They want to be free to determine what counts for a grade, the weight each assignment will carry, and how each assignment is scored.  Many schools have a "grading policy," yet teachers continue to find a way to make it their own.  

Teachers base student grades on many different factors: number of correct answers, completion of assignments, participation in the activity, effort... the list goes on and on.  The number of graded assignments varies as well.  Some teachers give assignments every day, others only once a week.  Still others will give one assignment for the entire marking period.  

Due date is another key factor in grading student work... every assignment has a due date, and each teacher has a "late policy" for assignments.  Some accept late work for full credit, others take off points for each day it's late, some won't even accept late work. 

What is the point of all of this?  What does a student's grade really mean?  

In our current model, grades serve two purposes: to rate and rank students.  In my previous post, I spoke of the four critical elements of learning.  Our current model of grading makes it very difficult to embrace those elements without contradicting the culture current grading practices have established.  

Collaboration and communication
In our current system, grades are used to rank students.  This need to know "who's number one" creates and nurtures a culture of competition and isolation.  It does not encourage collaboration, even when students are assigned "group work."  In that scenario, students are individually graded.  In cases where groups are graded together, those who want a good grade will often pick up the slack of those not motivated to contribute.

In addition, students are not encouraged to communicate with each other or the teacher in ways that are meaningful to them.  Instead, they are given specific assignments, with clear rubrics, and deadlines to follow.  Stick to the task, follow the directions, provide the correct responses, and you'll get a good grade.  The focus for students becomes centered on the final grade, instead of learning and personal growth.

Critical thinking and problem solving
I spoke about this in a previous post on teaching 21st century skills without technology:
The correct answer... We encourage our students to strive for the correct answer on tests and quizzes, on homework, even in essays and lab reports.  What if we started asking questions that had multiple correct answers?  Or had no answer at all?  Educators need to move away from the step by step approach to problem solving that is engrained in current practices.  We are so fixated on the correct answer (often in the back of the book or in the teacher's edition) that we avoid offering opportunities for our students to find the path to the solution for themselves.  

With a focus on grades in a traditional approach, students are encouraged only to find the correct answer to a problem.  Students are penalized for a failure to find the correct solution, and that failure can ultimately lead to receiving no credit towards advancement or graduation.  Risk taking is frowned upon, and students don't have the luxury of learning from mistakes.  They don't even have the luxury of making mistakes in the first place.

Creativity and Innovation
In a traditional grading model, creativity and innovation fall under attack on two fronts.  As with critical thinking, students are not encouraged to take risks in their learning, and being creative often means adding color to a poster or PowerPoint... We'll call it "safe creativity."  True creativity in learning requires risk, and risk often leads to failure.  In a traditional grading situation, failure on one assignment can spell certain doom for a marking period grade, which could negatively affect a quarterly GPA.  This could eliminate many top colleges and universities as options for post graduation studies.  Most students would not take that risk, nor would many teachers encourage it.

I have had many conversations regarding creativity in the classroom, and many teachers have expressed high levels of interest, but have challenged the notion with the question "how do I grade it?"  This question from teachers takes us back to the earlier conversation regarding finding the correct answer.  In a classroom that embraces creativity, there is often a period of divergent thinking.  Many of us would call this period "thinking out of the box."  When employing divergent thinking, students are encouraged to generate a large quantity of solutions unfettered by evaluative thoughts.  Quantity over quality.  In this situation, there are no correct answers, no restrictions.  You see, divergent thinking does not give us one correct answer... It gives us many possible answers.  

Following a period of divergent thinking and idea generation, there is a period of convergent thinking.  During this time, students begin to evaluate all the possible solutions that were generated, eliminating those that do not work, keeping those that might, until they have arrived at what they believe is the solution.  This might sound like an unnecessarily long, winding path to the answer, but what's critical is the process, not the answer.  The process opens the mind to possible solutions that are often hidden when the focus is on finding the correct response.  But the question of grading this work still remains.  How do you grade divergent thinking in a traditional model?  This question alone will hold teachers back from using creativity and innovation in their classroom.

What if we stopped employing the traditional methods of grading?  What if we eliminated the traditional methods of evaluating students and embraced a mastery model?  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a big fan of standardized testing and an even smaller fan of using standardized testing to evaluate teachers.  There is one thing I do like in the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) regulations... HEDI, which stands for Highly effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective (not a fan of ineffective... Doesn't really motivate a teacher to explore ways to improve).  This rating scale is used in the evaluation of teachers and principals within the APPR framework.  Used correctly, and without the associated punitive measures, this evaluation method can open a dialogue that could ultimately lead to high levels of personal growth for educators.  What if we used a similar approach to evaluating kids?  What if we eliminated punitive measures to evaluating kids learning and focused instead on open dialogues with each one regarding their personal growth in learning.  Students would be given constructive feedback in addition to the following ratings of progress towards learning goals:
- Highly proficient
- Proficient
- Developing
These ratings, when used with students as a way to open the conversation regarding personal growth, can give teachers and students a common starting point from which to discuss personal progress.  All three invoke positive feelings, focus of moving forward, and encourage learning from failure.  As a matter of fact, I believe failure should be a big part of all three levels, especially if Highly Proficient has no ceiling.    

Moving away from traditional grading could have profound effects on the culture of education in this country, from early elementary all the way to higher education.  The focus would shift from performance and the winner-takes-all mentality to individual growth and the development path of each child.  There would no longer be a need for standardized tests.  Most importantly, students would be in a learning environment driven by individual progress and passion and not by the rating and ranking of each child.


  1. This would fix many issues; those students who need a bit more time to master a given concept would have it and it would be a more "what-they-can do" model. Many educators are increasingly infuriated by the fact that students do not take more responsibility in their own education but they refuse to let them take responsibility by letting them solve issues in the same way they would in real-life. This type of grading helps put the ownership back onto the student and allows them to shine in areas of interest.


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