A New Take on Traditional Grading System

Summer 2017

By Annie Barton, Wendell Thomas

These are compelling words from a group of experienced and high-performing teachers. What motivated such profound and positive changes? It wasn’t an expensive professional development program or a conference, a motivational speaker, a transformational change in schedule, or a big investment in technology. Rather, it is the grading reform we have been exploring and implementing over the past two-and-a-half years at Rowland Hall (UT) that is helping teachers feel confident providing necessary and appropriate instruction for their students.

Educational theorists and researchers have debated the limitations associated with traditional grading schemes for decades. Influential writers and thinkers like Ken O’Connor, Thomas Guskey, Douglas Reeves, Rick Wormeli, Robert Marzano, and Cathy Vatterott have pointed out the many flaws of percentage-based, A–F grades.

  • They are inconsistent and subjective, like all grading, but present a façade of quantitative precision and objectivity.
  • Including zeros in calculations is misleading (60 percent of the grading scale is failing).
  • The scheme was designed as a ranking system, not as a means to report on or support learning.
  • Omnibus grades mask learning and academic achievement by including various other factors in calculations (attendance, on-time completion, participation, etc.).
  • Too often, grading has been used to promote behavioral compliance in students and not to stimulate creativity, critical thinking, and learning.
  • A–F grades nudge students toward task-completion and ego goal orientations, and discourage them from adopting a learning orientation (see “Goal Orientations” below).

Three years ago, we started a conversation with principal Tyler Fonarow and the middle school faculty about their dissatisfaction with our traditional grading system. We asked: Does our grading and grade-reporting support student learning? Is our grading system communicating what we want it to? How can we identify and report learning needs when the majority of our students are earning A’s? The group quickly concluded that our grading system offered little help addressing any of these questions. After attending a conference about assessing students’ development of “mission skills,” or character traits described in a school’s mission statement, we were left wondering, how do we know we are living up to our mission?

As our motivation grew to consider a change, another question emerged: Is our middle school the right environment for implementing a nontraditional grading system?

Adolescence is a period of major cognitive opportunity. Neuroscience tells us that the adolescent brain, particularly the frontal lobe, is extraordinarily malleable, which allows for the strengthening and solidification of positive behaviors and mindsets. This neuroplasticity is accompanied by rapid rates of identity development and tremendous social, emotional, and intellectual growth. The adolescent brain has significant capacity for learning and critical thinking, but it also leaves middle-school students susceptible to pitfalls commonly associated with developing executive functioning skills. Creating a new grading system that focuses on students’ productivity and contributions gives teachers an opportunity to leverage middle-school students’ maturing brains and help them develop skills and mindsets that promote learning, self-reliance, and empathy.

Guided by our understanding of the opportunities of adolescence, the group’s decisiveness about the ineffectiveness of our traditional grading system, and our interest in more intentionally implementing our mission, our faculty and leadership team began thinking about what a mission-based grading system might look like.

Making the Move to Mission-Based

We started by reflecting on Rowland Hall’s mission to “inspire students to lead ethical and productive lives through a college preparatory program that promotes the pursuit of academic and personal excellence.”

After substantial consideration, and a touch of inspiration, we identified three key themes from our mission statement that could serve as the basis for a more student-centered and learning-focused grading system: We strive to inspire students to lead “ethical lives,” “productive lives,” and pursue “academic excellence.” These three perspectives evolved into the three grading categories that teachers now use to report on student learning and achievement in every class: academic mastery, productivity, and contributions.

Academic mastery: The pursuit of academic excellence was perhaps the most obvious strand to include in our new grading scheme. This has been, ostensibly, exactly what report card grades were supposed to measure. For us, academic mastery reports on a student’s mastery of course content and skills, undiluted by participation, behavior, timeliness, or other concerns.

Productivity: What teachers have long observed and suspected to be true is now supported by a growing research base: Students’ willingness to work, resourcefulness, mindsets, and tenacity are all critical to their learning and long-term success. These inward-focused skills and behaviors are the heart of this grading category.

Contributions: In contrast to the self-focus of the productivity category, we believe that ethical students are empathetic—they look out for and care for those in their community. Our students learn that it is their responsibility to help faculty and staff enrich the learning environment and make the school a safer, more inclusive place for peers and others who spend time with us.

After establishing our three mission-based grading categories, we were immediately faced with some critical questions: How many different levels of academic mastery, productivity, and contributions should we try to describe? What behaviors would we observe in a student who is meeting, approaching, or exceeding expectations in these areas? How do we ensure a common vision in order to provide students as much consistency as possible?

Rather than receive percentage-based letter grades for each of these categories, we drafted and submitted to teachers a four-point rubric for each of the three grading categories. Corresponding to the rubric’s proficiency levels, students would earn grades of Exceeding, Meeting, Approaching, and Unsatisfactory. Students may also earn a Meeting+ and an Approaching+ to indicate growth within a proficiency level.

The rubric sparked conversation and thinking, and teachers immediately went to work crafting that document into the grading rubric we currently use throughout our middle school. Since its debut, our rubric has been through at least 100 changes, all of them informed by discussions among groups of interested educators and administrators. And we still affectionately call the rubric a draft because it will continue to evolve with us and our students.

The rubric has proven to be a critical element of mission-based grading. Though it was initially drafted as a document to support teachers’ conception and implementation of this new grading system, it continues to ground us and spark discussion. Teachers and students have become fluent in the rubric’s skills-focused language, and increasingly, the document is becoming an effective tool to enhance conversations and inform students’ reflections about their learning.

Pilot Year: 2015–2016

After a year of experimentation in 2014–2015, our team of sixth-grade teachers felt they were ready to give mission-based grading a test drive. With students’ learning sharply in focus, the rubric in hand, and the expectation that we would be learning from our mistakes, these courageous teachers dove into our official pilot program. Some of the less optimistic among us predicted difficulty, but the teachers were encouraged to know that school administration would have their backs throughout the process.

During this first year, the sixth-grade team asked, considered, and sometimes answered many key questions: How often do I assess in each category? Should I break out sub-themes within grading categories to give more precise feedback to students (something akin to standards-based grading)? How do we weigh formative and summative assessments in academic mastery? How do we make the rubric kid-friendly enough to guide students’ thinking and pursuit of improvement? Should homework “count” towards mastery grades?

Every question led to new insights, new iterations, and new questions. All the while, teachers were becoming convinced that mission-based grading was impacting teaching and learning in meaningful and substantial ways.

The separation of the grading categories has sharpened the focus on academic mastery. With that grade no longer diluted by extra credit and points for participation and homework, teachers recognized that they needed to be even clearer with students’ learning goals and provide authentic illustrative examples (strong and weak) along with descriptive, student-friendly rubrics.

We also noticed a shift in student behavior. The tendency to focus on points and percentages was replaced by requests for feedback and meaningful conversations about their learning. In addition, teachers report fewer discipline issues, believing their regular conversations with students about personal (productivity) and community (contributions) responsibilities have made students more aware of, and reflective about, the consequences of their actions.

All of these observations gave us confidence to transition from pilot to policy, so we decided to roll out mission-based grading to the entire middle school, one year at a time. And while we suspect this system would also benefit older adolescents, we recognize the high-stakes nature of high school transcripts, which reinforced our decision to pilot this reform solely in our middle school.

The Challenges of Change

Replacing a conventional structure in a complex, tradition-steeped organization such as a school requires stakeholders to overcome both institutional inertia and human nature’s inherent resistance to change. Well before the official launch of these reforms, it became clear that success would be contingent upon consistent community-wide reeducation. Convincing our community that mission-based grading holds the potential to support and improve student learning is essential, and accomplishing this requires that we challenge our deeply held and long-standing beliefs about traditional grading.

Many in our community quickly recognized two core improvements with mission-based grading: a focus on learning rather than grades, and more meaningful reporting on children’s strengths and areas for improvement beyond academics. It’s safe to say, however, that we may have underestimated how deeply the traditional grading paradigm pervades people’s understanding of school and student learning. As we continue to engage with our community, we tend to encounter three main concerns: Mission-based grading seems more subjective than traditional A–F grades, may be less rigorous than traditional grading, and may hinder students’ college prospects.

We feel well-equipped to respond to the first two concerns. Numerous studies dating back to the early 20th century reveal the lack of objectivity in traditional percentage-based grading. Our system is not free of subjectivity, but in contrast to the 100 undefined levels in a percentage-based system, mission-based grading consists of only four well-defined levels. Our rubric contains rich language describing key student learning behaviors at each level, and teachers collaborate regularly to align their interpretation of that language.

In response to concerns about the lack of rigor of mission-based grading, we can say we have yet to see a student earn “all E’s,” when earning “straight A’s” used to be commonplace. In addition, teachers are moving beyond extra credit and focusing more on depth than on breadth, resulting in more intentional efforts to provide students with opportunities to challenge themselves and demonstrate true mastery of learning goals.

Can a middle school grading system hinder students’ college prospects? A few parents, especially those whose hopes for their children include admission to a highly selective university, seem worried that their children won’t know how to get A’s in high school. It’s true that mission-based grading discourages students from “gaming the system” just to get a higher grade. Instead, we heed the recommendations of a growing body of research and strive to develop in our students the skills needed to be effective learners. Such skills, we confidently predict, will result in our students earning plenty of A’s in high school and beyond.

Some parents have also expressed concern that our high school will choose to adopt mission-based grading. This consternation is likely rooted in a belief that admission officers at elite colleges and universities will not give full consideration to graduates possessing non-traditional, proficiency-based high school transcripts. Evidence suggests otherwise.

For decades now, colleges and universities have welcomed students from high schools that use a broad range of grading schemes. In fact, earlier this year the New England Board of Higher Education and the New England Secondary School Consortium convened a meeting of admissions officers from a group of highly selective colleges and universities in the region. During a robust discussion on the topic, these admissions leaders indicated overwhelmingly that students with proficiency-based transcripts would not be disadvantaged, even in a highly selective admission process.

Moving Forward

At this stage of our implementation process, we realize that a more complete understanding of the impact mission-based grading might have on students’ performance and mindsets is still a few years away. Our eighth-grade teachers will roll out mission-based grading in the fall of 2017, uniting our entire middle school in this learning-focused grading reform. In addition to looking forward to feedback from our eighth-grade teachers, we also realize major initiatives like this are subject to implementation dips, and thus, accurately gauging success often requires reserving judgment until the transition period has ended. We plan to continue evaluating the effectiveness of this new grading system through ongoing reflection and dialogue with teachers and students over the next several years. Perhaps then, we will feel more confident recommending similar reforms to our colleagues in other schools, including our own upper school.

For now, our community is not convinced that an alternative high school transcript will provide students the best chance of earning acceptance into elite universities and colleges. In addition to gathering evidence about the impact of mission-based grading on learning, we would also like to confirm with college admission officers that an alternative transcript would keep our students competitive in the admission process.

Upper school teachers who have taken a close look at the changes we’re making have expressed confidence that our initiative will help their future students to be more adept, resilient, and effective learners. As we continue to refine this grading system, we look to the verdict of our middle school teachers who are implementing it for evidence and inspiration: mission-based grading encourages metacognition and enhances teaching and learning. Through reflection and dialogue with teachers, students are critically evaluating how they learn, paying more attention to their learning and less attention to grades, and developing strategies to make the most of every educational opportunity. Teachers also report being more thoughtful and reflective themselves—more fully aware of where their students are and how they may best support their continued learning.

We are inspired and motivated by the accomplishments of our teaching colleagues, whose dedication and professionalism have made possible all the successes thus far. Nonetheless, we are confident our middle school teachers would agree that we have much work to do. The goal of “Exceeding” expectations in this process is visible, but still distant; instead, we take pride in self-assessing at an “Approaching +” and are eager to continue the work of improving mission-based grading for our students.

Annie Barton

Annie Barton is middle school academic dean at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Wendell Thomas

Wendell Thomas is director of curriculum and instruction at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah.