Of all teachers’ responsibilities, perhaps none is more consequential, with more implications, than assigning grades. Grades determine important decisions that are made about students—decisions that can even affect students’ life trajectories, including course placement, athletic eligibility, college admission, scholarships, and employment possibilities. For schools, grades provide valuable feedback: evidence of achievement gaps, weaknesses in instruction, and staffing and professional development needs. The ways teachers grade influence how stressful schools and classrooms feel and affect how families evaluate their school. Perhaps most profoundly, grades shape how our students think about themselves—who they are, what they’re good at, and whether school is a place where they can succeed.
But, as many parents, teachers, and school administrators are frequently stunned to learn, many common grading practices are outdated, inaccurate, and undermine student success. In fact, many grading policies—which appear to be an objective, fair, and accurate method to describe a student’s academic performance—often increase achievement gaps by infusing grades with teachers’ implicit biases or by rewarding or punishing students based on their families’ resources.
Ironically, despite the enormous importance of grades, teachers receive almost no training in graduate school or by way of professional development about how to grade. As a result, teachers choose their own individual way to grade, guided by their best sense but uninformed by either research or best practices. Most school administrators know that teachers could benefit from improvements in how to grade—teachers know it as well—but they often are reluctant to broach the topic for fear of encroaching on teachers’ professional autonomy. Neither school leaders nor teachers have had a framework or vocabulary to examine grading and understand its inequities, to recognize the harms of century-old grading practices, and to identify and implement more inclusive and accurate grading.
Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise that grading has been called “the third rail” of schools: It provides power to schools, but no one dares touch it. But we must—and now is the time. We may bring new curriculum and instructional strategies to our classrooms, engage in courageous conversations about identity, and collectively dedicate our schools to equity, but we undermine it all when we continue to use many common grading practices.
What We’re Doing and How We Got HereFor the nearly two decades I worked in schools—as a high school teacher and principal and later as a district administrator responsible for K–12 instruction—I never had the resources, support, or confidence to help teachers address our grading challenges. After I left my school district, I began to investigate the existing research on grading and its intersection with equity. What I found was eye-opening.
Our current grading practices were created during the Industrial Revolution, shaped by our country’s early 20th century cultural dynamics and demographics, and founded on beliefs about teaching, learning, and human potential that have since been thoroughly debunked and disproven. For example, a century ago we believed that humans were effectively motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments—think rats taught to pull a lever by offering pellets or electrifying the cage floor—a belief that underlies teachers’ constant use of “points” to incentivize (and some might say control) student behaviors, such as coming on time to class or completing homework. Over the past few decades, however, we’ve learned that intrinsic motivation—the kind of motivation that generates creative thinking and fuels effective learning—is undermined by extrinsic rewards and punishments. In other words, our continued use of points to motivate students is demotivating them from learning.
Traditional grading practices also contradict our messages about the learning process. We tell our students that mistakes are OK, even desired, for successful learning. We encourage them to have a growth mindset—reinforcing the idea that everyone has the potential for ultimate success despite struggles. Yet at the same time, we include in grades students’ errors on homework and classwork—the stages of the learning process when they are supposed to practice new skills and make their mistakes.
Teachers also frequently use mathematical calculations that hide student growth and handicap students who struggle. One common calculation in traditional grading is the averaging of student performance over time, but this warps the accuracy of grades and disproportionately disadvantages struggling students. For example, here are the scores for the five essays assigned during a unit to teach persuasive essay writing:
Maria performed consistently at a high level from beginning to end. Her average is an A. That seems accurate—she has earned As on every essay and has a final grade of an A. Her classmate Sam’s performance was more uneven. He did well on his first two essays, slipped on essay No. 3, but did much better on his fourth and fifth essays. His grades average to a B for the unit. But this B to describe his performance, although correctly calculated, does not meaningfully describe his proficiency at essay writing, most obviously because he actually never wrote an essay at the B level. Assigning a B communcates a grade that is inaccurate and even misleading. Not only does averaging performance over time often give us inaccurate descriptions of student performance, but it can hide student growth.
Let’s take a third student, Ellis. Here are his scores:
In the persuasive essay unit, Ellis started out unprepared, with writing that was an organizational mess, earning him a D-. But over the course of the unit, he steadily improved, ultimately able to write an A-quality persuasive essay. He has learned everything expected of him, but his averaged final grade is a C. Averaging his performance doesn’t accurately describe his skills, and it hides all his growth and improvement. What’s more, averaging penalizes Ellis. Because he came to the class with a weaker educational background than Maria, even though he learned to write just as well by the end of the unit, his grade is significantly lower than hers. A more equitable grade for Ellis is an A; it reflects his skills at the end of his learning and doesn’t deflate his grade because of early struggles.
Supporting DEI WorkWhile the previous examples emphasize the inaccuracies of our common grading calculation of averaging and have relevance for equity, other traditional grading practices implicate inequity more directly. Teachers often use grades not just to indicate how well students master course content but also to evaluate student behaviors. Categories such as “effort” or “participation” are highly subjective and heavily influenced by a teacher’s own experiences and habits. The student who is penalized for not asking questions or contributing to discussions may be learning just as much as other students, and the student who is taking copious notes may not be learning at all. Similarly, teachers judge student behaviors through culturally specific lenses and assumptions that they might not even be aware of, which can result in student actions being misinterpreted and misjudged.
Even beyond implicit biases, students are more likely to complete homework if they have greater resources, such as a quiet space, nearby grownups with advanced education levels, and computer and internet access, while students who have fewer supports are less likely to complete homework. Homework can be an important element of learning, but when teachers include students’ performance on that homework in the grade, they incorporate an institutional bias that rewards students with resources and impedes students without resources, effectively replicating intergenerational disparities of race and income. Equitable grading, instead, excludes entirely subjective categories such as “effort” and “participation” and excludes homework performance from students’ grades.
Grading and TrustWe know that if we want to create inclusive, welcoming, and supportive schools for all children—and particularly for groups of students who historically have not been as welcomed or supported in schools—we have to build deep, trusting relationships. Yet traditional grading encourages us to do the opposite. Teachers use points to evaluate every action or assignment in a class, which creates pressure-cooker classrooms where no accomplishment goes unrewarded and no mistake goes unpenalized. A student gains points for contributing to a discussion, or for completing the classwork before the bell, or for collaborating in a pair-share, and loses points for coming late, or for not having the syllabus signed on time, or for talking out of turn. Effective teacher-student relationships require the opposite: a space to take risks without penalty, to disclose weaknesses without being judged, to feel safe simply knowing that you don’t have to perform perfectly every moment.
Our traditional practice of grading everything students do inadvertently sows distrust, shame, and deceit—which leads to students copying homework to earn points, not suggesting an answer if it might be wrong, rote note-taking only for the notebook check—thereby weakening the teacher-student relationship qualities that support learning. Instead, we need to allow students to engage in meaningful tasks for which their performance is not included in their grade.
For example, if homework is indeed an opportunity for students to practice and to make mistakes, then we can’t include their performance on that homework in their grade. We should still assign homework and class activities when appropriate, and provide constructive and timely feedback that prepares students for success on summative assessments, but the message should be unambiguous: I expect you to take risks and make mistakes and to share with me your academic confusion and weaknesses without fear that your grade will be lowered because of those mistakes. Students’ behavioral mistakes must have consequences—such as additional time for being late to class, for example—but tracking each earned or forfeited point for every activity or behavior reduces teachers to point-tabulators and accountants rather than supportive mentors and guides for students’ paths to success.
Example in ActionOnce I started digging more deeply into the research and the history of traditional grading, I found classrooms and practitioners who wanted to grade differently. I spent time with these teachers and realized that as intractable as these traditional grading systems and practices can feel, they can be improved. For the past six years, I have worked with schools to help educators recognize the damaging and inequitable impact of many traditional grading practices and to facilitate a process in which teachers and leaders explore more mathematically sound, less biased and subjective, and more intrinsically motivating grading.
Georgetown Day School (DC) is one such school doing the work of examining and rethinking its grading practices. Debby Previna is middle school principal at Georgetown Day School, which serves a diverse PK–12 student body with 1,075 students; approximately 25% of families receive some financial assistance. After a few years as an administrator at the school, Previna realized that the way teachers graded often contradicted the school’s commitment to academic excellence as well as equity. But she also knew from experience that she couldn’t simply create policies; in her experience, teachers often respond to “top-down” grading policies with confusion, resistance, and resentment. Instead, she needed the teachers to see what she saw: how their current approaches contradicted their school’s ideals.
In the winter of 2017, she reached out to me, and I suggested she “plant some seeds” by sharing a few articles about the weaknesses—both in terms of accuracy and equity—of common grading practices with the entire middle school faculty. She then sent an open invitation to any teacher who wanted to dig deeper into grading—to research, examine, and imagine ways to align grading to the school’s vision for progressive and equitable education. To her surprise, nearly half the faculty was interested. With this momentum, Previna and I developed a strategy that would honor her teachers as learners and leverage the school’s collaborative culture.
Beginning that spring, a subset of the faculty participated in a series of workshops where they learned more about the history of current grading practices, their impact on teaching and learning, and what I believe are the three pillars that define equitable grading: grades must be accurate, validly reflecting a student’s academic performance; bias-resistant, preventing our implicit biases and subjectivity from infecting grades; and motivational, helping students strive for academic success, persevere, accept struggles and setbacks, and gain critical life skills. This pilot group was also trained to use more equitable grading practices, which include employing a 0–4 point scale rather than a 0–100 percentage, incorporating retakes and redos, and ensuring that grades indicate how well students actually master subject matter than whether students’ behavior or work habits gain their subjective approval.
Through a series of workshops, tailored coaching, and facilitated conversations, the faculty found that these more equitable grading practices were so beneficial that they asked Previna, even demanded of her, that the entire school learn and begin to use these practices. One year later, the middle school has generated a body of evidence across teachers, disciplines, and grade levels that shows the results of these improved approaches to grading, some of which the teachers never anticipated: Students were less anxious and classroom environments felt more relaxed and supportive of learning, and grade inflation decreased because teachers no longer padded grades with points for participation or homework completion. The teachers continue to track students’ participation and homework but have expanded how they give feedback on those nonacademic skills: for example, with student conferences or separate reports and calls to parents. The school’s grades give more accurate information about where students are in their learning, and Previna and some teachers are beginning to imagine how their report card could communicate student achievement more accurately and equitably as well.
Where Do We Go From Here?If we can improve how we grade, we will leverage significant improvements in every aspect of teaching and learning as well as our school cultures. The impact of using more equitable grading practices, with data collected and analyzed both by schools and by external evaluators, has been similar across schools—whether charter schools in East Los Angeles, district schools in Northern California, or independent schools like Phillips Academy Andover (MA).
The rate of students receiving As decreases, and it decreases more dramatically for students from more resourced families. Grades are no longer rewarding students for just “doing school,” which disproportionately benefits students with more privilege, but grades instead reflect students’ actual academic performance.
At the same time, the rate of students receiving Ds and Fs decreases, and does so more dramatically for vulnerable and historically underserved students (African Americans, Hispanics, and students from low-income families). Grades are less susceptible to teachers’ biases and no longer filter students for privilege.
There is a statistically significant increase in the correlation between students’ teacher-assigned grades and standardized assessment scores, suggesting that teachers’ grades more accurately describe their students’ performance. This correlation is particularly strengthened for students from lower-income families, suggesting that those students were more likely to have their performance misrepresented by traditional grading practices.
Teachers and students report less stressful classrooms and stronger student-teacher relationships.
Teachers find that learning and implementing these grading practices improves their work as educators and has led to improved student learning.
Now is the ideal moment to examine and address a century-old pillar of our American schooling that for too long has been thought of as a necessary evil. The critical examination of how teachers grade students might seem incidental to DEI work, and examining the inequities in our grading practices can challenge our deepest beliefs about what we know or think we know about our teaching, our students, and ourselves. And yet, we can no longer avoid the issue. By not correcting grading practices, schools risk undermining other initiatives aimed at improving equity and make our schools less inclusive and supportive of every student. If educators, policy makers, parents, and the public are truly committed to equitable educational opportunities and equitable teaching, and deeply respect the professionalism and dedication of teachers, they must support efforts to address the weaknesses in grading.
The integrity of our schools and the future of our children are at stake.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Independent School magazine.
NOTE: The original version of this article included an error in the calculation of Sam’s grade; the chart and the accompanying text listed his overall grade as a C+ and has been corrected here. We regret the error.