Five considerations for creating a student-centered grading process that helps boost confidence and reduce confusion.
When I ask teachers what drew them to the profession, I often hear stories about a teacher who believed in them when they were a student, a subject area they became passionate about, or a love of children that has brought them to the classroom. I have never heard a teacher list “grading papers” or “filling out marking period grades” as a driving factor in choosing teaching as a profession! However, the process of grading is often mentioned among the biggest stressors in the job.
The subjective nature of grading puts teachers in a somewhat impossible position. Every school has a different grading policy and different levels of internal and external accountability, and most teachers determine grading in isolation, sometimes late at night with eyes drooping from exhaustion. Teachers are responsible for selecting tasks, the value of those tasks, the right answer(s), the grading scale, and the overall worth of each assignment — all while knowing that once their (rarely reviewed or audited) grades are submitted, they create a powerful narrative about students’ identities as learners.
Even though grades are such a high-stakes component of a teacher’s professional responsibility, the topic rarely shows up in teacher training courses, licensure programs, or even in school professional development sessions. This leads to a wide range of grading philosophies and practices among teachers, even those within the same school or discipline. This is because there isn’t a single, simple formula to translate dynamic learning into a static number. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and to do it well takes critical reflection and deep content knowledge.
By the time grades hit a student’s final transcript, they’ve been totaled and averaged and weighted and averaged over and over again. But no matter how long the process takes from student work to official transcript, how we evaluate students should be based on a fair evaluation of how students demonstrate their learning — and in order to grade fairly, there are common pitfalls that should be avoided.
Grading can be a trying, tiring, and tedious task, but we can identify some F.A.C.T.S. about grading that can help keep us grounded, and our students engaged and motivated to learn.
Fair grading systems mean there is a rationale behind the value of an assignment, how many points/how much weight it has in the gradebook, and that there are clear criteria for its evaluation. This might mean teachers have developed a rubric, checklist, or explicit expectations that have been shared with students in advance. When students demonstrate a misunderstanding with incorrect or incomplete responses, teachers should be able to identify where they lost points, and why. If students or families ask questions about the way an assignment has been graded and the teacher who designed the task isn’t able to answer them, it’s a sign that this assignment needs more attention to determine the clear expectations and criteria for success.
Accurate grading systems use a consistent measure over time, and have a method for translating that measurement into the school’s selected grading metrics. Whether the school is using the letter scale (A, B, C, D) a numeric scale (1, 2, 3, 4), or a traditional percentage (90%, 80%, etc.), the teacher has to think through how their assignment will ultimately contribute to this evaluative measure. If I grade daily assignments with ✓s and +s, I have to devise a way to translate those symbols into numbers on the final grade. If I don’t, or if I don’t do so consistently, then my grades are not accurately representing what students know and are able to do.
Accuracy also counts when it comes to task design. If I set out with a policy that all classwork is equal to 10 points, but on Monday the classwork is worth 10 points with 5 questions and on Wednesday the classwork is worth 10 points with 20 questions, we may have an issue of accuracy in the grading process.
The best way to design an accurate grading system is to plan in advance the types of tasks that best represent student learning, and identify their value and weight as they relate to how students demonstrate that learning. Then, implement a system that makes it easy to translate learning into the metrics and measures that your school has selected.
Students (and their families) look to their grades to measure their progress in real time. Especially with the nature of gradebook software that allows students, parents, and teachers to log in day or night to track their progress, keeping consistent grading practices is critical for keeping students engaged and on track. When the gradebook significantly lags behind real time, students can get a false perception of their performance, which may impact their day-to-day choices. Some grades may appear high when in fact they’re slipping below the passing line, while other grades can take a nosedive overnight and sound the alarm bells unnecessarily.
When students’ grades change faster than soap opera characters can die and come back to life, it can create a similar level of conflict and tension. The hardest scenes to watch are when students become so frustrated that they can’t see the impact of their hard work on their day-to-day grades, and they lose trust in the system; this is when a cycle of failure can set in. Students who don’t get consistent feedback on their progress can begin to feel that the work isn’t worth their time, reduce their effort, and subsequently see their grades slip. As they get more and more discouraged, they may miss their chance to turn things around before it’s too late.
While we can advise and support students to understand the grading system and keep track of all of their assignments, it’s our responsibility as the teachers who design, assign, and assess the tasks to be clear and consistent in our practices.
Fair, accurate, and consistent grading methodologies should also be transparent to students, colleagues, parents, and school leaders. If we want students to succeed, we should not stay silent about what it takes to reach academic goals! Creating transparency is about being clear, explicit, and forthcoming about what needs to be done in order to succeed.
Transparent grading practices include providing explicit grading criteria and guidelines in advance. This might be a rubric that students review alongside a teacher at the beginning of a project, or a checklist of expectations and their point value, or even including the number of points possible/earned on each assignment.
Students who don’t understand how their grades are calculated are less likely to see the connection between their hard work in school and their grades, which means they’ll also struggle to see the connection between their grades and future opportunities in life. We can be proactive by being clear with our students about our grading practices and policies, but we can also empower our students to be their own advocates. By engaging students in keeping their own gradebook, self-assessing their progress, assessing peers in group work, and hosting grading conferences, we can take the mystery out of the marking period and give our students all of the information and tools they need to maximize their grades.
When the class is over at the end of the semester or the school year, the grade is the only thing that’s guaranteed to remain. For students in high school, grades represent their identity as a learner as they share their transcript with potential colleges, write their GPA on cover letters and resumes, or seek scholarships and grants. Grades are high-stakes, and as teachers we have a lot of power over how students move through school and how they’re perceived along the way.
Often, grading is perceived as something for the teachers’ benefit, or for parents — but all grading is for students. When we position students as the ultimate stakeholder for grades, we are able to leverage grading systems to increase a student’s personal investment, empowerment, and agency over their learning. When grading becomes a way for us to encourage our students with actionable feedback and notes about how they can adjust their performance to reach their goals, the grading process ceases to be tedious recordkeeping. Instead, it becomes a critical conversation about content knowledge, critical thinking skills, progress, and performance over time.
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