Sunday, March 27, 2011

Death of the Grading Program

In my opinion, the single biggest impediment to high school teachers embracing grading practices that promote learning is an over-dependence on grading programs.  The irresponsible  use of these programs reduces the grading process to a collection of numbers or statistics.  The problem with an over-dependence on numbers, as Mark Twain writes, is that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Having said that, I shudder when I think of my first five years as a social studies teacher and how I assessed and graded my students.  I would assign homework assignments, projects, and tests.  I would religiously input the students' scores and periodically would let the grading program assign a grade to the students. 

Any question by a student or parent regarding a grade would result in the standard answer: “When I run the numbers, this is your grade” (as displayed a long list of numbers).  Or better yet, “When I look at your results, I see that you missed a homework assignment (three months ago!) which has brought your grade down 7.4%” 

What was I thinking?  Why was I “counting” everything?  What about giving students an opportunity to practice their learning (without penalty)?  How about the notion that learning happens over time?   Why was I averaging? 

Sadly, I was letting the grading program do my job!  I was abdicating my responsibility to assess and grade my students, leaving it instead to the grading program.  For some reason, I was led to believe that as a teacher, there was no room for my own professional judgement (based on a comprehensive and legitimate body of evidence) to determine a grade.
I recently read the “Philosophy of Grading” out of the University of Georgia that was originally published in 1989.   Part of the policy states:
... Grades are not numbers. We use numbers to ensure that grades are given fairly, but the grade itself is a teacher’s professional judgment of a student’s knowledge.
Grading and assessment should never be reduced to a set of numbers.  As a teacher I assess my students - not the grading program.  I distinguish between formative and summative assignments.  I look for improvement over time.  

Today, thankfully, I have been liberated from the clutches of the grading program! 

As schools embark on the process of reforming grading practices, the reform they seek goes beyond retooling any grading program.  True reform lies in shifting the hearts and minds of the practitioners. 


  1. Great post Johnny, I couldn't agree more. The grading programs have been our downfall. We have never been more clinically sound, however, we've lost the "art" of grading.

    Grading programs have given us the illusion that we can distinguish between 101 levels of performance..absurd. Grades are not numbers and we have to allow our professional judgement to make decisions about progress.

    Interesting that a University took that stance on of the same universities that HS teachers will often reference in defence of their archaic grading practices. Hmmm. Thanks Johnny!

  2. What did you learn in school today? Well you certainly can't tell from the letter grades children receive. Good article but don't stop there. What happens to grade point averages?

    And what if a student reads at the 4th grade level, does math at the 7th grade level and writes at the 2nd grade level, what grade is he / she in? When we recognize and accept that children learn at different rates, grade levels become mute.

    And then we realize that the carnegie unit was developed in 1906 and no longer is effective, those must go also.

    Don't stop there. What about our ridiculous failure system. It certainly doesn't resemble life. In life we learn from failure, in school we fail from failure.

    No no, can't stop yet. What about programs for special needs and the gifted. If you take children from where they are, these fit right in withour needing a name to their program. Support, yes, the name no.

    Not done yet. What about age. Of course there are age limits for a building, but if children learn at different rates, shouldn't they be able to finish school at any time, like college does.

    Teach to the test takes the profession away from teachers and destroys children as they become book learned without a lick of common sense, or they go head first into the broken failure system. This must go.

    And what about the artificial means by which students move to higher level skills. Shouldn't everyone be able to determine what their interests are and then follow through ontheir pathway to success.

    Class schedules and the school year must be looked at to allow true learning, not in 45 minute segments. And we don't live in chunks of separate math time and reading time. Why learn that way?

    And where do we hold class. Is learning only in a walled in classroom?

    And finally assessment. Children learn in different ways and demonstrate learning in different ways. Are we going to allow that? What if the "slower" children out learn the book learned geniuses? The last becomes first. Imagine that?

    Watch the dominoes fall all over the place when you truly design a school for childen. Is it possible to tweak the current system to allow true reform? I think not. The time has come for sytemic change. This is outlined in my book Saving Students From A Shattered System.

    Google me and then tell me where I am wrong.

    Cap Lee

  3. Couldn't agree more. As Principal I had many long discussions about grading and was always surprised with how many teachers hold on to the percents and letter grades. " I am teaching students to be responsible" they would say. "kids need to learn to turn in their work and how can I excuse lazy behavior". This process is entrenched in the practice of many teachers.

    I have always felt students and parents should be made aware of what students know relative to the standards. This is a surprisingly challenging path to take. It also set me on a course to develop a tool that would help teachers do just that. It has evolved into something that does much more. You may be interested in seeing what we do.

  4. "As schools embark on the process of reforming grading practices, the reform they seek goes beyond retooling any grading program. True reform lies in shifting the hearts and minds of the practitioners."

    And this is where the hard work begins. How do you think this is best achieved?
    I argue that pre-service programs at Universities are not yet really listening to the "on the ground" shifters currently in classrooms. That said, I think that the Network of Performance Based Schools (in BC and beyond) is an EXCELLENT example of how real change is taking place for practicing educators.

    Of course, I want to hear more...

  5. Thank you for sharing this.

    Stephen Lewis was presenting at the Field's Institute years ago and described statistics as the armament of politicians.

    Teachers I'm working with now feel caught between the demands placed on them by a standardized curriculum, testing and grading with numbers and what they believe about learning. One of the readings I've used to draw out this discussion is "Teaching as Indwelling Between Two Curriculum Worlds" (Ted Aoki)

    Although I agree with you, I think I would go farther than
    "teacher’s professional judgment of a student’s knowledge"
    I would like to include the student as an active participant in documenting their progress over time. I feel it is imperative that the learner takes ownership of the learning, which is why I've worked on projects like Concordia University's ePEARL :

    Thank you for continuing the conversation :)

    Be well,


  6. Good post, but I don't believe in grades period. They are an extrinsic motivator that motivates few students. They give students the idea that a teacher is there to exert some kind of power over them. Many progressive schools haven't used grades for a long while, focusing more on "learning to learn" with students. Before people start saying "how do you get into college..." these students still get into college. Grades are subjective... it is hard to imagine a way that they make any sense. We should be focusing on intrinsic motivators if we want to engage kids in authentic learning.