Looking at Grading - Steve Barkley

Looking at Grading

The September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership, titled Resilience and Learning, has several thought provoking articles. Two of them connected with the work I am doing with a few districts examining grading, motivation, and engagement.

A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth (pages 14-20) explores the significance of grit (earlier blog).  She states that “grit and talent either aren’t related at all or are actually inversely related”.

Duckworth describes a study of taxi drivers; Rainy days can be a goldmine for taxi drivers as everyone wants a cab and fares are plentiful. So you would think that drivers who are earning more per hour on rainy days would work more hours… but they tend to work less hours on rainy days. It appears they have a fixed amount they need to earn per day in their heads and on rainy days they get there quicker and go home early.

She suggests it’s similar with grit and talent in academics. If students are just focused on getting an A, the really talented student gets there easily and works less hard. If you are trying to maximize your outcomes, there is no ceiling. Your goal is,” How can I get the most out of my day?”.

I met a high school English teacher who has students continually improve a piece of writing across the whole school year. Each month they get their work back with her comments on the strengths and how it can be improved. In May she returns the work with a grade. If the grade is an A, which in most cases it is, she also includes the date at which it was scored an A. Many students find that they improved their work, three or four times beyond an A. Exactly what the teacher wanted to communicate. “Don’t allow a grading system to set an arbitrary limit on what you are capable of achieving.”

In the same issue of Educational Leadership, Tom Guskey (earlier blog)  provides an article titled, The Case Against Percentage Grading. He identifies a 2011 study that replicated a 1912 study illustrating the inaccuracy of much that happens with grading:

90 High school teachers –who had received nearly 20 hours of training in a writing assessment program- were asked to grade the same student paper on a 100 point scale. Among the 73 teachers who responded, scores ranged from 50- 96.

Guskey raises these concerns

  •  If  60 or 65 is a passing score, a 100 point scale contains more distinct levels of failure than of passing. In affect students can receive a more finely distinguished degree of failure than of success.
  • In the absence of a truly accurate measuring device, adding more gradations to the measurement scale offers an illusion of precision. (I’d suggest that few of the assessments used in school are highly accurate measuring devices.)

This statement by Guskey in the closing of the article (page 72) identifies for me what must become the work of educators in Professional Learning Communities at all levels.

Assigning fair and meaningful grades to students will continue to challenge educators at every level. The process requires thoughtful and informed professional judgment, an abiding concern for what best serves the interest of students and their families, and careful examination of the tasks students are asked to complete and the questions they are asked to answer to demonstrate their learning.”

School leaders and instructional coaches need to be engaging teacher teams in these conversations. I often find building or districts guidelines regarding “recording grades” pushing teachers’ decisions that are not “best serving the interest of students”. Designing assessment and grading practices that promote student achievement must be a continual teacher learning process.

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4 Responses to “ Looking at Grading ”

  1. Amy Bright Says:

    Provocative! I have been thinking about grading lately because of convos I’m having with teachers about results of mini-assessments. You provide much food for thought and deeper conversation.

  2. Bill Connolly Says:


    Thanks for (yet again) providing some concise talking and reflecting points. The quote from Guskey that you highlighted gets to what you have said about vulnerability: are teachers (and principals, for that matter) willing to make themselves vulnerable to the possibility that their current practices of assigning and grading work could be improved? Will they go further in working toward a uniform philosophy of grading across a department/grade level/school (gasp!)?

  3. Amanda Campbell Says:

    Great points! I find this especially difficult because of the ways in which grading practices worm their way into every relationship a school (especially a high school) has with the outside world – parents and community, employers, the state, college admissions departments…

    The expectations of grades and GPA are almost more confining than the teachers’ and schools’ ability to create truly effective assessment practices. I’m noticing that teachers and school leaders are learning exponentially in this regard, and now chafing against the established systems. There’s always that, “Yes, but what about…” followed by myriad (and often realistic) objections. This conversation has to involve all stakeholders if we ever hope to see movement!

  4. Ann Patterson Says:

    I enjoyed this article on Looking at Grading and I agree with the author. I like how she had the students work on a piece of work for the whole year and then graded it at the end of the year, after they had improved the piece of work. I have a same process with my college government class and working on their semester project. We do a few rough drafts and then I grade the final draft at the end of the semester.

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