Five Problems with the Traditional Grading System 

 April 8, 2021

Grades are so imprecise that they have become almost meaningless.”

– Robert Marzano

Grading is deeply rooted in the education system in the United States. As Lynn Olson observed, grades are “one of the most sacred traditions in American education,” and according to Dr. Tammy Heflebower, “The truth is grades have acquired an almost cult-like importance in American schools.” Students need to learn over 200 standards each year, on top of trying to maintain their grades. 

So when I say, “It’s time to change from the traditional system of grading to a standards-based grading system,” some of you are ready to throw me off the nearest bridge. Yet, I’ve done the research and I’ve seen it applied successfully in hundreds of schools. 

Standards-based grading is centered on the idea that there are specific pieces of knowledge and skills that all students should know and be able to do as a result of their schooling. These essential pieces are articulated as standards or learning targets. 

Grades are an important element of schools, but this issue is that the current systems used to equate and assign grades are mostly ineffective. These are the five largest issues with our current education grading system.

The Grading Scale is Disproportionate 

Why do we have ten points reserved for the A and 60 points reserved for the F? Why is our scale so completely disproportionate? We are setting kids up to fail over and over when there’s such a discrepancy in the different levels of grading. 

If we reversed the proportional influences of the grades, that A would have a huge inflationary effect on the overall grade. Just like we wouldn’t want the A to have an inaccurate effect, we don’t want an F grade to have such a deflationary effect. Why do we choose the most hurtful, unrecoverable end of the F-range for students? No wonder they completely give up when they receive these poor marks. 

Skills Are Not Tested Equally

I remember when I taught 4th grade with Mr. Arnold, we both taught the same novels and we both gave a test after every five chapters. My test would be ten constructed response/essay-type questions (DOK 3 & 4). Mr. Arnold’s test would be 25 multiple-choice questions (DOK 1 & 2). 

An A in my class certainly wasn’t the same A in his class. In fact, we were both wrong. I wasn’t giving the students in my class, who might have basic level knowledge, the opportunity to demonstrate that. And he wasn’t giving his students questions at the high level. We weigh items differently on our test and this completely skews what a grade really means.

Items are Weighted Differently on Single Tests

When I give schools the Standards-Based Grading Training, I give all of the teachers the same test and they have to decide how many points each of the three sections are worth. Section A is ten recall questions. Section B is four questions that are more complex, but grade level-aligned. And Section C is one question that asks students to go above and beyond what was taught. 

It never fails… teachers are all across the board when they assign points to each section. Some teachers believe the ten recall questions should be worth ten points and others believe they should be worth anywhere from 20-60 points. Which means depending on which teacher a student has, the grades can vary and an A in one class is a C in another, even with the same test. 

Using a Single Grade to Demonstrate Performance is Problematic 

Using a single letter grade to summarize a student’s performance in one content area does not accurately translate a student’s performance and achievement over a quarter, semester, or year. If at the end of the grading period when one of my students got a C in reading, I wasn’t sure if it was his reading fluency, his inability to understand cause and effect, or if he wasn’t constructing the sentences in an accurate way. We’re not identifying the root of students’ struggles when we use singular letter grades. 

Teachers Consider Non-Academic Factors When Computing an Academic Grade 

These factors include attendance, participation, behavior, and a long list of many other things. Back in the day, I used to give bonus points for students who returned paper on time or brought in an extra tissue box. We have to remember that it’s an academic grade and we cannot let non-academic factors be included in this grade. That needs to be a separate part of the report card. 

I know this is a contentious topic, but it’s also one of the biggest reasons I get sent in to work with schools or provide virtual trainings on standards-based grading. It’s time to rethink our grading practices and ensure we’re giving students the critical skills they need to be successful adults. 

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