Grading is an evaluative practice that assigns letters, marks, numbers, or descriptions that indicate the level of student performance. It is carried out to provide meaningful feedback to students and parents about what a student has learned. Grading requires professional judgments and evaluations of student work. As such, grading practices can vary significantly from one teacher to another. There is also considerable variability in what is included in determining grades (i.e., student achievement, effort, participation, cooperation). These differences have been documented with research that shows that, in the main, teachers' grading tends to include a hodgepodge of various factors (Brookhart, 1994; McMillan, 2007). There is little consistency in grading practices across school and teachers, even within the same school, resulting in the use of different inputs and judgments.
Grades have been used to serve three purposes: (1) ranking students, (2) reporting what students have learned and are able to do, and (3) providing feedback to improve learning and motivate students (Brookhart, 2004). In the past, one of the main reasons for grading students was to show how a student's performance compared to that of other students. This kind of comparison is called norm-referenced. With this approach, higher grades (As and Bs) are awarded to students who perform best in comparison with the performance of other students, and lower grades (D and F) are given to students whose relative standing is the worst. Students in the middle are “average,” with a C grade. This approach has been called grading on the curve.
Knowing which students are the best or highest is an important function of schooling, but many contend that the competitiveness among students that results is detrimental to learning and interpersonal relationships (O'Connor, 2002). If ranking is used exclusively, students are more interested in outdoing one another than learning, and this encourages the designation of “winners” and “losers.” Most importantly, grades determined by ranking may not indicate how much students have learned. It is possible that students learning little are given high grades because their performance is better than students who learn very little.
The primary reason for grading is to give students, parents, and teachers information about the achievement of goals, objectives, and standards (Marzano, 2006; McMillan, 2008; Stiggins, 2008). Grades are awarded based on student performance that is compared to pre-established levels of competence. This kind of grading has been called criterion-referenced, standards-based, mastery, or absolute. The focus is on what students know and can do rather than relative standing. Theoretically, all students can obtain the highest grade, and all students can also get a low grade.
A key component of standards-based grading is the determination of what determines designations such as mastery, proficient, or passing. This requires clarity in the criteria that are used to judge student performance and depends on who establishes the criteria. An important development is the use of several levels of performance or benchmarks that can be used to give specific feedback and to rank students (Guskey, 2008; Guskey & Baily, 2001). This kind of grading results in a much more supportive learning environment that fosters positive relationships among students and teachers.
Grades can be used to provide feedback to students about their performance by showing the ways in which proficiency was demonstrated, and what is needed for a higher grade. This is important for student learning because students have a better understanding of why they received the grade. When provided in sufficient detail, feedback can tell students where there were mistakes, areas of strength and weaknesses, and what subsequent steps are needed to improve their understanding. Feedback is usually provided with prepared narratives that accompany grades, and/or with specific, individualized teacher comments. When feedback is specific, individualized, ongoing, and immediate it has the greatest impact on student learning. In using what is called formative assessment feedback is an essential component to help students become more proficient as they learn. General comments such as “good job” or “very good” are not very helpful.
A key distinction with feedback is whether it is primarily evaluative or descriptive (Brookhart, 2004). Evaluative feedback is provided in the form of rewards, praise, and positive expressions and non-verbal messages. For young children (grades K–2) these may take the form of stickers, “smiley faces,” or treats. For older students (grades 3–12) evaluative feedback is given primarily through letter grades. Descriptive feedback is structured to provide the student with information that relates specifically to the learning objectives or standards. This consists of specific, targeted praise and verbal and written messages that show students what they have learned and what remains to be learned, sometimes with an emphasis on student self-assessment and suggestions for further learning.
Many teachers use both kinds of feedback (Broo-khart, 2004; McMillan, 2007). For early grades (K-2) students are usually rated with a simple scale, such as satisfactory/unsatisfactory or needs improvement/partially proficient/proficient. When these ratings are used there is usually further information that is more specific. Older students typically receive letter grades, though the trend is for giving more descriptive feedback in addition to letter grades. The standards-based trend in American education has emphasized evaluative grading of all students, regardless of age (McMillan, 2008). Students of all ages can learn to use descriptive feedback to improve learning.
In one way or another, grading affects student motivation. If grades are viewed as extrinsic rewards students tend to be motivated more by doing what is needed to obtain the reward (or avoid the punishment) than by improving their understanding of the content. In contrast, when the reinforcement focuses on improving knowledge, understanding, or skills, getting the extrinsic reward is viewed as secondary to the intrinsic reward of learning and motivation. This is a mastery orientation. Students with this type of motivation see the value in what is learned, prefer challenging tasks, stay engaged longer, display independent learning, and have positive attitudes toward learning.
A longstanding issue in grading is whether to use student effort and improvement as factors that effect final ratings and letter grades. Effort is often assessed by participation, completion of work, extra credit, and teacher observation. It is problematic to include effort as part of a grade that purportedly represents achievement, primarily because it is difficult to measure accurately, and because if included in grades it distorts the meaning of the grade. But effort is important in learning, so it needs to be considered. The recommended approach to assessing effort is to grade and report it separately from achievement (Brookhart, 2004; Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Stig-gins, 2008).
Improvement is also difficult to incorporate into grades. While actual learning is represented by how much students' achievement changes, grades typically do not include this factor. However, improvement is often considered in an anecdotal manner and may affect the grade, especially for students who initially demonstrate low performance.
In summary, grading is important for several reasons and will continue to be used. Teacher judgment is always an important factor; there is no completely objective approach. The relationship of grading to learning and motivation is important. Standards-based education models have promoted grades that reflect primarily student achievement, with little or no reflection of effort or improvement. The validity and fairness of grading depends on the match between what grades are claimed to represent and what is actually included in the grade. Feedback is an essential aspect of grading that can have positive benefits for both learning and motivation.
See also:Classroom Assessment
Brookhart, S. M. (1994). Teachers' grading: Practice and theory. Applied Measurement in Education, 7(4), 279–301.
Brookhart, S. M. (2004). Grading. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice-Hall.
Guskey, T. R. (Ed.) (2008). Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Guskey, T. R., & Bailey, J. M. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom assessment and grading that work. Alexandria VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
McMillan, J. H. (2007). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective instruction (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
McMillan, J. H. (2008). Assessment Essentials for Standard-Based Education (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
O'Connor, D. (2002). How to grade for learning: Linking grades to standards (2nd ed.). Arlington Heights, IL: SkyLight.
Stiggins, R. (2008). Introduction to student-involved assessment for learning (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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