Consider the following parable (Gallagher, n.d.):

Statureland is an island nation with one major industry–purple fruit. Since purple fruit picking is essential to the welfare of the whole society, the Statureland schools’ basic curriculum is intended to train effective purple fruit pickers. Because purple fruit grows only at the top of eight foot trees, the most important and critical course within the curriculum has been Growing. All children are required to take Growing and are expected to complete six feet of growth, which is the minimum criterion for graduation as purple fruit pickers and is the average height of Staturelandians, based upon standardized growing tests. The course content of Growing includes stretching, reaching, jumping, tip-toeing, and thinking tall.

Each year, each child’s skill and abilities in Growing have been assessed and each child assigned a grade. Those children who achieved average scores on the standardized Growing tests were assigned C grades. Students who through their commitment to Growing exceeded expected levels received As. Slow Growing students received Fs and were regularly and publicly admonished for their lack of effort and inattention to task. These latter children often developed poor self-images and anti-social behavior which disrupted the school program and interfered with children who really wanted to grow. “This will never do,” said the people. “We must call a wise man to consider our problem and tell us how to help the children grow better and faster and become happy purple fruit pickers.”

So a wise man was sent for and he studied the problem. At last he suggested two solutions: (1) plant pink fruit trees that grow only five feet so that even four foot students may be successful pickers; and (2) provide ladders so that all students who wish to pick purple fruit can reach the tops of the trees.

“No, no,” said the people. “This will never work. How can we then give grades if eight foot trees are goals for some students and five foot trees are goals for other students? How can it be fair to the naturally tall students if children on ladders can also stand six feet tall and reach the purple fruit? However shall we give grades?”

“Ah,” said the wise man. “You can’t. You must decide whether you want to grade children or have fruit picked.”

A consistent question of educators with diverse classrooms is “How do I grade?” How does one assign a comparison physical education grade to a student in a wheelchair, a public-speaking grade to a deaf child, a handwriting grade to a child who has Cerebral Palsy, a reading grade to a child with cognitive challenges? If children with learning challenges need individual rather than class goals, how can one assign comparative grades fairly?

The author of this parable takes the position that comparative grades are inherently unfair to students with special needs. How, then, should we assign grades to special education students? For special education students in separate classrooms, the typical answer to that question is to go with those individual goals, that is, to grade students according to progress on their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

The discussion in this book will focus on how to assign grades to special education students for their work in regular education classes. Sometimes the regular education teacher has responsibility for assigning grades to all the students in her class, both regular and special needs. Other times, the regular education teacher and a special education teacher work together to assign those grades. In both cases, there are several important issues: what to “count” and how to count it, how to ensure that the grades are interpretable, and how to treat all students fairly. Bursuck and colleagues discuss the importance of grading decisions for special education students in regular classrooms (Bursuck et al., 1996, p. 301): “Classroom grades earned by students with disabilities provide a direct measure of the successful performance of the students and an indirect measure of the success of integration efforts in general.”

Various authors have noted that simply grading special education students in the same manner as their regular education classmates does not work very well. When this is the policy, most of the special education students pass their classes but end up with very low grade point averages (Donahoe & Zigmond, 1990). They go to school, they do their work, and they end up “D” students. This very quickly frustrates both the students and their teachers, and it does not communicate clearly to parents about how the students are doing in school.

Grading policies may or may not be helpful for special education students. In a survey of school superintendents, Polloway and colleagues (Polloway et al., 1994) found that 65% of districts had a formal grading policy, although compliance with the policy was required for only 78% of those districts. For the rest, the grading policy was only recommended. Sixty percent of those districts with grading policies had a policy on modifications for students with disabilities. Using the IEP was the most frequently noted of these.

But if the classroom grading system is to be adapted for special education students, what specifically should a teacher do? Grading adaptations for these students can be made in two ways: by changing the nature of grades for individual assignments or by changing the methods of arriving at and reporting report card grades. Table 8-1 presents a list of 10 adaptations Bursuck and colleagues used in a series of studies, surveying teachers (Bursuck et al., 1996) and students (Bursuck et al., 1999) about their use of these methods and their perceptions of fairness. This is not a list of recommended practices, but a list that aims to represent the range of real practices. The list was developed from preliminary open-ended surveys of regular and special education teachers, a review of literature, consultation with experts, and a pilot study with teachers. Consistent with the philosophy of this book, these adaptations should be evaluated on the degree to which they reflect the principles of good grading or reporting. The adaptations should be about student achievement, and they should result in grades that communicate clear, interpretable information to students and parents.