Grade Fog? Or Effective Grading?

This morning, @MattGuthrie and I were talking about how fast and furious #edchat goes and how we wish we could preprime the pump with some thoughts to get people thinking more deeply ahead of time. We decided to take it on–he wrote about question # 1 (With an overloaded curriculum, what should be emphasized and what should be eliminated?) and here are some thoughts on question # 3-Should the current system of grading be outlawed and replaced with something more “21st Century?

A caveat:  The following post is created from notes I took in a talk given by Carol A Tomlinson, a brilliant educator and differentiation guru that I am lucky and blessed enough to call my friend and colleague. The stories are mine, the brilliance is hers!

There are some pieces of and questions about the grading puzzle that I believe teachers may not even consider.

  1. The power of grades to impact students’ lives creates a responsibility in giving grades.
  2. In what ways do our current grading systems motivate struggling readers to persist in the face of difficulty?
  3. Is there an opportunity for struggling learners to encounter excellence in grading?
  4. Do grades teach our brightest students to struggle in the face of difficulty?

So, what keeps us going as learners? If we experience success as a learner, then it may be something we want to keep doing.  If we need to put forth too much effort, then perhaps we quit.  (I can’t imagine trying to light a bulb 1000 times, as the poster says Edison did before he succeeded!)  The success to effort ratio needs to be in balance for learners to WANT to keep going.  If success is heavier, then learners learn to be lazy.  If the effort is heavier, learners tend to give up.

Here’s my personal story on that one: I know a kid who, in 4th grade, bright, but LD as one can be, started becoming a reader that December–took books EVERYWHERE, read all the time, discovered authors–and was reading on grade level. Family pulled him OUT of SPED for literacy, and the teacher was supposed to transition him into the regular classroom. However, he didn’t do his Accelerated Reader tests, so got an F on his report card in January. When Mom went to see the teacher, she literally said to Mom–“What grade do you think he should get?  I’ll change it to whatever you want.”  The kid has struggled through school and at the F, quit reading–his words were “why should I try?  I can’t do anything right.”  He STILL has not regained that attitude of wanting to read. . . and this is several years later.

There is truth in the saying success breeds success.  When one invests in learning and finds success, then one is more likely to repeat that risk. BUT, for other students, year upon year of “not good enough” results in lack of effort, and a seemingly uncaring attitude. I’ll say again, though, as I did in my last post, that I simply don’t believe students come to school saying to themselves, “I want to be a failure today.”

So, the big questions become:

What role should grades play in regards to the success to effort ratio?


Can we do anything to moderate the negative effects of grading?

Let’s think about some people in real life who get judged on their performances every day they work—like sports players or musical performers, and look at how they learn as we think about some key principles of effective grading:.

1. It’s unwise to overgrade student work.  Coaches don’t grade practices—the judgement comes in at the game—or at the recital!

2.  Why would anyone think grading a pre-assessment is wise?  That’s what‘s supposed to give us information as to what to teach and how to group.  Why grade someone on something they are ABOUT TO LEARN?

3. I’ll say it again—Coaches don’t grade practices, so why over-grade ongoing assessments?  Students need opportunities to practice, analyze work, and learn from errors in a safe context.   The formative assessments given should be just that—formative—not final grades.

4. Use summative assessments as primary data for grading. Grades should be reliable over time, meaning that the results of any given test on the standard would be relatively the same for the same kid.

5. Grades should be based on clearly specified learning goals.  Is the learning target clear?  Do students clearly understand what they need to know, understand and do?

6. Grades should be criterion-based, NOT norm-based.

In norm based grading systems, the human factor suffers:

a.) There will necessarily be winners and losers competing for scarce rewards.
b.) The implications for learning environments are predictably negative.
c.) The outcomes for both struggling and advanced learners carry high negatives as well.

Students should be striving to reach the standards that have been set for them to learn, not competing against classmates for the top part of the bell curve.

In norm based grading systems, clarity of communication suffers:

a.)  A could be the “best worst”

b.)  C could be “knows the stuff but doesn’t look so great compared to others”

In norm-based grading systems, confusion and lack of clarity reign as no one really knows what that A or C really mean.

So what do those key principles look like in practice?

1. Data used for grading MUST be valid and measure what we intend to measure –mastery of the material.

Grades we give MUST be free of grade fog.  In a standards-driven classroom, how can we take points off for talking in class, or students not putting their name on the paper, or not finishing several homework assignments??  Those types of requirements can be dealt with separately, but must not be confused with the student’s understanding and mastery of the content.

2. Grades should be given later in the learning cycle rather than sooner.

If we are doing our job, the students SHOULD know more as the semester goes on—so earlier misunderstandings should not be part of a grade that shows (or doesn’t show) final mastery. IF, in the end, the students show mastery, why grade them down for earlier mistakes?  Isn’t our goal for the student to master the material?

Again, crucial to remember is: The power of grades to impact students’  lives creates a responsibility in giving grades.

3. When it’s time for report cards practice 3-P grading
Students, parents and others deserve to know the extent to which the learner has learned agreed upon goals. Using SINGLE letter grades with no clear meaning is an issue. We should perhaps be giving three grades—or three ways of reporting:

*Performance (based on criteria and performance standards)
*Progress  (progress/improvement)
*Process (work habits, effort, attitude)

Shouldn’t all learners know the material, show progress and growth, and know what to do when they don’t know what to do (have strategies)? If those are our goals, then, why are we not reporting—and students self-reporting– on each and every part of the three Ps??

I believe these grading practices ARE contemporary. . and yes, the system many teachers use SHOULD be outlawed, but it’s not about outlawing grading–it’s about grading–or reporting–or assessing–or giving feedback– responsibly and effectively!

Post Script (and post-edchat):  I ‘m not sure anyone is saying we should keep grades.  I  am saying it is a reality of most of us and IF we have to do it, until the system changes, we should do it responsibly and not pull in all those foggy facts of talking in class, doing (or not) homework, neatness, names on paper, etc. as part of the summative grade. Those go in another area–process or maybe even progress, depending on the prior conversations.

It absolutely IS, as Will says below, all about what you can do with what you know, NOT the grade. We need to be moving towards that faster in schools.

It IS , as Chad says below, about leveraging inquiry to help students design and participate in authentic, personally meaningful learning opportunities.

It IS, as Karen says, about coming to common understandings about grades (while we have to use them.)

It IS, as Michael says below, about students owning their own competency and learning.

It IS, as Matt reminds us, about “big paradigm shifts.”

But mostly, for me, right now, it’s about getting all of us as educators to talk about grading practices, to wrestle with it, to challenge each other’s thinking, to share great ideas, to work together to figure out how to give feedback and assess well and SHIFT those paradigms so children don’t go through experiences like the kid cited above.

You guys sure have made ME think, and for that, I thank you mightily!

Matt Guthrie (@mattguthrie) and I started this topic and his blog on overloaded curriculum to pre-load the conversation at #edchat and make it deeper, not just occurring in 140 characters.  I think we succeeded. We hope you’ll continue it at the Educator’s PLN ning–or somewhere.

25 thoughts on “Grade Fog? Or Effective Grading?

  1. Paula,
    Good thoughts. We have been using a standards-based progress report for 4-5 years. However, this year our district has implemented Progress Book, an online grade book that creates our progress reports and allows parents to see their child’s progress throughout the grading period online. Needless to say, this has caused teachers some challenges since the grade book averages grades unless you can figure out a way to make the system consider something more than the mean.

    So I understand where you are coming from. As a principal of an elementary school, I have attempted to help teachers manipulate the system so we can maintain our standards based practices – a difficult task. One resource we have used is a book by O’Connor (I think it is called “15 Fixes for Broken Grades”. This book and our discussion around the 15 fixes has helped us come to some common understandings about grading (no zeroes, don’t count homework in the grades, don’t consider behavior in the grades, etc.)

    I feel like we are better for considering the 15 fixes. It isn’t an answer to our challenge of using an electronic grade book while grading kids on their progress toward standards but it has developed a common philosophy about grading.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Any grading practices can be so detrimental to those kids who are the outliers. I am also opposed to using systems like AR. (I would have much more to say about that!)

    I look forward to meeting you at Educon this weekend.

  2. Hey Paula,
    Provocative post. Grades, as we all know, are a creation of schools. And, they are pretty much only used in schools. I think the larger question is why do we have grades at all? Learning before school was all about competency; you could either do something or you could not. If you could, you moved on to more complex tasks. If not, you kept working on it, or you chose to move onto something else. Right now, grades are used as threats more than motivation. You don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college, you won’t get that scholarship, etc. What we’re seeing, however, as more an more gaming and role playing environments start creeping into learning, is that we’re moving back to competencies in terms of progressing, and that really, it’s what you can do with what you know that is most important, not what you carry in your head.

    Grades were created to support the system of schooling, not learning.

  3. I urge our #edchat friends to read your last two posts before joining in tonight, Paula. The changes in assessment you propose can really drive school and classroom reform. I’m still mulling over who should assess what for whom when. Self-assessment remains an under-taught and under-modeled competency that we need students to develop if ever they are to own their educations entirely.


  4. Will,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly that its what you can do with what you know that’s most important. However, since we are entrusted with children in our school system, I do believe that “Students, parents and others deserve to know the extent to which the learner has learned agreed upon goals.” That may take the form of grading or, as I suggested above, other ways of reporting the “three P’s.”

    I’m certainly not advocating for grading as it has been usually implemented–as I said, a single grade i s confusing an dI’ believe, inappropriate. I am advocating for a reasonable way of reporting to parents and students their performance, progress and process skills, though, and I don’t want “outlawing grading” to mean no reporting as well.

    Thanks for responding and questioning and thinking with me. . . I should have ended it a bit more fully at midnight last night.

  5. Great post Paula, standards based grading when done well is a tremendous tool for assessment and teaching. It allows interventions to be intermingled and intertwined with sound instruction. How much pressure are the concept and ideas of grades putting on students. I recently read where California schools are looking at getting rid of Valedictorians, I’m not sure that’s the answer. Looking back, I can see that this celebration does little for us after high school, but it puts some pressure on the students and can be a push for a learner at a time where maybe extrinsic motivators are lacking. (senior year, post college acceptance,etc.)
    This is something I’ve been fascinated by in recent months research shows moderate level of pressure increases learning. There is a great grading practices wave out there started by Becky Fisher, I like the collection of thoughts.
    My professor at CCU on this topic told us that “A little disequilibrium when combined with sound instruction creates engaged and attentive learners”
    Finding that balance without creating anxious learners is key.
    Ideally, though grades would take their place as anecdotal notes in the classroom and the students would own their learning and competency.

  6. Think about how little a currency is worth without a standard behind it. That currency is traditional grading. It does not reflect learning. It reflects a student’s readiness to game the system of schooling. It alarms me daily that nearly all school stake-holders take grades to be hard data, while they consider detailed narratives to be soft.

    I know there are classrooms where great care is taken to align grades with performance measures and meaningful feedback, but that’s not a widely adopted practice. SBAR and its feedback strategies are a step in the right direction. I’d also urge secondary schools to build report cards that look more like those of elementary schools.

    Binary grading is also better than the shell game of traditional grading, but I worry about any closed system – yes/no; pass/fail; mastered/not mastered; ABCDF. Closed systems suggest that there’s an endpoint to learning or a point at which no matter how much more you learn, your learning will no longer be assessed or reported. I’m in favor of narratives like those you suggest about current performance, progress, and process. No matter how masterful a student’s work is, a teacher should be able to suggest an attainable next step for improvement or find that student an expert mentor who can do the same.

    Assessment reform is moot without systematic efforts to enlist teachers and educate communities. I’m looking forward to hearing more about our division’s assessment work.

    Regarding Michael’s comment below, I agree that a little disequilibrium motivates learning, but would caution against using grades to create that disequilibrium when we can leverage inquiry instead and help students design and participate in authentic, personally meaningful learning opportunities.

    Look at graduation rates. Grades are a failed motivator for student learning for everyone except the students who stick around to collect more of them. I bet those kids could be hooked on authentic learning, but I don’t bet that grades will bring anyone back to school.

    I’ll stop now 🙂

  7. That’s a great story and caution about using electronic gradebooks. Thanks for sharing the book, too–hadn’t heard of it, but I’ll be going to look for it!

    Looking forward to meeting you as well. 🙂

  8. I totally agree that “Grades should be given later in the learning cycle rather than sooner.” On my website, I push this idea with regard to teaching writing, but I’m always a bit fearful that it’s unrealistic within a traditional school system.

    When teaching college students, I can usually get away with not giving grades for the record until students have met my standard of competence 3 times in a row. (That’s what I call C-level). Could Ms. Inky Fingers teaching 8th grade English at Caterpillar Crossroads Consolidated School get away with it?

  9. Michael says it well – standards-based grading is a system that has the potential to eliminate much of the “fog” in grading. Here are a few premises that I have come to accept related to grading.

    1) Grades, unfortunately, aren’t going away in our school systems.
    2) Because grades aren’t going away, grades must have meaning.
    3) Grades should clearly communicate to parents and students what students have learned. If some sort of responsibility/citizenship/non-academic grade is needed/required, then it should be separated from the academic grade. This non-academic part could include effort, completion and late work marks or notes. (this goes along with your 3 Ps) In his most recent book, Marzano said, “Mixing nonacademic competencies with academic competencies contaminates the meaning of a grade.”
    4) “Feedback” and “grades” are not synonymous. Particularly in secondary schools, we substitute feedback for grades. This seems to parallel your thoughts on not grading “practice” work.

    (“Grading to Communicate” by Tony Winger in Nov. ’05 Ed. Leadership is a good read on this topic)

    I disagree with your principle of “Use summative assessments as primary data for grading.” I think we need to take it a step farther. ALL of our assessments (graded and not-graded) should be formative. If a student has an “aha” moment at the end of the grading period and can show that he/she understands XYZ, why should his/her grade be different from someone who understood it a few weeks earlier? (my extended thoughts on this topic are here: I’ll end with another Marzano quote, “Classroom assessment must be executed in a formative manner if it is to be used as a tool to enhance student achievement. Grades must be based on a formative approach to classroom assessment so that they can reflect student status at the end of a grading period and not penalize students for initial misunderstandings or ‘slow starts’ regarding specific topics.”

    Looking back, this comment has loads and loads of theory. On my blog, I’ve expanded on what this looks like in my own classroom. Here’s the beginning ( and all of the related posts (

  10. Matt,
    Thanks for the links, look forward to reading them later.

    You and I are saying the same thing–mastery is mastery, no matter when it happens, and I, too, am saying that ” If a student has an “aha” moment at the end of the grading period and can show that he/she understands XYZ, why should his/her grade be different from someone who understood it a few weeks earlier?”

    See # 2 in “what do the principles look like in practice?” Kids coming in. . .have to go.

  11. Ah, yes. I missed that subtle thought in #2, Paula. Thanks for pointing that out. “Allowing new evidence of learning to replace the old” is a big paradigm shift. Thanks for pushing the agenda along!

  12. This was a fascinating read. I liked the comments too. I always find the topic of grading a very interesting and controversial topic.

    I am a big Alfie Kohn fan when it comes to this topic.

    For more on this topic, I suggest you read Punished by Rewards and The Schools Our Children Deserve. Both by Kohn.

    I have to agree most with Wil Richardson on this one too. This issue how to grade better, but why do we do it in the first place.

    And saying that they are here to stay is defeatist and counter-productive. Can you imagine how many people said slavery was here to stay? What about racism? Just because something is difficult to change, shouldn’t influence whether we attempt to make the change.

    I blog about these kinds of topics at

    Take a look. and thanks for sharing.

  13. I teach 8th Grade Earth Science in Spencer, Iowa. I am on an “Effective Grading” committee with other teachers at my school and we are discussing these same issues in “What’s in a grade?”.

    The concerns that I have as well as the other science teacher in my building is…RETAKES! We want the students to be successful, but we felt like we were catering to them too much. You obviously want them to know the content and “master” it, but what grade do you accept? It was a battle we’ve been fighting and it caused many frustrations. Are we lowering out expectations for these kids by devaluing the test score the first time around?

    We leave it with more questions than answers most of the time, but we are looking at what other policies are out there for your middle school students and what is the best way to find balance between the retake and the score?

    Any thoughts would be great!

    Chris Fitzgerald

  14. I think that since every teacher seems to have their own grading system, the solution to the Grade Fog problem you describe will take many different forms. Some teachers are tinkering with standards-based grades and some, like me, are modifying their existing points-based system so that true assessment and not Fog finds its way into the gradebook. The solutions will be different for each teacher since they know their students best.

    It is encouraging to see that the level of conversation about grading students is increasing lately, or at least I’ve noticed it more lately. I think a lot of educators are realizing that a shift needs to happen in the way we assess students. Thanks for your article and its concise list of what I need to be focusing on as I try to fix my grading system.

  15. Will and Paula,
    Perhaps the reason that many of us have opted to put our time and energy into tweaking the grading systems in our schools is because *eliminating grades is out of our power*. Yes, in an idealistic world we should be thinking about how grades weren’t meant for school and not learning, but unfortunately as educators, we are teachers in school buildings. Until “the leaders get it” as Scott McLeod so often mentions, there’s not much that those of us (teachers) in the trenches can do other than do the best with what we’ve got and that’s report cards, gpas and student information systems. Should my principal or superintendent send out an email tomorrow informing me that we are no longer required to give students grades, I will gladly put my energy into supporting Will’s ideals. Kudos to you, Paula, for suggesting changes to a flawed system. Many of your principles are second order changes themselves, i.e. reporting learning separate from non-academic factors. Until we begin to embrace these paradigm shifts, good luck getting rid of grades all together. Tweak away!

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  18. We have similar discussions in my middle school as we also allow multiple opportunities for student success which includes retakes. Students who elect to take a retake have to complete a reflection on why they would like the opportunity, what they have done to prepare for the retake and sometimes do the corrections of the wrong answers. We take the highest score as we do not want to punish the student for doing a retake. However, it does raise the question of mastery if they don’t do as well the second time. Some teachers mandate a tutoring session prior to a retake. It is key that all people are understand the philosophy and relay that information to kids so they can take ownership in the learning not view is as a “gimmee.”

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  21. I oppose issuing grades. Seems like a foolish to mean thing to do. Your story illustrates that (BTW Accelerated Readers should be outlawed). I wonder why we employ grades and to whom giving grades serves. What sort of sorting mechanism gave rise to such a need? I once handed out index cards with the letter A on them to each student in a grade 8 English class and said that was their grade and asked them if we could now begin our learning. It was a most significant year.

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