The problem with the traditional grading system

In their book “Answers to Essential Questions About Standards, Assessments, Grading, and Reporting,” Thomas Guskey and Lee Ann Jung, experts in assessments and grading, write, “In education, grades are the symbols, words, or numerals that teachers assign to evidence on student learning to signify different levels of achievement.” 

Grades can have numerous negative effects on a student’s learning experience as well as causing unnecessary stress and needless competition. 

“I felt as if students are fixated on grades above all else,” said Susan D. Clum, a professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame University, in an article titled “Ungrading.”

Grades put students in a mindset that can harm their learning experience. 

Students sometimes are less focused on actually learning and understanding the course material and instead all of their attention is focused on their grade.  

“I think our current system is archaic,” said biology teacher Mathew Davis. 

The traditional grading system is flawed and can have negative effects on students’ learning experience. 

Tests usually count for a large percentage of students’ grades and by not doing well on a test a students’ grade can drop as much as a whole letter grade.

“I have plenty of those kinds of students who work their butts off and don’t do well on the test,” said human geography teacher Rachel Edwards. 

On top of causing unnecessary stress, grades aren’t fair to students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as students with learning disabilities. 

“I think any kind of structured system where we measure performance on the same level across the board definitely puts the students I teach with learning disabilities and various other disabilities at a disadvantage just from the get go,” said special education teacher Molly Blackwell.

“Think about somebody who comes in super prepared and knows almost everything from the start and they just skate by and they get a one hundred versus a student who really had to struggle because they didn’t have the background. Did that student really deserve that grade?” said Hollifield. 

Students who are unable to get help on assignments like homework are put at a disadvantage compared to students who are able to get help because homework is usually graded.

Grades also don’t accurately represent a student’s achievement. 

When teachers assign a single numeric or letter grade for each student, they combine diverse sources of evidence and information into a single mark. 

Some of the evidence is out of the students’ control. 

For example, a student who comes from a disadvantaged background might perform well on tests and in-class assignments but score poorly on homework because they’re unable to get the help they need. 

Guskey and Jung explain that grades should have a specific meaning: “In education, grades are the symbols, words, or numerals that teachers assign to evidence on student learning to signify different levels of achievement.”  

If that’s so, then our current system is a failure because in many cases, it fails to reflect academic achievement. 

Educators from across the country have started to discuss different methods and styles of grading. Below are a few of the different methods that have been discussed.

  • Standards-based grading – According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a standard is “Something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example. In a standards-based grading system, instead of receiving a single letter or numeric grade students may instead receive multiple grades. Guskey and Jung provide a situation where “In language arts, for example, instead of receiving an overall grade, students might receive separate marks for (1) Reading, (2) Writing, (3) Listening, (4) Speaking, and (5) Language Skills.”
  • Contract grading – Contract grading is grading based on students’ labors and worth ethic rather than the quality of their work. According to Kate Navickas, a lecturer at the Cornell writing system wrote in an explanation of contract grading, Students’ labors might include completing homework assignments, attending and participating in class, turning in assignments, drafts and revisions on time, and turning in a specific page-requirement for each assignment.” 
  • Ungrading – Ungrading is simply the idea of doing away with grades entirely. There are multiple different variations of this system. One way is that instead of receiving a letter or numeric grade students will instead receive descriptive feedback and individualized attention similarly to standards-based grading. 

Whether you like or dislike these solutions and ideas, it’s important to acknowledge that our traditional way of grading is not effective and that it’s time to start thinking about changes.