Fake News and Grading… A Windmill Worth Tilting At

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 12.36.16 PM

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Jules David – Wikimedia Commons

I guess I just can’t put this off any longer. It must be my inner Sancho Panza.

Cliff Notes Version: There is growing recognition of the problems caused by continued use of grades as a means of reporting/communicating the level of learning that has occurred. This piece addresses another aspect of the grading problem… the ramifications of past and continued use of grades as major components in decisions that have a severe economic impact on students and their families. The issues of instructional and financial impact are closely intertwined and the piece moves back and forth a bit between the instructional issues related to grades and the economic ramifications.

Bottom line… We are spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to maintain systems of grading students (and now teachers) that are neither valid nor consistent in their results and which, when “gamed” by savvy students, unintentionally but needlessly deprive too many students of both academic and financial opportunities.

Note: In an upcoming post, I’ll explore the ways in which our experience with grades and the experiences of most people who have experienced school have contributed to the challenge facing our system of public education


As some of you know, I curate several “magazines” on Flipboard (Flipboard.com). I’ve found this to be an excellent tool for sharing resources as well as a great way to organize thinking and articles. In recent weeks I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of articles, blog posts, discussions about the schools and districts that are in the process of abandoning their grading systems. I’ve placed, or flipped, several of these into one of my Flipboard magazines, EdRethink or Quantum Learning . {check out links here}.

Some context

As a student and later as a teacher I, like many who have experienced school in either capacity, took grading and grading systems for granted. They had apparently always been there and didn’t seem to be going away. As an “alternate route” teacher (I began my career teaching in a Catholic boys prep school), I had little formal training in the development of grading systems. I experimented, each year trying something different, fine tuning… looking for what would work best, that is, what worked best for me. I never really considered in any serious way the impact of my grading “system” on students.

Over time I began to question my conclusions about the usefulness and durability of grades and grading system. As my experience grew I realized that my learning was, in fact, a kind of unlearning. What was I unlearning?

  • Grades communicate useful information – My unlearning began with the realization that although grades were billed as a means of providing useful information about student learning to students themselves, to other teachers, to parents, to college admissions folks, and to prospective employers, in most instances they failed on all counts.
  • Grades are valid and reliable measures of student learning – The development of teacher grading system was at best unscientific and, too often, highly personal. These systems were so personal, in fact, that teachers in the same sequence of courses – i.e., language arts or math – had no idea about the grading system used by their colleagues.
  • Grades serve as motivational tools and levers for student engagement – In fact I learned that the dissonance between what a student expected as a grade and what they actually received was frequently listed as one of the greatest sources of loss of student motivation and declines in engagement.
  • Students recognize a causal relationship between their efforts and the grades they receive – On the contrary, while students regularly report that teacher A gave them an A, B, or whatever, they rarely accept their role in the grade assignment – i.e., Ever heard this from a student? “How did you do in Mr T’s class? Oh, not too bad. I earned a B.”

Let’s put some of this together… A few years ago I was working with a district in Nevada. It was large district both geographically and numerically. The district had implemented a computerized grading system which allowed teachers to input categories of experiences – i.e., test grades, quizzes, project work, homework, class participation, etc. … nothing that we haven’t all seen in grading systems that we’ve developed ourselves or have observed in our colleagues. Additionally, teachers could also designate the number of points that students could amass and the percentages assigned to each of the experience categories. For example, in teacher A’s class, students might accumulate 100 points out of a potential total of 1000 point for homework – i.e., 10% of the grade – while in teacher B’s class a student might accumulate 500 points out of 1500 possible points or 33% of the grade. Teacher C might not include homework as a category for which points could be earned. Additionally, the point system developed by each teacher was viewable by district administrators.

After some conversations with his son (scheduling his senior year classes), the administrator I was supporting decided to complete a bit of research. He had picked up some comments by his son that piqued his curiosity. Here’s what he found. In reviewing the grading systems for three teachers assigned to parallel sections of English 4 (senior English), one teacher’s system was based on a possible 1800 points (with 50% based on student projects), the second teacher’s system was based on a possible 1200 points (with no points for student projects and 30% for homework), and the third teacher’s system (also based on 1200 possible points) valued major tests as 70% of the grade.

While this system was somewhat unique in its design and use of technology, it was not terribly different than what one might find in many schools throughout the country – i.e., teachers develop systems which include a variety of categories, often each differently than their colleagues, and use such a system to calculate grades.

What was also not terribly unique to this system was the lack of consistency for the calculation of grades among teachers teaching the different sections of the same course. What it took to get an “ A” from teacher #1 might vary considerably from what it took to get the same grade from teacher #2.

If you doubt that students fully appreciate the implications, spend some time during the scheduling process discussing with students the reasons for the requests they’ve submitted – not much homework, lots of projects, not many tests, easy A, etc.

While grading systems differ in approach and complexity, one things stands out… the highly personalized systems, often individually developed and honed from year to year, are wildly inconsistent and, consequently, are of questionable value in meeting the need for clear and comparable sources of information that can be understood and used by students, teachers, parents, colleges and/or employers!

Are there exceptions? Of course there are. But even the exceptions are inconsistent and may vary considerably from building to building as a student moves through the grades. For years there has been tacit understanding of the implications of the inconsistencies inherent in locally developed grading systems. This recognition gave rise to the development and acceptance of the SAT’s and ACT’s as alternatives for the assessment of college readiness. It did nothing, however, to resolve the consequences of the continued reliance on locally developed grading systems on the lives of students and quality of learning experiences.

We had grown up with grades. We took the concept for granted.

We looked at ways to improve it, most often on an individual basis. Periodically, we engaged in spirited discussion about whether letters of numbers would provide a better/more accurate picture of student learning. Teachers with 20 years or so experience may have been fortunate enough to experience this thrilling debate several times.

For me this entire process, whether it involved the ideal number of points to be earned, whether the grade should be reported as a number (with greater potential for precision) or a letter (should we also allow plusses and minuses), whether behavior should count, etc., is yet another example of the Drucker/Ackoff dilemma… trying to do wrong things ‘righter’ rather than trying to do the right thing.

emperor no clothes Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 3.04.29 PMThe Emperor Has No Clothes

Let’s take a closer look at impact of trying to do wrong things right – i.e., improving the concept of grading.  Here’s a short list of grade-related decisions made in places I’ve worked and/or visited.

  • Class assignments – honors, college prep, remedial
  • Eligibility for AP courses, advanced programming, National Honor Society
  • Class rank
  • Scholarship awards (both those awarded locally as well as those awarded as a part of a student’s financial aid package)
  • Valedictorian selection
  • Participation in co- and extra-curricular activities

Can you add any additional ways in your school/district in which grades play a significant or, perhaps, a major role?

The consequences

Here are a couple of examples from my home state. In NJ, the state has implemented a scholarship program to assist students in covering the cost of college. This program, known as NJ STARS, while no longer funded at the initial levels and currently attracting fewer participants, has a GPA requirement. This requirement has varied between 3.25 and 3.5 as the threshold for consideration. According to state records, in 2012 the program funded 3800 students at $2500/student. In 2014 the program funded 1800 students at $3350/student. In both years the amount funded exceeded $5 million.

In looking at data for locally awarded scholarships, I read of an exemplary program that has over 300 contributing donors who contributed in excess $550,000 annually in recent years.

These examples do not include data for scholarships awarded to students by the institutions of higher education as a part of their financial aid package for prospective enrollees. High school leaders and members of boards of education typically take great pride in announcing the total of such awards, usually during the annual graduation ceremony.

A large number of such awards have some GPA and/or class rank criteria built into the award system. What are consequences of this system? While there are a number of happy students and parents who enjoy the benefits of the financial award and accompanying recognition, there are inevitably a number of students for whom the vagaries of the grading system kept them from consideration. But not only from consideration for such awards but also for the chance to even compete for such awards – i.e., grades weren’t good enough to qualify to higher level (weighted) courses that positively affect GPA calculations, or prevented them from enrolling in Advanced Placement courses, or eliminated them from consideration for National Honor Society, etc., etc.

There are promising trends at work. The push back against recent federal and state policies which focus on test/punish systems has resulted in increased interest in alternatives to both test determined grades and grading system in general. Several states have passed legislation enabling/requiring districts to move to competency based grading/evaluation/reporting. A number of schools and districts are exploring the use of micro-credentials (badges) as an alternative or supplement to traditional credit and grade based system of reporting. More and more frequently we are recognizing that the Emperor Grades has no clothes.

Dan Pink in his TED Talk on Drive notes that contrary to popular belief and past practices, rewards and incentives do not improve the engagement and performance of workers (or students). When the work involves thinking, rather than memorized or mechanical responses, there are three key factors which increase engagement and performance: (1) Sense of purpose (knowing why we are doing something); (2) Feeling of autonomy (ability to make choices about how to perform well/better), and (3) the sense that we are improving.

Grading systems which continue to ignore this research are destined to continue to get results which are disappointing to teachers and students alike. Make no mistake. This is big. We have made a huge investment in time, energy, and policies around grades. That doesn’t make it any less wrong. And it won’t be fixed making yet another adjustment to the wrong thing. We now know far more about what student learning should look like and how we can measure it. We need to bring that knowledge into practice. We need to demonstrate that we can be models of learning organizations. We need to stop penalizing kids and teachers with practices that endure only because they exist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s