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Posted in on January 25, 2021

Grades. Where do they come from? Why have they played such a prominent role in the American education system? All of us know students who have received an assignment and immediately asked, “Is this for a grade?” Why would that question be so common? Isn’t school about learning?

The use of standardized grading systems that include letter grades and percentages in elementary and secondary schools goes back to the early 20th century. Debates around grading practices and their value have swirled in the field of education ever since. Researchers have asked questions about the most effective methods for assessing students’ learning. Questions about variability, reliability and grade inflation have all resulted in many doubting the relationship between grades earned and what students actually know (Lassahn, 2020). Today, those questions still persist.

As I have thought about these persistent challenges, I can’t help but ask, “What is in a grade and why do grades feel so high stakes?” Grades are primarily intended to serve as a way of communicating to a student the level of mastery they have achieved in relationship to a specific learning standard. Teachers assess mastery in a variety of ways. We see authentic projects and essays that are often graded using a developed rubric that articulates key look-fors and expectations. We also see more simplistic forms of grading generated from multiple choice exams. No matter how the grade is derived, the important thing is that it communicates to the student where he or she is on the continuum of mastery. 

Grades often feel high stakes because for many students there is a lot riding on them. Universities and other institutions of higher education rely on the transcribed grades communicated by teachers in high school to tell them about the potential readiness of the student for participation in a postsecondary education program. The challenge is that students compete for spots in schools with other students all across the state and country. And while they may all take the same course in high school, what is measured for mastery and the way it is measured varies resulting in grades that communicate different things. None of these challenges are easily solved. But, I do think there are some things we as educators can consider that would help us inch closer to grades communicating mastery rather than an average of the mistakes a student makes along the way.

While we live in a system that still uses averages and that is not likely to change, I want to encourage us all to consider a few questions as we work with our learners in Arlington ISD:

  • Can I provide my students with another opportunity to learn a concept after they initially struggled and resubmit an assignment for grading consideration that reflects an updated level of mastery?
  • What are some ways that I can be transparent in my grading expectations prior to students performing the assignment/task in order to help them self-monitor their performance while they work?
  • What role can goal setting play in my classroom as I work with students? Can my students use the pre-assessment information to set an academic goal they can strive for as they complete the unit of study?

Grading isn’t easy. It’s time consuming and requires mental energy as one constantly evaluates performance. But I believe as we partner with students in their learning, grades can serve as positive guideposts – markers of periodic communication guiding students to their intended destination.