It used to be that I spent Sunday mornings with a cup of tea and the newspaper. Now, I’m typically catching up with the posts that are in my reader and enjoying leisurely conversations online around all matter of things. Yesterday, a number of people were tweeting and blogging about grades, grading, and report cards. Then I went to a Christening for my friend’s baby and bumped into a former colleague of mine. She’s in the midst of report card renovation as well, so the conversation continued there, and it led to the question in my post title.

Tell me what you think: are grades meaningless? If so, when? If not, how? How do grades serve kids best? When do they hurt? What needs to happen in order to create grading practices that accomplish what we need them to for our students? What would happen if we ditched grades entirely? Are there other ways to motivate kids and communicate about their growth without using grades?

I know a number of people who would happily forego assigning grades if they felt they had support in doing so. I know others who tremble in fear whenever this possibility is voiced. I don’t have any answers, but I’m interested in your opinions, and I’d love to learn more about what teachers and schools are doing to improve their grading practices.



  1. Great question. I asked three middle-school boys last if their work habits would change if they entered the year with an A in every class. Theirs to lose. The results at first were smart-alecky (and why not), but they said that would be better (and more like the real world).

    I don’t know if grading should be discarded, but maybe we’re doing it backwards.

    • Interesting to think about! I am wondering how it play out over the course of a marking period. Would you predict that their grades would be higher at the end because they wanted to protect their A? Also, I’m wondering what grades are really reflective of. What do they measure? Maybe I should have tossed that into the post.

  2. This is always one of my favorite conversations, Angela. Here’s a bit I wrote about my attempts to separate work behaviors from academics:

    The crazy part is as passionate as I am about the need to report academic performance only in a grade—-instead of mixing academic ability with work behaviors like turning things in on time and producing beautiful final copies—I’m starting to wonder whether or not my efforts are working.

    The change comes largely because I’ve seen my students become less and less committed to turning in anything of quality since the only consequence that they care about—their grades—have become protected by my policy.

    Then, I’m also wrapped up in the idea that if I created motivating lessons that resonated with kids, I’d never need to worry about their levels of engagement or energy! Kids will invest themselves completely in their work if it is interesting.

    Maybe the real challenge with grades and grading is my own inability to create motivating assignments.


    • I agree, Bill…but how do you possibly motivate them all? That was always what I struggled with in the classroom, and I still struggle with it as an instructional coach and pd provider. More and more lately, I’m thinking it might have less to do with what I ask people to pursue and create and more to do with what they long to pursue and create.

  3. I do think the work and engagement would be higher if they “owned” the A upon entry. Whether it’s in business or sports, an orchestra or a marriage: Upon entry, you’ve got “it” and “it” is yours to lose. Hopefully, we do the work necessary to succeed in “it” so we don’t lose “it”.

    I believe each individual student would be more engaged and more involved in their own learning.

    • Mike–
      I do too. But what would “losing it” look like? I’m thinking of the whole notion that a grade reflects mastery, and how that grade is formulated has everything to do with whether or not it’s even slightly valid. I’m thinking an A in Mrs. Smith’s room means something very different than an A in Mr. Miller’s room. What should go into the grade? I’m liking the models that eliminate formative assessment from the formula entirely.

  4. I would agree with the earlier comment that perhaps we are grading backwards – what does a numerical or letter grade really tell us about a student?
    Haven’t you ever experienced a really smart individual in class that just didn’t want to work or didn’t see the point of an assignment – you KNEW they could complete the assignment, but they didn’t. Why does this happen – as educators, we know it isn’t always laziness.

    Perhaps you still need an evaluative tool but it may need to be more comprehensive — a portfolio, in ELA, that demonstrates growth of a writer with evaluation and critiques of their writing? and so on —

    • Pam–
      I agree with you completely…plus using these sorts of assessments could allow for even greater choice too, don’t you think? Which could be motivating….

  5. Seems like discussions about grading are coming up everywhere. We are grappling with grading and competencies – do we keep letter grades and overlay competency assessment, or do we go over to a reporting system that more closely resembles a resume?

    Then there’s the question that Mr. Ferriter mentioned in his comment (which I believe to be at the very heart of the matter): if we try to motivate students by devoting a percentage of the total grade to desirable academic behavior, i.e., turning in work on time, class participation, etc., are we artificially inflating grades and inadvertently promoting mediocrity because the student is a “good kid” and “tries hard”? The statistics of students who complete college prep programs in high school who then have to take remedial math and/or composition courses at college would seem to support this theory.

    Before we can decide what to do about reporting progress for secondary grades, I think we must consult with the higher education folks. Student progress reporting should be a true and accurate picture of the whole student.

    • Yeah, I think we do inflate (or deflate) grades inappropriately when we devote a percentage of a total grade to desirable behavior. Mind you, I DID THIS ALL THE TIME. TOTALLY GUILTY. But it doesn’t make sense, does it?

  6. yes greades are a necessary part of the education process. What grades do is refelect to the student measurement of how they are doing. As humans and people we want to know that what we are involved in has meaning and a point. Grades allow students to adjust their behaviors and situation to achieve greater marks.
    Perhaps the questions is in who is doing the grading and the metrics or rubriks that are being used for the measuremnent. All of these,while we want to believe are accuracate, are mainly a perceptual interpretation of the one measuring. Teachers when grading papers are affected by the students papers they are grading. They have to be they taught the material!
    What grading can do in the hands of an un, or undertrained teacher is push students to dislike school even more.
    Grades are needed.

    • Hi Michael–
      Great points about rater accuracy and the use of valid tools. I couldn’t agree more. Wondering:
      Do grades offer the BEST reflection of how students are doing? In my own experience, feedback offered me far more specific information about how I was doing. More importantly, it provided a pathway toward greater success. I can’t tell you how often my own kids bring home papers with grades slapped at the top and not one bit of meaningful feedback. Most recently, my daughter brought home a report that she spent a weekend writing. The final product was nicely organized, but lacked substantial detail and voice. Regardless, she got a 49/50 on the task (missed a point because she failed to indent), received no feedback about how to improve as a writer, and assumed that her learning was done because she got a good grade. I’m always eager for assurance that what I’m doing has meaning and a point, but I guess I question whether or not receiving a grade should be the meaning and the point of what we ask students to do in school. Are there other ways to inspire students to adjust their behaviors in order to achieve more as learners and members of their communities?

  7. My pilot of no emphasis on work habits or deadlines has turned into a disaster. Kids from last semester with incompletes are begging to just take a zero for an assignment, not caring is they drop from C to D. More importantly, the zeor would indicate that then did not meet a standard (state, national, district, but most probably part of all) for an important concept in our class. To change our grading system, we also have to change student paradigms on grades.

    • Luann–
      Important point….it’s not just about changing our grading practices. When grades are the primary tool we use to motivate students, then changing practice would require rethinking motivation. Would that be worthwhile? What would we have to change ourselves in order to accomplish this? In your example, I don’t see the grade as the primary issue–I see the fact that kids seem to be unmotivated to learn as the primary issue. Does the grade motivate them to grow as learners, or does it merely prompt them to get the job done to get a grade to “do school” well?

  8. Wayne Basinger Reply

    I think grades are an essential part of learning. They are a good barometer for both the teacher and student to understand what the student knows and what still requires mastery. If used effectively, grades can be an exceptional motivator.

    My problem with grading is how to grade new technology projects. If a student has a very successful failure (the project is a total bomb, but they learn an incredible amount in the process). Do they fail? Do they get a poor grade but get an attempt to try again? This one is hard. I am looking for a wiki and blog rubric that allows for this.

    • Wayne–
      Does it make sense to assess product separate from process? I know teachers who do this regularly–particularly around research (process) and report writing (product). Students are asked to reflect on their process and set goals around improving it. Can you design a rubric that works for you and share it with others to get some feedback?

  9. Laura Sadler Reply

    I do not think grades are meaningless. As a parent, I rely on the grade to let me know how my child is doing (high school boy). Without grades many teachers would find other ways of reporting progress to parents, but we all know there would be those teachers who would not. Grades are one of the few links between school and home. Without grades some parents would not show support for school because they would not know how. Grades are the catalyst. It is unfortunate, but true.

  10. Penny Chaiko Reply

    HI Angela
    I was following the tweets with interest yesterday.
    In Ontario we follow a similar program as was posted.
    We have formative assignments which aren’t for marks and summative assignments for marks.
    Actually we are suppose to mark using levels (1-4) but in the end we must come up with a percentage for the report cards. We are not to use averages but look at students most recent and most consistent contributions and assign a level.
    I would like to see only levels using rubrics. Grades should be dropped but then universities and colleges would have to accept this.

    • Hi Penny-
      A number of teachers I work with are eager to begin moving toward grading practices like the ones you describe, and I think it makes sense. If report card grades are supposed to reflect mastery, then formative assessment has no place in the mix. That said, MOST assessments given are summative assessments….which is another conversation worth having, I know.

  11. Are you describing curriculum mapping? If all classwork, homework and projects are linked to standards by number, then the A in Mrs. Smith’s class is going to be exactly equal to the A in Mr. Jones’ class. Of course that scenario still does not assign any meaning at all to the grade, it merely standardizes it.

    Lately I have read articles on using video games to teach and motivate students, having students teach students in learning communities in order to become real learners, debating the various uses for social media technology in the classroom, and whether or not education should be compulsory. The bottom line is – students need to learn how to learn. Along with reading and writing, it is one of the main skills they will actually be able to take with them into life after school.

    Do grades measure students’ performance or teachers’? Seems there are more questions than answers…

  12. I think that grades or reporting on a child’s progress towards mastering certain skills and use of content knowledge is important.

    With that being said I also think that we should be “grading” (for lack of a better term) the learning and mastery rather than behavior. Unfortunately we do grade habits and behavior.

    To revamp grading we need to revamp our whole view on what needs to be graded and what it is worth and when to accept a grade as a final product. Do you grade homework (who keeps score in practice sessions—this is grading behaviors and habits)? Do you give meaningful assignments and assessments (and no writing corrections does not improve mastery, only memorization)? Are you differentiating your assessments (some children flourish with verbal rather than written, and do we need to give tests to children who have proven mastery already)?

    This is a huge topic and would be fun to tackle…what would it take for me to get an A on it?

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