Changing the Grade

How one school took the first few steps in changing the way we viewed our grading approaches and practices.

By Dawn Dodson


When was the last time you reflected on the meaning of an assigned grade? Whether through rubrics and/or published answer keys, what did scores on each assignment, assessment, or project truly mean? Was the final grade a true measurement and reflection of the individual student's learning? One spring almost three years ago, a multitude of questions such as these, proliferated in a department meeting. The answers were astonishing. As each teacher reflected, honest truths were shared, and we all agreed that just maybe, the final grades we were granting students reflected more than just the learning that occurred over a designated period of time. For some of us, grades were a reflection of a child's behavior, for others it reflected homework completion, or lack thereof. We found that there was a variety of non-academic impressions incorporated into our final grades. We all agreed that at the end of the term, we needed to have a clear measurement for what each individual learned. Consequently, we unanimously decided that we needed to change our grading practices. We researched, interviewed other schools, and redesigned some of our assessments in order to create a new, more accurate, grading process. 

Our Starting Point

Transforming a grading policy school-wide takes time. It also takes resources. In order to give everyone a proper place to begin establishing common language and effective discussion, our starting point was Ken O’Connor’s book, A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades. Each grade-level team read, studied, and discussed the book. Amongst the staff, the discussions grew, and finally a team was formed to create a timeline of implementing some of the fixes from O’Connor’s book. Although it took about a year to completely transition to a new grading system, We did have some immediate implementations:

  • Formative assessments are not calculated as a part of final grades. Their purpose is to give learners practice using new knowledge and skills in order to prepare them for the summative assessments, which measures the mastery of the knowledge/skill.
  • Zeros are not assigned for incomplete work.
  • Bonus points are not assigned on assessments, or on classroom behavior (i.e., no more extra points added to the final grade for bringing classroom supplies).
  • Behavior, including classroom participation, is not a part of one's grade.
  • Grades are calculated based on scores of summative assessments only. These assessments measure the level of student mastery in specific content areas.

Our Ideas Grow

Changing the way each of us thought about grading was a reason to celebrate in and of itself. However, the change kept growing as everyone continued to practice the new grading system, and as teachers continued to read books and research the topic. After reading other resources focused on instruction and grading practices, including Dr. Robert Marzano’s The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction, our staff's grading focus became even more defined. We began allowing pupils the opportunity to continue learning each content standard and reassess their skill until mastery was attained. The focus on formative assessments driving instruction in each content area became clear. Small instructional groups formed throughout the instructional day to provide each learner with the intervention or enrichment he/she needed. Classroom assessments were redesigned, and teachers started observing each other in order to strengthen practice and implementation of all the newly adopted ideals. It was an exciting time!

Our Discovery: Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Although exciting, the reality is that change as big as this one takes time. As for our school, it took a little over two years for the grading system to not only to be fully implemented, but for it to be efficient, coherent, and consistent across grade levels and content areas. Even to this day, teachers are tweaking the system in order to accommodate all of our students. We have learned to look at our grading structure as a living, breathing system that is always changing and adapting to the environment. The one constant is the philosophy that student learning is our priority, and that grades measure and reflect the progress in learning that took place during a designated period of time.

More Thoughts on Grading Approaches:

Rules for Rubrics

This article explains how to create effective rubrics. The author also includes examples and resources for authentic rubric creation.

Using Rubrics Can Give Students Great Feedback

The author of this article introduces rubric creation to accommodate lesson plans. The example offers an easy structure to modify for a variety of assignments and content.

Speeding Up Grading with Online Resources

In another excellent article, the author provides many examples of time-saving resources that help with various grading tasks. From peer editing to checking student work for plagiarism, this information and resources are a must-have for all teachers!