The wretched task of grading

06.18.13 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment

By Timothy Quinn

I spent the past year writing a book about grading, and, so far, the result is that I can barely bring myself to put a grade on a paper or test, let alone a report card. The more I have thought about putting grades on student work, the more meaningless it has become. I’m not talking about the act of grading, as in assessing or giving feedback to a student on his or her work, as these actions are undoubtedly valuable and important. The meaningless gesture I’m talking about is the attempt to put a number or letter on a student’s work after I’m done assessing it.

What do these numbers and letters even mean? Sometimes the numbers are percentages, which in certain cases might represent the percent of material correct, yet given our enlightened view of meaningful and authentic assessment in the 21st century, the best assessments can’t be graded on this standard. This makes numbers misleading, especially if they’re chosen from the range of 0-100.

No more grades, only feedback.

Then we have those letters, which are generally aligned with vague standards such as excellent, good, fair, and poor, but which still offer little in the way of specific information about a student’s performance. And, letters really lose their meaning in schools where A’s and B’s are essentially the only two grades earned by students. This is not to say that the solution is a wider grade distribution; I want to see all students excel and earn high grades. No, a bell curve across the A-F spectrum is certainly not what I am looking for. What I want to do is to give grades that mean something.

Since many students look only at the grade and not at all the feedback a teacher has worked hard to provide, shouldn’t grades be more meaningful? This process starts with schools setting aside time to have the challenging conversations needed to adopt a grading philosophy that provides a specific definition of what their grades mean.

Consider all the things grades can do: They can quantify, they can symbolize, they can describe, they can evaluate, and they can rank. Those are all transitive verbs, so they need objects. Here are some options: a student’s learning, a student’s skill level, a student’s performance, and a student’s progress. (Keep in mind that most of these can be measured either at a given time or over a period of time.) What’s more, is that each of these potential definitions of a grade need some sort of context — are they relative to a standard, to a student’s peers in a class, school, or grade level, or to all other possible outcomes?

Ultimately, grades will only begin to have meaning when teachers and schools define their grades clearly by answering these questions. Furthermore, what teachers and schools will see is that numbers and letters most likely won’t do the job any more. Colleges and employers may be perfectly happy with current systems of grading, because they want students ranked. As K-12 educators, our job is not to rank students, but to help them learn, or as Tom Guskey says, to develop, not select talent. Thus, the most important purpose grades can serve is a method of providing feedback for students in order to help them improve their performance. And that is why, until I find that better system, I’ve stopped putting grades on my students’ assignments, and only give them the feedback.


About Timothy Quinn

TIMOTHY QUINN is assistant head of upper school at the University School of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisc., and the author of On Grades and Grading: Supporting Student Learning through a More Transparent and Purposeful Use of Grades (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). His last Kappan article was “G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K doesn’t spell collaboration,” Phi Delta Kappan, Decmber 2012/January 2013) (Vol. 94, No. 4), 46-48.

Comments on The wretched task of grading

  1. […] have many opinions — usually negative — about grading itself. As Quinn pointed out in a post related to the book, the problem may stem from fundamental disagreement about what we are trying to […]

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