What DO we know about grading?

I finally finished reading What We Know About Grading, a 2019 ASCD book summarizing a century of research on grading. 

Probably doesn’t sound compelling to most people — it’s not going to top the New York Times bestseller list — but I wanted to know what the research says, since we spend so much of our professional development time talking about, arguing about, and modifying our grading system.

It all feels like a lot of running in place sometimes. I can’t help but wonder: Will switching from traditional grades to a 4, 3, 2, 1 proficiency-based grading system improve student learning? Will it improve communication with parents? Will it be fairer?

The answer is: It’s not clear.

You’re probably not going to read the book (although I do recommend it if you care about this argument), so I’ll share a few of the quotes I found most intriguing.

First, on standards-based grading (which seems like the same thing as my school’s “proficiency-based grading”):

  • “It is both widely used and under-studied.”
  • “SBG seems to rarely be implemented as intended.”
  • “Parents are unlikely to understand [SBG] report cards unless they are familiar with both the standards and the curriculum and are explicitly taught how to interpret grades.”

That’s not encouraging.

On the positive side, the authors concluded: “The research suggests SBG is a promising reporting strategy that requires teachers to reflect both on student performance and on their own conceptions of what it means to meet grade-level expectations.”

I agree with that — I think it’s one of the strongest arguments in favor of this style of grading. I fully admit that the way I used to grade student work, at least in the first half of my career, was much too arbitrary. Now at least we talk to our colleagues about standards and expectations and what proficiency looks like. Promising.

Also, a century of research has decisively discredited the 100-point grading scale, calling it “exceedingly unreliable.” One study found that teachers who were trained to use the same writing rubric still reported grades ranging from 50 to 96 for the same paper! 

“With more levels, more students are likely to be misclassified in terms of their performance on a particular assessment.”

So that’s an argument in favor of the 4-point scale.

But I’m stuck on one feature of the new grading system. The authors said: “SBG also challenges teachers to distinguish academic achievement from student behaviors.” 

This seems to be a big selling point to a lot of people, who believe grades need to be stripped of any non-academic factors. But I’m not so sure they are right. I don’t know that it’s possible or desirable to do that. 

In fact, in one of the first sections of the book, Columbia University Prof. Alex J. Bowers analyzed how grades and test scores relate to other indicators, like high school graduation and college admissions.

It turns out that grades, not purely academic test scores, are a much better indicator of future success — precisely because they include noncognitive skills like persistence, behavior and engagement.

Bowers quotes one study that found that “most teachers successfully use grades to reward achievement oriented behavior and promote a widespread growth in achievement.” This, Bowers says, is what makes grades valuable.

The obvious danger here is that teachers can use grades to manage behaviors in a biased way, for example, punishing non-white children for a behavior that is not flagged when it’s a white student. We already know, from other research, that this happens. 

Interestingly, though, a study from Sweden found that low-SES students there generally received higher grades relative to their test scores than high-SES students, indicating that teachers might in fact hold privileged students to a higher, not lower, behavior expectation.

It’s all a lot to consider. But I think we have to continue talking about how we include noncognitive factors in our assessment practices, rather than developing new ways to take them out — no matter which grading system we embrace.

After all, we’re trying to teach a growth mindset, so we ought to use strategies that successfully promote it.

Martha Rush is a teacher, author, curriculum developer, speaker — and occasional blogger. She’s working on her second book, a joint project with Quarter Zero to bring lean entrepreneurship to more high school students. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information on Martha’s projects. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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