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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Do you grade based on effort or only on accomplishment?

Do you grade based on effort or only on accomplishment?

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The GenEd teachers at my school say only accomplishment should be reflected in grades. Most of the SpEd teachers say effort, even effort without accomplishment, should get a good grade. Grades are, at best, a fairly arbitrary system of communicating anything. Is your B the same as my B? What is a B, anyway? Two students: 1) Sue is a high-ability student who doesn't try hard, does not do her best work and earns a B; 2) Mary is a low-middle ability student who works her tail off and earns a B instead of her usual C. Are these Bs equivalent? Does the grade communicate anything about the student? Should Mary get a better grade than Sue because she tried harder? Which student's behavior better reflects the values of our schools? Of our society?

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Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

Hey Deven! I so appreciate this dilemma. When I had my own classroom (we now have an inclusion model and I co-teach with the Math and Literacy teachers), I wondered what I would do! When I first started teaching, no one could answer this question for me. So I had to come up with my own system.

I felt it best to combine effort and accomplishment. I took the idea of our state PSSA tests: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. I considered the students' IEP and what I knew they could do. If they were "on track", I would consider that Proficient (per their IEP). If they went beyond their IEP goals and my expectations, they received Advanced, and so on.

With writing assignments, I used the Pennsylvania State rubric for writing. That would represent one-half of their writing grade for the assignment. The other half would consist of the "pre-work" or classwork we did toward the final writing assignment. Together, I averaged the 2 grades and that was their final grade on the assignment.

One thing I really disagree on in my district is that in Literacy, the students' whole grade is based on his/her reading level. Like your example with "Sue" the high-ability student, some students will not get lower than a B because their are either on or above grade level in reading, even if they sit and do NOTHING all marking period long! What a horrible message to send to children! As is the message that says "do your hardest work, put forth your full effort, but no matter what you do, you'll still fail"

Their has to be some middle ground. I've seen the effects of students who have tried over the years, only to constantly fail and be told they didn't do enough. I get them as 6th, 7th, or 8th graders. And often they've given up. I have to work so hard on their self-esteem before I can even begin to help them with academics.

Just another "thing" that needs to be fixed in education.

caurletta sanford's picture

I base my grades on effort and accomplishment because I have a variety of learning styles in my classroom. For example, it takes Victoria 45 minutes to complete five math problems where as anthony can finish thirty math problems correctly in 25 minutes. In my opinion in order for a student to be sucessful, the must be graded on a combination of both effort and accomplishment.

Wanetta Steed's picture

As an elementary special education teacher, I agree that our current grading system is not working for a large part of our student population. This includes students in mainstream education as well as those who are receiving special education services. A child can only receive so many "failing" grades before they give up and stop trying. I have found that once a student has "flatlined" it takes an entire year... sometimes two years to "get that child back". It is incredibly hard to convince them that they can be successful. I should mention that in "my language" successful does not necessarily mean that they are an "A" or "B" student. I want my students to have the skills to be productive adults and to pursue whatever career they want to pursue...even if it means that they have to work ten times as hard to "get there".

Shelley's picture

Especially when I'm trying to get my unmotivated students to try something new, I really reward effort. I also use picky tickys to reward effort, but the grades need to be encouraging until the task is closer to mastery. My students already think they are lousy students because they are in special ed. I need to encourage them a lot.

Deven Black's picture
Deven Black
Middle school teacher-librarian in the Bronx, NY

Thanks for the responses. Does your school, district or state have a uniform policy regarding report card grades or does each teacher devise his or her own way of doing this.

Do special education teachers grade differently than general education teachers?

My principal, noting that there were almost no special education students on the honor roll, recently started a discussion with and among teachers on their methods of grading. Almost all of the general ed teachers graded solely on academic achievement while most of the special ed teachers gave effort at least a small role in their grade computations. I was the big exception; I weight effort equal to academics.

When i was challenged I gave the example of two students I started this discussion with, and that led to much discussion on what grades mean, the value of grades in the first place, and much more. The principal challenged all of us to reflect on the purpose and meaning of the grades we give.

Have you talked to your general ed colleagues about grading, or is grading something that happens behind the closed classroom door?

Christine Williams's picture
Christine Williams
Elementary Special Education Teacher (newly certified in administration)

I am an elementary special education teacher in a school district that uses an inclusion model. We do NOT have a uniform policy regarding report card grades. Typically, what happens is each teacher kind of does their own thing. Unfortunately, this is not explained to parents and can cause great distress from year to year. Let me explain... there could be a teacher who is grading on effort and the child is receiving average grades, but academically performing below grade level. Then when they move on to the next grade and that teacher grades more according to academic performance, the parents are surprised to hear that their child is struggling. This doe snot always happen, but it has become an issue for our non-classified struggling students.

Now, for the IEP students I work with... The classroom teacher typically grades them according to their academic performance. Many of us wish there could be one section for an academic grade and one section for an effort grade. But there isn't. So we grade according to academic performance and then write in the comments how their effort is. (There is a small separate section for grading effort and behavior in general, but not specifically in each subject.) Then on the IEP goals, I give a much more specific narrative to how their child is doing in each subject/goal area.

I'm glad to see this topic in this forum... I'm going to bring this question to our next elementary department meeting. :-) We have 3 elementary schools and I am certain each building/person does it differently!

Deven Black's picture
Deven Black
Middle school teacher-librarian in the Bronx, NY

Welcome to the group, Christine. I'm glad you're finding the discussions here useful.

You have given a very good illustration of why many teacher, including me, have decided that grades are at best meaningless and often do harm. I give grades only because I am required to.

Please let us know what happens when you raise this issue at your elementary department meeting.

Alice Powell-Brown's picture
Alice Powell-Brown
Elementary Special Education Teacher, Self-Contained (K-5)

This is a great discussion and one I often have a hard time explaining to anyone who doesn't teach self-contained or those students who education rests on their IEPs. I grade on effort (how much of the goal or objective has the child mastered by the end of the grading period) and graded assignments. I don't start the baseline at 0, ever! Say for instance the child has 5 spelling words and they get 3 right, starting at 100 and subtracting 10 points each from there. This gives that child an 80%. I also use the 1st try and 2nd try option in our grade report system online and this averages the grade for me. I use the notes section to indicate effort and individual accommodations for particular assignments. Some assignments span the 9 weeks as they are related to participation in activities such as our language arts time has become also a social skill time and I record participation (good and bad) and give a percentage average with that. That counts for one assignment under that particular subject. I believe that there are ways to grade based on effort and academic ability combined if teachers would just recognize that it is not a cookie cut class and that there are vast differences in their students abilities and academic levels. I don't like teachers who give 70's just flatly on everything because the child is not doing all the work the other students are doing in mainstream. It gets frustrating to tell them 'Please look at the IEP.' If it says the student will complete 10 math problems correctly per assignment and they do, that should be a 100%. If the IEP says it that means the child did what they were assigned. If another student was expected to complete the whole set of 25 problems and they did, correctly, that student would receive 100%. I cringe everytime a special education student is penalized on a grade because they are in special ed and are not up to 'par' as some would say. Thank you for this discussion. And, our district is making revisions to the grading policy, but the biggest issues were grading homework and the maximum percent on make up and late work. There is not standard policy for grading Special Ed students and I may be the only self-contained teacher doing it because I was never told differently.

Deven Black's picture
Deven Black
Middle school teacher-librarian in the Bronx, NY

Thanks for your comment, Alice.

In New York City we have different aspects of grading for special ed students. On the IEPs we have a space next to each goal where each quarter we specify whether the student has met the goal or whether or not the student is likely to meet the goal. If the student is not likely to meet the goal we have to specify why.

So far, so good.

Then we have to give our students the same report card every other student gets, the one where the grades are meaningless because each teacher uses different criteria.

If there is no school-wide, district-wide, state-wide or national agreement and compliance on what grades mean, if a parent can't tell that the B I give means the same thing that the B you give means, why the heck to we bother?

I teach part-time at a college, the one where I got my undergrad degree. One of my favorite things about this school is that we give each student a narrative about his work in the class instead of a mere letter grade. There is no question about why a student got basic, advanced or no credit for the course.

Of course, this only works because our classes, study groups actually, are limited to 15 students.

The ridiculous thing is that we now have to give letter grades, too. It seems graduate schools think they understand a B but can't seem to handle something with actual meaning.

Alice Powell-Brown's picture
Alice Powell-Brown
Elementary Special Education Teacher, Self-Contained (K-5)


I also have to do the IEP progress which goes in with the regular report card. I also include for all my students a letter:

Dear Parents,
Included is your child's report card and IEP Proress Report. Please note that while you celebrate your child's A's, B's, and C's these grades go hand in hand with the IEP progress. Thank you for all our efforts and supports you give to your child on a daily basis.

Mrs. Brown

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