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Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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A roller 0.7 mm pen is on top of a yellow folder filled with paper.

My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn't been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback -- it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement

Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn't address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn't address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck's late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It's an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it's much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest

This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they'll redo and how they'll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment

Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments

One strategy that I've seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we're talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

  • Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
  • How long did you study the material outside of class?
  • Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles

You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don't affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It's About Hope

I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven't met the needs of all students.

What are your strategies or tools to prevent harming students with traditional grading practices?

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Kay Butler's picture
Kay Butler
HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

Our district mandates that 33% of a student's grade must be based on participatory points. If points are not deducted for incomplete or late work or not following directions, then it is feasible for students to earn a 51% average on quizzes and tests and pass high school courses with D's (and earn honors credit!). It is also possible for students to earn a 63% F in content and pass their honors courses with C's that count as B's! When I was in school, 75% was an F, NOT a C ... and I received credit for quiz and test grades only - no class work or homework! We did our work so we could learn and do well on our quizzes and tests!

How can we raise expectations when academic standards keep getting lowered and "grades" are made to be so important? In my opinion, grades lose importance and mean nothing when I have little to no influence on how they reflect what a student knows and can do in my high school mathematics classes. No wonder colleges and universities are complaining that our kids are not prepared! HOW can we get students to focus on LEARNING instead of grades when there is so much focus on grades?!?!?

Many students just do what is necessary to get a C ... which now means very little! I am becoming more and more disillusioned with today's academic grading standards! However, I still believe that we need to be fair and continue doing all we can to help students maximize their learning - I also believe that we should not "give" or inflate grades. I definitely agree that we should work with our students who need to learn time management skills, and we need to do what we can to make sure that their grades are true indicators of what they have learned!

Thanks for giving us a lot to think about! Thanks for letting me express my concerns about other issues with grading!

Leesa Johnson's picture
Leesa Johnson
Leesa Johnson is a Marketing Manager at Select My Tutor

The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades - or leading them to focus on what grade they'll get. There is so much focus on passing, and not necessarily on learning. Students will just find the best ways to get a passing grade, instead of actually putting studying first and not worrying about the grade. Depending on the curriculum there are many times students don't have to study due to an extra-credit heavy class or a class where homework is worth more than tests, etc. It is hard to force students to study without saying "you won't pass if you don't," but there has to be a happy medium in motivating them to actually learn the material and not focusing so much on the grade. If you study enough, the good grade will come.

Josh's picture
ESL Guru , educational maverick

This article qualitatively much more helpful than the other one. I especially liked the request the retest and the reflect on the assessment, These two steps actually help fill in gaps in ideas I have advocated. I hope I can add one more important idea. Working with the student on helping the student understand why they made the wrong choices they did and also explaining to them one bad grade, or even a series of them , is not the end of their world as they know it. Thanks for the post!

Isaac Van Wesep's picture

If more frequent, rapid feedback can be done (such as with a good mobile grading app), then students will be able to master the material before they get to a graded test or quiz. Also, frequent formative assessments like exit tickets can make students more comfortable with the process of being quizzed and getting a response from their teacher, and empower them to take their "grade" as a guide for where to focus their studying efforts. A good mobile grading app can make the whole process of exit tickets fast enough to be manageable.

Kimberly Livaudais's picture

I have two major areas of concern. As regards re-testing and reflection, I allow re-tests if students come in during their tutorial times. We have a one hour lunch, broken into two half-hour time increments. Students use one of those two half-hours to come and get help or tutorial time with their teacher. Many of my students choose to have an hour long lunch and do not come in for a tutorial and then not re-testing. As for reflection, the students who do not study or do well usually only give me what I want to hear in reflections rather than any sincere reflection. More importantly to me is that we give students so many props and feel goods so that they want to learn that there is little in the way of true accountability.

Nick Schumacher's picture

I believe that we can all agree that failing grades are not motivators for most students.

Sure, our highest achieving students have the ability to fail and assessment, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and prove their grit by "buckling down" and working harder on the next unit. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of students in our classrooms today. For many students, a failing grade only re-asserts what they already believe about themselves.

Allowing resting. Absolutely.
Redoing parts of the assessment. Sure
Reflecting on the assessment. You Bet.

How about Delaying the testing? Take the test a week or two later than originally scheduled? Delaying the testing; offering an opportunity for more/most or all students to pass the test on the first try, will increase resilience in all students. Many students, at-risk or otherwise, are taking the test too soon. Educators today face incredible pressures from curriculum maps, common assessments, pacing guides and the like. Delaying the testing does not mean extend the unit, does not mean cover less material. It simply means that you finish the unit....start another unit and take a short snippet out of your class each day to review the previous unit's information. This strategy allows students to have more interactions with the material before the assessment. Delaying the testing allows more kids to pass the test the first time and when you add the resting and redoing of the assessments we are allowing more students to succeed. We are meeting the needs of more of our kids and helping to kids experience success. Success breeds hope! Failure breeds despair.

Josh's picture
ESL Guru , educational maverick

Perhaps relying more on formative testing would make more sense. Sumative testing should , in my opinion , be used sparingly. You also can do formative testing in much more informal ways , I know there is this massive push to test the students in the same fashion the Chinese do, but having taught in China I often think the costs to teachers and students alike is too high. I know politicians and other school related people who no longer earn their wages in the class room love high stakes testing. We do our job of make formative testing that measures what we need to know and we do it well and then this problem will go away,

Swms's picture

I also believe that we should focus our grading for most assignments. As an English teacher, I could spend hours grading every assignment for every grammar and mechanics rule; however, students would be overwhelmed with the amount of marks and comments on their papers. Instead, I indicate clearly what the assignment is going to be graded on so that students know what their focus should. We do have writing assignments that are graded on multiple skills, but this isn't done except a few times a semester. On many of my rubrics, I add lines that are specific to recent studies. Then, at the bottom of the rubric, I add the statement, "Paper was not assessed for all grammar and mechanics rules. _____ Errors interfere with meaning. ______Errors do not interfere with meaning." This allows parents and students know that the paper may not be perfect, but that the errors were not on the current skills studied.

Thank you for your article.

Glorianna Under Baggage's picture

HS teacher--I look for understanding concepts, in their words that shows depth. Mentor to mentee was how lawyers, doctors, midwifes, builders, etc. experienced knowledge with trial and error.

dchopra's picture

I recently read the book "Grade Smarter, Not Harder"by Myron Dueck. When teachers said to him..."In life you don't often get to redo things"..he responded .. name one? Don't we teach kids to try their best, but if they fail..try,try again! I'm a NYS chemistry teacher, and if a student does poorly on the Regents exam, he can take it again! SAT's ..take it again. Drivers test ..take it again! My job is to get my students to understand and master the concepts in chemistry. If they fail a test, do test corrections, and review, they should be able to take it again! This concept improved my students mastery on the Regents (85% or higher grade) from 25% to 70% in one year!

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