An Uncomfortable Truth About Grading Practices

February 16, 2016 Updated February 12, 2016

This month’s topic may prove to be a little touchy for some, for it seeks to expose a truth in public education that some would rather not talk about, but it may very well be one of the most important topics to confront if we are ever to bring about any significant change. This month I want to talk about grading practices.

Let’s begin with a dose of truth. Nearly universally, teachers’ grading practices are determined by each classroom teacher individually. They alone make the decisions for their respective grading practices. Those decisions include a wide range of considerations. Here are a few, in no particular order.

1.  Total points for grading period.
2.  Points and weight of assignments, quizzes, tests, etc.
3.  Factors that determine grade, including but not limited to, attendance, behavior, participation, effort, achievement, extra credit, etc.
4.  Late/missing work policies.
5.  Make-up-for-absence policies.
6.  Retake, redo, resubmit policies.
7.  Type and design of assessments.

There are other considerations, and of course, this will vary by teacher and exceptions will abound, but that is the point, the truth that I wish to reveal. All of the above are valid, important considerations for teachers determining how to report progress in the classroom, considerations that will have a significant, often long-term impact on students as they make their way through the system. The considerations themselves aren’t really the problem. No, to be sure, it’s how they are considered that presents a problem. And this is where this topic may get a little sticky.

I am at the midpoint of my twentieth year as a teacher in the public education realm. In those soon-to-be twenty years, not one person in charge has ever inquired about my grading practices. No checks. No balances. There is nothing in the teacher evaluation process that calls my practice into question. Nor is there anything in my union contract that speaks to it. I have had supreme autonomy with my grading practices. Some call it “academic freedom,” and while that sounds appealing, even democratic, it has created an institution full of practitioners whose awesome autonomous powers go unchecked for the length of their careers. So what? They are professionals. They are teachers. They always have kids’ best interests in mind. They know what they are doing. Hmmm. I am not so sure. Time for the sticky part. Sorry if the truth upsets. At worst, I will offend some. At best, I will start a let’s-get-real-and-honest conversation about this important topic.

For the most part, teachers are barely qualified to make autonomous decisions about grading practices. Most of us take only one 3-credit course on assessment in college, out of the context of a classroom, a mostly theoretical, not practical experience. We are then placed in the classroom for student teaching, where we conform to a master teacher’s philosophy and practice for a brief period of time, and we are finally thrust into our own classrooms where we must devise our own practices--ready or not, adopting out of necessity an approach that generally reflects above all how we were graded as students ourselves. Yep, that’s the basic formula. In the end, teachers essentially end up grading how they were graded, having barely more training than anyone else who has gone through our K-12 educational system.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that teachers are not adequately trained in their content areas or experts in their particular fields. To be sure, what I am suggesting is that we are neither adequately trained nor experts in the area of grading. And that is truth, but I don’t blame teachers for the lack of training we receive; we are simply products of the system, a system that has not changed for who knows how long, perpetuating a cycle of practitioners, who, for a lack of a better way to say it, don’t really know what we are doing when it comes to grading.

Now, before I get too carried away with this line of thinking, to be fair, there are many teachers who work very hard--despite a deficit in their preparation--to develop and maintain a system of grading that is fair and makes sense, an ongoing struggle to reflect and refine their approaches in an effort to do right by kids. But there, too, are many who do not make such an effort, and as a result, kids suffer. Please know that we who make the effort make no claim that we have it figured out. In point of fact, it’s generally because we’re worried that we don’t have it figured out that we make constant, we-have-really-thought-about-this changes to our practice. It is not this group of practitioners who worries me. It’s the ones who present their practices as utterly valid, reliable, infallible approaches to grading, standing rigid, often unwilling to bend for students or parents.

And herein lies the great tragedy when it comes to grading practices in public education; we sell our practice to the public under the pretense of validity, reliability, and infallibility, a practice with checks and balances. Well, I have news. It’s all a lie, and the public needs to quit buying it. For any student or parent who has fallen victim to a teacher’s rigid righteousness when it comes to a conflict with a grade, it’s time to call us out; it’s time to ask questions. Why shouldn’t you? After all, it is you we serve. Ask questions. Demand answers. Don’t let the facade frighten you. Let this knowledge empower you to join the conversation and change education.

I’m sure by now I have irreparably upset some colleagues in my profession. If that is the case, then I am sorry, for that is certainly not my intent. I just think we have to get real about our profession and the institution of public education. And I think it starts here, for grades generally seem to be--on one level or another--the focal point of our interface with the public, and if they are being misled regarding the reality and truth of grading practices, then that has to change. I apologize if that creates conflict or dissonance, but I believe that the path to harmony, true harmony, requires some discord.

So, stakeholders, it’s your turn. The system is not likely to change significantly any time soon, but in the meantime, maybe we can move the needle a little by getting teachers, all teachers to present grading practices and policies that make sense not only to them but their customers as well. I think, then, that means that we all have to have conversations--asking questions, seeking answers.

So, to that end, whether you are a teacher, a student, parent, or member of the public, when you think of grading practices in public education what approach would make the most sense to you? How could we better approach grading in a way that makes greater sense to all. You don’t have to be an expert on grading. Truly. You just need to have been affected by grades in the public school system. That’s a pretty inclusive invite. Please join the conversation. Your words matter.

Originally published at

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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