The tyranny of grading: a grade-hater’s defense of standards-based grades

Tyranny: arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

Its time to give quarter grades again, truly one of my least favorite things to do with (to?) my students. But, of course, as a teacher I am being asked by my school (and perhaps parents) to provide a single quantitative measurement of all the fabulous things that my students have done this past quarter. I know that there are some fine arguments about grades being useful but I am pretty sure that putting student achievement in my class into a single percentage or letter grade is doing a disservice to that student. So what if Beth has a 91% A? That might mask the fact that she struggles with interpreting data in charts and graphs.  And how about little Timmy with his 65% D? That might mask the fact that he has awesome skills in writing and using cool web tools for his blog. Every student has their strengths and weaknesses and I find myself, now that I’ve taken averages out of my grading system, annoyed that I have to put them back in somehow when quarter or semester grades are due.

I can give a kid a letter grade, but I don’t have to like doing it. My grading system is based on collecting a body of work from each student over the course of a grading period and I can point to exactly where students have or have not demonstrated particular skills or content knowledge. I even have a decent system for determining the final grades for each student based on this body of work. But I don’t like the switch from Advocate to Judge (from Jason Buell’s notes on Guskey and Jung) that has to happen at the end of a grading period.

I really love teaching, when I get to be an Advocate for learning, and have been pretty good at keeping up with the work that students are submitting to me. I read their blog posts, grade their quizzes and have discussions with them in class.  I provide comments on the work that students submit and have helped students through several cycles of revisions to help produce better products. But when the end of the quarter arrives and I have to give kids a “grade” in a formal way, I need to evaluate their effort on ALL of our learning standards, not just the ones for which they have submitted evidence. Switch to judge mode. Bring out the Punisher.  I have to switch from evaluating the work that they HAVE completed to grading the work that they SHOULD HAVE completed.

What is the difference? For some students, there is no difference. These are the students who understand standards-based grading to the extent that they have gone out of their way to make sure that they have evidence that they are meeting all the standards. For these few students, their running estimate of a grade from what they have turned in is equal to their quarter grade because they’ve made sure that they have met every standard.

For other students, though, the quarter grade was vastly different from the grade based on what they had turned in during the quarter since I felt obliged to put on my Judge hat. Here’s an example: a student who takes several quizzes (demonstrating decent content knowledge) and writes a single blog post on a web-based research project still has not met any of the lab skills or data analysis standards.  So what they accomplished might have been graded at a B level during the quarter, but when the quarter grade is figured based on their total evidence of learning, they only rate a D since several standards remain unmet.

Needless to say, the sudden grade swings at the quarter surely seemed tyrannical to some students. After all, having an A one day and a C the next is outside of most students normal high school experience. Tyranny indeed. Or not.

Consider for a moment the purpose of the quarter grade, this number and letter that I got to dish out so tyrannically. Is it to label students: you are bad, you are ok, you are a good student? Not in my classes.  Is it to add a data point to students’ permanent records that will forever haunt them or gain them college admittance? Nope. Is it a measure of student progress towards the standards that parents and administration will see? Yep. That’s it exactly. A quarter grade in my classes is nothing more than a snapshot in time of a student’s current progress on the standards. It counts for exactly zero percent of the course grade. Its true purpose is to draw attention to the content areas and skills which students still need to master. It does that by speaking the language that most students and parents understand, that of the outdated A, B, C, D, F scale and the language of percentages.

To get to a percentage and letter grade from SBG requires a bit of translation, but it can be done. I’ll admit, though, that I find myself wishing that I taught in a school that has gone all SBG so that report cards would share out achievement of content and skill standards instead of the rather uninformative letter grade. Until then, my students will suffer the tyranny of 1st and 3rd quarter grades that seem arbitrary and weird until they stop and look closely at their gradebooks. Hopefully, the quarter grade will be another aid to help students realize what it is they need to accomplish before the semester grade becomes final.

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  1. Brian’s avatar

    Can you send a SBG style report home along with the grade? We do SBG style reports twice a year and I include a sampling of learning goals from a recent unit along with the current progress of the student.


  2. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    @Brian: Students can access their online gradesheets to view a record of their work and my comments from the entire quarter. I know that many students discuss their gradesheets with their parents. I also give any parent who asks access to their student’s online gradesheet, so sending home the SBG report seems a little redundant.

    I know, though, that not every parent is checking their student’s grades online, so maybe a paper copy might do the trick. Now I just need to find a color printer to hijack… Thanks for the idea.


  3. Trung Nguyen’s avatar

    Finally, a professor who truly understand a student point of view. Is there a way you can integrate two different style of grading to average out the grade for the quarter? Like have the student write up a comprehensive report at the end of the quarter and that can be used as, say, 80% of the quarterly grade. This allow the student a chance to prove what they have learned throughout the quarter. The other 20% could be from the evidence that they submitted throughout the quarter.


  4. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    I actually do something similar to what you describe, except that I have the work that students submit throughout the quarter represent 80% of the grade and their final exam represent 20%. The 80% comes from students’ skills-based grade and the 20% comes from a more traditional summative test at the end of the course. Thanks for your comment!


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