Zero Points Were Given

This post is about the “points” game that schools play and how to avoid it. By points I mean those numbers we award to students for performances of learning in our classes. Such numbers must have something to do with measuring student learning, but how points-based grading is being used and abused is worth a deeper look.

Why do teachers use points to quantify student learning?

I suspect this answer varies from person to person, but probably for most of us it comes down to tradition. Its “always” been done this way: the teacher sets a maximum number of points possible on an assignment or test, kids do the task and turn it in, then the teacher rates the work as some percentage of the maximum value possible.

These numbers are collected, processed, massaged, and ultimately used to determine an “objective” numerical score that measures learning. Its easy. Any of the popular gradebook software programs will take whatever numbers you throw at them and crunch them into something seemingly meaningful. For example, one student is an 87%. Another is a 57%. Parents, students, and teachers “know” what this number tells us about the student. We use this type of grading system because it provides us the illusion of scientific observation of a student’s achievement.

We train students to want more points (or give up entirely when they fail to get them)

Another use of points is as a reward system. “Oh, you completed that worksheet? Here’s 10 points. You did well on my test? Here’s 89 points. You didn’t annoy me in class today? Here’s 5 points. Didn’t turn that in on time? Oops, that’s 5 points off for late work. Gotcha! That will teach you some responsibility.”

Students love points. They are like coins in Temple Run, gold in WoW, and experience points in Fallout/Skyrim/etc. Gotta rack ’em up if you want to succeed. Our message with points-based grading systems is that students are in our rooms to collect points towards a grade, to get that great level-up rush (to extend the gaming metaphor). Sadly, students don’t automatically get new skills and abilities in real life just because they’ve racked up points.

Earning and withholding points is a game we play at school

Since we’re talking about games, I think that we can game a points-based system in so many ways that the entire enterprise has to be questioned. Do you give extra credit points for extra effort or bringing in a box of tissues? Gaming. Do you give points when lab safety agreements are turned in? Gaming. Do you give a student who is at 89.4% an A even though 90% is the cutoff? Gaming.

Do you slap a kid with zero points for missed assignments? Most thinking people agree that zeros devastate a student’s overall grade if you are summing all points earned as a fraction of the total possible. At least give the kid 50/100, but again you’re gaming the system to get closer to a number that you know the kid “deserves.”

Did your students not do as well on a test as you hoped? Guess what? We’ve got a game for you too. Its called curving the results. Just tack on 15 points for everybody! We all win when we play that game.

Do you average all assignments together into one score? This is everyone’s favorite game to play while trying to observe and document student learning. Unfortunately, averaging all points into a final grade loses any information that the original scores may have had about exactly what a student did and did not know. By the end of a grading period we’ve reduced our information about learning down to our One Number to Rule Them All and no one can tell which topics and skills a student is good at, just whether or not they’ve been playing your points-collecting game.

Changing the game

If you want to abandon a points-gaming system, you’ll need to find a replacement, perhaps something with a bit more narrative component to it. The requirements of such a system are these:

      1. Provide content area and skill goals for students and use these in your grade book instead of columns of point totals for individual assignments.  Some people call this kind of system standards-based grading. Others just ask “what do you want students to know and be able to do?” and “what will you be looking for in their performances of learning?”
      2. Provide actionable feedback to students so that they can understand what they know and don’t know and can and can’t do. This replaces points. Instead of telling a student that their project is worth 67 points out of 100, tell them what was wrong and what to do about it. Don’t even give them a number, just feedback on how to make it better.
      3. Let them make it better. If you give feedback, you really should let students respond to your feedback by fixing what needs fixed or digging deeper into whatever it is you are trying to get them to learn or demonstrate.
      4. Keep records of student learning without resorting to using number scores. If you are giving students narrative feedback in a system like BlueHarvestFeedback or using your own spreadsheets that students can access, you’ve already done this step.  As soon as you post student feedback it is recorded somewhere where you and your students can get at it again to check for improvement and plan next steps and future learning activities.
      5. Connect your grading system to whatever system you are working within or convince your school to change its grading system along with you. Out of necessity, most of us find ourselves, especially at the high school level, bowing to the demons of class rank GPA battles and scholarship applications and need to produce letter grades “because colleges need them.” Just do it honestly and consistently and stick to a set of published guidelines for how you are going to arrive at the letter grade. It will be subjective. But so is everything about teaching if you are doing it right and responding to different student needs and abilities.

Student ownership of learning

I always had the sense that when I was giving a numerical score (1-4 scale) along with feedback that I was doing all the work of judging the quality of their work and that students would ignore the feedback as long as the number was something they found pleasing. If narrative feedback is the only thing happening (and I’m still learning how to do it well) then students are more likely to read it and respond by improving their work.

Weekly Progress in BlueHarvestFeedback

This year I’ve started using student-generated weekly progress updates in BlueHarvest Feedback. Every Friday students log in to BlueHarvest and post a comment on the Weekly Progress standard that I created for their course. Students suggest what letter grade I should put in to our Eligibility grade in Infinite Campus and they have to justify why they think they deserve that grade for the week. This does two things: 1. it forces most students to actually log in to BlueHarvest where they have an opportunity to see the feedback that I’ve left them on their work and 2. it lets students practice self-analysis and argument from evidence.

Thus far in the school year I’ve found that most students are quite good at determining and defending their own weekly progress grade and usually land pretty close to what I would have assigned from a teacher’s perspective. There are many who still need some practice with arguing from evidence for their grade (“I think I deserve an A because I got all my work done”) but that’s not a bad thing in a system that aims to show student improvement.

Its a new game, to be sure, but hopefully its one in which each student is more active in determining their overall grade rather than letting the teacher or an algorithm in a software program calculate how much they’ve learned.

17 thoughts on “Zero Points Were Given

  1. Dan

    My biggest pet peeve with arguments against the “points” system’ is that proponents of standards based grading (SBG) always seem to use “bad teacher” examples to justify why the points system should be abandoned. For example, most would agree that giving points for bringing in Kleenex is wrong or giving a kid points for doing a word-search is silly since neither shows knowledge of the subject matter. But grading a test or quiz using a tried and true points system that has been standardized from years of data collection can tell you who “gets it” vs. who doesn’t. It shouldn’t matter if you use a 0-100 points system or an SBG point system if the test is valid. Also, I would argue that having more grading divisions could give you more information about who understands a particular topic than limiting yourself to fewer grading choices of a 0-4 point scale. Now I would agree with the argument against points-based grading that a 69% (D+) is basically the same level of achievement as a 70% (C-), but any system you use will have arbitrary cut-offs that correlate to a final letter grade that appears on a college transcript. Standards-based grading has its limitations too. Some kids will take advantage of an unlimited re-take policy to eventually “memorize” all of the permutations of a test. Some do not see the necessity of formative assessments, so they never do their homework since it is isn’t “graded” in an SBG system and therefore they fail to perform well on the test because of lack of practice. I have found that if I make the homework worth a measly amount of points, then that will motivate them to do the work where otherwise they would have blown it off. SBG is not the be-all-end-all of student evaluation methods as many have made it out to be. Sometimes different is not better. It’s just different. In fact, I would argue that if you have a valid points system, then switching to a Standards Based grading system should not change the final letter grade of a student. Bright kids should get better grades than not-so bright kids in either system of evaluation if they are done objectively.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author


      I used to center my science classes around tests as well, and I agree that they can be used to measure gains in student knowledge to some extent, which is why I still use them. But I found that I wanted to teach students to do more than what could be assessed by testing. I wanted them to be able to create new representations of their knowledge using online tools. I wanted them to provide proof that they could work in cooperative groups towards a common goal. I wanted students to get involved in deciding what they wanted to learn and how they were going to show me that they had learned it. The only way that I thought that I could possibly attempt to measure student success in these areas was to define these and other skills as standards for the class and then find ways for students to demonstrate that they met those standards. Since students can show that they meet these standards in so many different ways it became (ahem) pointless to try to assign number values to each project or assignment since students often do completely different things to demonstrate the same skill or goal.

      The way I try to do SBG is actually much more about classroom climate, and not so much about assessment in some very important ways. In a points-based system, the teacher is completely in control of what will be tested, which assignments students will do, how many points they will get, and what sorts of penalties will be inflicted if the assignment is not done. In my version of SBG, at least, there is lot of wiggle room for how students can show that they understand certain topics and can do certain skills. Because I allow for lots of different modes of assessment, I don’t really do any retakes on my tests. I know that is supposed to be a “thing” with SBG but its not, at least not the way I see it. SBG just means getting some goals out in front of your students so that you can work together to meet those goals. And no, there is no magical 100% buy in from every student, but I owe it to those kids who have been trapped in a cycle of testing and worksheets to provide something different, even if it is uncomfortable at first.

      I’d rather spend time fixing how my grading system impacts my students rather than trying to judge how accurate and objective it is, honestly.

  2. Mark Peterson (@Dassel)


    I’m totally on board with standards based grading…..for the simple reason it is a means of communicating learning. I would argue with Dan that standards are not arbitrary at all. They are standards.

    The high jump bar is a standard. You clear it or you don’t. You can explain electron transport or you can’t.

    Retakes and redos for sure! If it comes down to a student having a conversation with me about their understanding of the standard, there is no way around the words and descriptions they have to choose in explaining, evaluating, describing some part of science that I’ve put to a standard.

    Good insights, thanks for sharing.

  3. Dan VH

    Hi, Chris.

    I have delved headlong into your version of SBG this year with students creating Google Sites-based portfolios, blogs, and so forth. It has been quite a journey! The most difficult aspects are reconciling your system with our school gradebook (work in progress). Another issue is how to communicate course requirements (i.e. assignments) to students, especially students in ESL/special ed/etc. They–and their teachers–are very accustomed to a “completion” model, and my flexibility around products is extremely confusing to them (as well as the use of technology). Do you assign blog post due dates? How do you keep students on track work-wise while allowing flexibility?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Dan VH,

      I used to use Edmodo, which is free and easy to use. I would use it to write quick guidelines for projects, share web links, Google Doc addresses and such. It’s probably the easiest tool for sharing assignments. You can give your assignments due dates so that they show up in student calendars on Edmodo. That helped some students keep track of what they needed to have done and an approximate due date to have it done by.

      This year I’ve switched completely over to Moodle for posting assignments. Edmodo is easy, but a lot of students found it hard to find assignments that I posted since everything in Edmodo streams chronologically in order of posting. I’ve found that students really like to use Moodle for the same functionality that I was using Edmodo for. I post assignments in Moodle with a suggested due date so that they show up in a students calendar on Moodle. The assignments are easier to find because they live on the course page under a heading “activities and assignments.” This is where I post all quizzes, tests, and assignments for each topic area. This helps my students who are used to a completion model because now there is a visual list in each topic area of all things that they should have done.

      Overall, my due dates are flexible, but I do post them with each assignment. Most students get things done near the deadline, but there are always a few too many who wait to the last minute at the end of a grading period to do their work. The natural consequence there is that the last minute work is usually way lower quality and leads to lower progress grades.

  4. DaveS

    Hi Chris-

    Nice post, great blog. I’ve been kind of lurking around here, ThThTh and others over the past year or so as I’ve made the jump from the numbers game to SBG. All you SBG bloggers made a huge impact in my decision to go for it! We run into many of the same conflicts described above at my school…some of them coming to a head just now as our first marking period closes.

    I started using BHF as my proficiency tracker when I made the leap last winter. Kids had 1-1 laptops and the two-way feedback was pretty slick. We went to iPads this year and the BH-Mobile edition doesn’t seem complete or as student friendly as the full version(i.e. upload buttons in student accounts do not work). Because of this I migrated to ActiveGrade (two weeks ago, mid stream…ugh), but miss the 2-way feedback of BH. I like your blog/website method of accumulating evidence and may jump on board, but cannot wrap myself into it this year…Too many other irons in the fire…

    Anyhow, our district is committed to PowerSchool. I keep only one assignment in the PowerTeacherGradebook: “Student progress towards meeting class standards” (or something like that). I award one of four quantized scores to this assignment (which ends up being their course grade cuz there are no other assignments):
    90(B)= proficient in all standards assessed so far; maintaining teacher pace;
    80(C)=proficient in some, not proficient in some AND we have initiated the conversation re. remediation, practice, etc. that will lead to proficiency
    70(D)=Same as 80, but either the conversation has not taken place or student is not following through on remediation plan (this is the “failing” grade cutoff at our school so it is an attention getter as well).
    60(F)= student has not yet provided evidence through assessment OR has been at 70-status for a long time (this is a “failing” grade so Hello academic ineligibility! Do I have your attention NOW?).
    This score floats and I try to update it regularly (up or down), reconciling it with my standards tracker app (BH, ActiveGrade, whatever…)This method works out ok, and I’ve made my peace with it. Students seem to get it. Parents too.

    Of course: “How do I get an A?”, “I want to be on High Honors”, etc. To get the bump above the 90-level, I’ve got to see some evidence of 4-level work (not in all standards, obviously, but some): Independent investigations, going beyond what is explicitly taught in class, demonstration of advanced application of skills/concepts, independent thinking. Show me you can use your skills/knowledge for something awesome and you can pick your own number grade! It has really motivated those who really want the A and differentiated them from those who are good at simply playing the points/numbers game.

    Is it subjective? Yep. So (see number 5 above) I post these guidelines all around the room, on the web and have versions ready for parents who inquire. I may be the only one in my school grading this way, but my biggest trump card in my conviction that SBG is good for students and that I will not go retreat to my old points based system (even more so with NGSS around the corner).

    Wow…wrote too much. Thanks for listening!
    -Dave S

  5. Anne Gillies

    As a pre-service teacher trying to figure out my “own” approach to teaching (which will inevitably be a pastiche of other peoples’ ideas until I really get my legs under me), your blog is fascinating because it presents a perspective I haven’t heard yet. I appreciate your candor and detail because it helps me to envision how these things can work in a classroom.

    I am intrigued by your critique of points-based grading and the alternative you have developed. I was a kid (still am, kind of, in my masters program…) who was excellent at playing the game and got As across the board pretty much throughout my educational experience. As I’ve grown older and realized that the world doesn’t give you an A simply for following directions, I’ve begun to worry that what earned me the label of “brilliant” in school is not terribly useful in the real world. This makes me think hard about what I want to communicate to my own students. Does the ability to successfully complete a multiple choice test about atomic structure correlate to any real world ability? I’m not sure it does. I am searching avidly for ways to make learning chemistry relevant and enriching. I’m wondering if your approach could be part of the key to that.

    What I struggle with, however, is figuring out how to earn enough buy in to this system to get it to work. I am currently student teaching in an urban arts school. My students, by and large, have a dismissive attitude towards science, and the ones that try do so mostly because they need to pass chemistry to graduate. Many of my 11th graders are at a middle school or lower level in math and/or reading. I struggle with how I could inspire and foster the kind of independence and motivation it seems like such a system needs in order to function. I have a vision of students excitedly investigating questions related to chemistry of their own volition, but then I think about how many of my students need extensive one-on-one scaffolding to carry out unit conversions and I hit a mental roadblock about how to translate one into the other.

    That said, right now my mentor and I have students who have a grade of literally 4%, students that I know are sweet kids and don’t want to fail. I want to help them. And I think stepping away from empty number grades would be one way to do that.

    I would appreciate any advice on how to kickstart such an effort – maybe some baby steps toward the full fledged model. Where do I even begin?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Thanks so much for the comment and for being willing to tell us about your situation! As a chemistry teacher for ~15 years now, I have yet to really hit on the magic formula that will make it appealing to everyone. I have some small victories at times, but often it feels like I’m losing the battle to get kids to really understand chemistry at the level that I think they should. With that said, some things work better than others to get chemistry students involved in class:
      -Labs seem to work really well at engaging students, although they sometimes seem to come away with a more superficial understanding than I would like because they lack some of the background knowledge about underlying principles.
      -Drill and kill worksheets only help a small percentage of students, and while I might think they are necessary, students don’t often agree.
      -The best assignments in chemistry are those that respond to student interests. This is tricky, since not every student’s interest can be sparked easily, but I bet your arts students might find some interest in the science behind paint pigments, for example, and maybe the tie-dye lab.

      The real trick is to set up a system that can help students realize even small gains in skills and content knowledge in your class. We should reward students with some helpful suggestions rather than having to come up with a number to represent how many points we think they are worth that day. They might be way below where I would like them to be, but if they are willing to work with me at all and follow my advice, I can usually get them on track.

      One last piece of advice: allow students multiple ways to show you what they know. That way they’ve taken some ownership of what works best for them, even if it doesn’t always conform to what we think chemistry class really ought to look like.

      You have the right attitude about stealing other people’s ideas, and I look forward to stealing some ideas from you in the future.

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Yes, that’s the mobile version of BlueHarvest Feedback. It works pretty well on phones and tablets, although I haven’t tried the photo and video commenting options much.

  6. battagliabchs

    I am a chemistry teacher wanting to switch to sbg, and I love the idea of the e-portfolio. A few questions: 1) What does your 1-4 scale look like exactly? 2) Is the portfolio only assessed at the end or how frequently? (How do you give them a mid-term or quarter grade, for example) 3) Do you require a certain number of blogs and/or pieces of evidence for their portfolio or it is all up to them? Thanks

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      I’ll address your questions in reverse order, since that’s how it plays out in practice.

      I have students do a variety of learning tasks (problem solving practice, research, labs, etc.) for each major standard and I expect that most if not all of the activities will be documented in their blog somehow. I then look over their blog posts as they finish them and send comments using BlueHarvestFeedback about how to improve their work, if necessary. For a good chunk of 1st and 3rd quarter, I grade primarily pass/fail (as an eligibility grade) until there is enough evidence present in the portfolio for me to make a guess at a letter grade. The midterm (1st and 3rd Quarter) grades are progress only, but will be A-F, but with no percentages, as there are no points to average. All midterm and semester letter grades are based solely on the level of evidence for each standard that appears in the portfolio.

      In reporting grades, I’ve moved away from the 1-4 scale in favor of the descriptors U, PP, P and A. These can be applied to each major standard in a relatively holistic way: U for if a student does not show any evidence of learning, PP if some learning is evident but with gaps, P if they have provided good evidence of understanding/performing the standard, and A for if their evidence shows superior effort and understanding.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Aaron Bieniek

    Chris – thank you for the time you spend helping us flesh out these ideas.

    I wanted to ask you about the Weekly Progress grade that the kids enter into BlueHarvest. What evidence do they base their evaluations on? If it is blogging or work put in their portfolio – is there enough of that accumulated in a week to back up their evaluations?

    Could you post a couple? Maybe one that you agreed with and one that you didn’t?

    1. Chris Ludwig Post author

      Great question. This is my first year of trying out a weekly progress entry in BlueHarvest and overall I like how its working. Just to recap, I instruct students to be sure to go into BlueHarvest at least on Friday (or so) of each week to post a note in the Weekly Progress standard. The original intent was to create a regular opportunity to remind students to check on my comments on their work in BH.

      What is most interesting at this point in the school year is how that system has evolved for individual students. Since the comments in BH are private, its not like they are looking at each others’ comments for models so each student has a slightly different take on how they are using the Weekly Progress report.

      Some students don’t use it at all. Other students simply list a letter grade that they think they earned for the week. Other students will explain in some detail about what they learned that week, maybe with a letter grade, but sometimes not. Here are some examples:

      “This week I learned about stem cell research. Scientists want to use these cells to fight off serious diseases. It can also stop aging. I deserve an A because I did all my blog posts, and I updated all of my portfolio.”

      “I think I deserve an A because I finished the concurrent credit thing and man was that hard. It like started off all easy and then it progressively got harder as you went. I sat there for like a good hour trying to do part five and I think I finally got it right. It still may be wrong though, so can you check it? Also, I have the rest of the blogs basically done, but I just have to touch them up and post them.

      1. Aaron Bieniek

        Thanks Chris. I am getting on board next year because of a Eureka! moment I had while assigning 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s (and some feedback) to some problems my kids did. My descriptors of 1-4 are very much like yours and I realized that unless I was putting a 3 (or 4) on the paper, it didn’t really make sense to distinguish between a 1 and a 2 because it didn’t matter – the bottom line was that the work wasn’t “ready yet”. The work needed feedback and then a response to that feedback to make it better.

        I teach freshmen and juniors. The freshmen are in Algebra 1 and the juniors are in Honors Precalculus. All students will have an iPad next year and they have Google accounts with access to Sites and Blogger.

        Can you help me temper my expectations? I think I’m having a hard time reconciling what I have in my head for how I want this to go and what I want it to look like, with what is reasonable for the kids to do.

        What do you think are realistic goals for freshmen? I want them to take ownership but I also know that some guideposts along the way are necessary. Should they shoot for a weekly blog post? Would you start with something very directed like “after we complete this problem set today I would like you to upload it to your blog post and write one sentence about what you found difficult about it and one sentence of advice for someone that wasn’t here today.”

        Any thoughts you have are truly appreciated.

        1. Chris Ludwig Post author

          An issue that I think you will run into, which I see in Chemistry, is that math problems and equations are not as blog-friendly as more narrative topics like biology and anatomy. A lot of the special characters and formatting can get in the way of a kid demonstrating what they know about math if the only way they do that for you is by typing directly into a Blogger window. There are some ways around the character/formatting issue such as scanning or photographing work or perhaps by using the LATEX programming language to render equations, but you won’t want to be doing that with freshmen.

          With that said, I think having kids blog or otherwise analyze their learning in public online spaces is a great thing. I love your idea for a prompt to get them thinking about what they did that week, that’s a good place to start. I would begin by having them blog once a week about what they learned that week and including whatever proof of that learning that they can upload or scan in addition to a narrative based on your prompt. I highly recommend that you create (or find) an exemplar or two of what you want their posts to look like, since it will be new to the majority of your students, I suspect.


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