Grading Demystified

What's a point worth? How about a percentage?

Amira has a 95% in language arts and a 93% in math. She must be better at language, right?

I spent the first four years of my career as a teacher (plus my practicum year) trying to make sense out of our antiquated system for assigning students a worthless litany of numbers and declaring them to be valid indicators of their learning.

I would, on occasion, agonize over whether to award a student a point (or four points - or nine points - or two points...) for an answer on a test, or a paragraph in an essay. (Essays: what an idiotic thing to assign points to!) I would have internal debates over the legitimacy of my practice and whether it was useful for students.

As far as I can tell, there are three purposes for grades: 1) external motivation, 2) to assign students a rank/mark to help colleges and other organizations make decisions about whether to admit a given student, and 3) to provide students and parents feedback about a student's performance.

As much as we may hate to admit it, a student's learning cannot be easily quantified, particularly the most valuable kind of learning. Acceptance of this essential reality forced me to finally abandon the search for a meaningful system for assigning students numbers. In its place, and with the help of some phenomenal educators, I've come to be an ardent proponent of outcomes-based assessment.

Outcomes-based assessment satisfies the only meaningful (as far as I'm concerned) purpose of grades: to provide feedback on a student's performance. And it does it in a much more effective way than do mere numbers and letters.

Although many outcomes-based teachers are forced, in the end, to assign a student a grade (A, B, C...) because of our college system, no grades would be used in outcomes-based fantasy land.

So how does it work? It goes something like this:

1) Identify, in writing, what skills or knowledge you want a student to gain as a result of their time in class. For example: "Explain the causes of the rapid increase in globalization of the 16th century" - an outcome I'm currently using in my world history class.

2) Determine what a student would do in order to demonstrate high proficiency in the outcome. For example: "Speaks or writes confidently about at least five different causes of the rapid increase in globalization of the 16th century. Provides sound connections among the various causes. Makes no mistakes in historical accuracy."

3) Determine what a student would do in order to merely demonstrate proficiency in the outcome. For example: "Speaks or writes confidently about at least three different causes of the rapid increase in globalization of the 16th century. Makes only one or two minor mistakes in historical accuracy."

4) Then - and here's the beauty of the whole outcomes-based grading system - decide whether the evidence students provide you (i.e. the assignment they turn in - created either by the teacher or by the student) suggests the student is highly proficient, proficient, or not yet proficient. No points, no averaging, no percentages. Just your judgement, but based on relatively fair and previously communicated expectations.

A few more things that make this system extraordinarily superior to arbitrary points? If the teacher is organized enough to define his or her outcomes and indicators before beginning a unit, students have authentic opportunities to self-assess and peer-assess. They will, as a result, have a stronger feel for what they're supposed to be learning AND be empowered to have real conversations with the teacher about both his or her instruction and assessment of their learning.

No more points. No more pretending to be objective. No more averaging or handing out false percentages. No more extra-credit grubbing.

Lastly, and by no means least, outcomes-based grading is the foundation of meaningful differentiation. The teacher who plans his or her class by planning activities first and assessments second will be hard-pressed to create an alternative set of activities or assignments for students who struggle to engage (often because the activities' purpose is not completely clear in the mind of the teacher). However, the teacher who plans outcomes and assessments first and activities later will find: 1) by teaching students to use outcomes masterfully, students will differentiate for themselves - especially when students feel comfortable learning from each other, and 2) it's easier to come up with alternative activities when their purpose is crystal clear.

It took me a few years to figure this all out, but I got it. Just another one of those powerful pedagogical competencies that should remind us of the importance of teaching experience.


  1. This is fantastic! Nice to hear some clear thinking.

    I've also transitioned to a more outcome based focus and I differentiate more easily using this too.

    Thanks for your article!


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