The Kinds Of Grading Mistakes That Haunt Students

grading-mistakes-haunt-studentsThe Kinds Of Grading Mistakes That Haunt Students

by Terry Heick

Yesterday, Justin Tarte shared a thought about grading that’s indicative of a growing dissatisfaction with grading in education. So let’s take a look at what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, shall we?

Great point. Mark Barnes also recently started a facebook group for throwing out letter grades altogether. Clearly this is an issue, even if it’s not new.

Should grades support, report, or punish?

If to support, support who?

If to report, report what, and to whom?

If to punish–to “hold students accountable like in the real world,” does it work like that? Does this work for the students?

Who Do Letter Grades “Work” For?

Our current system of letter grades works well for many kinds of students. These are the students who learn to play the game. Form relationships with teachers. Can see the rules and parts of the games–which assignments matter, what the teacher values, how to format responses, how to use a rubric, how to study, and so on.

They also probably read and write fairly well. They value their own academic image–how people see them as a student. Their grades, GPA, and assortment of certificates and achievements are a source of intense pride for these students. The grades function as an extrinsic reward that push them to wade through whatever you put in front of them because they see themselves as “smart” and successful, and that’s what smart and successful students do.

Letter grades may help students that “hate school,” and come just for extracurricular activities. If they get the grades, they play; if not, they don’t. Grades simplify it all for them. In short, grades “work” for students who come to school for any reason other than intellectual curiosity, literacy, or understanding.

Which means they don’t work for anyone.

What Should Grades “Do”?

We’ve talked in the past about alternatives to the letter grade, but this is something slightly different–looking at the mistakes we make in grading so that we can better design systems to communicate progress and performance to students, parents, and communities. And that’s what we want “grades” to do, right? Historically, grading has been expected to do two things:

1. First and foremost, give students some kind of idea how they’re doing, because–in our system of teaching and learning–we’re the content experts and how else would they know? (Hopefully it’s clear how crazy this is.)

2. Secondly, work as a living, breathing document of their academic travels–what they’ve studied and how they performed therein? (And hopefully here, it’s obvious how woefully grades perform in this role.)

What about “begin to communicate the nuance of the habits, character, knowledge, and critical thinking ability of the student right here in front of you”? To not reflect failures, but affection? Potential? Creativity? There is a much larger conversation here about curriculum design, instructional design, literacy, learning models, and even technology. But if we isolate letter grades as they are used now in the system we have now with the thinking we use now, we are left with the following.

7 Grading Mistakes That Haunt Students

1. Grading too much

Or worse, grading everything. What sort of masochism makes us think this is a good idea? It’s an incredible workload for you, and doesn’t do them any favors. An alternative? Be very selective about what you grade. Choose assignments that aren’t threatening, or confusing in exactly what it is that you’re measuring. In short, don’t grade “practice,” grade landmark assignments.

Or have no landmark assignments at all–use a “climate” of assessment that adjusts for the day-to-day drudgery of a classroom, and simply uses tests, quizzes, exams, projects, and the like as part-and-parcel to the process of learning.

2. Highlighting weaknesses

As used, grades highlight weakness, deficiency, and mistakes, which only motivates the most well-balanced, dedicated, and supported students.

Offer corrections to performance rather than mechanisms to help students reflect.

3. Use letters and numbers

They’re reductive–artifacts from an old way of teaching and learning that valued the institutions and the flags they fly over the students themselves. There’s got to be a better way. (See gamification in learning and alternatives to the letter grade to get the conversation started.)

4. Equate grades with understanding

Most teachers worth their salt don’t make this mistake, but everyone else in education–from university admissions to parents to businesses to the students and their peers–do. Grades are, at best, a reflection of how well the teacher designed an assessment to reflect the language of a particular academic standard. At worst, they’re subjective conjurings that mislead.

5. Averaging numbers

See Justin Tarte’s tweet above. The learning process isn’t gas mileage.

6. Waiting too long to grade

After a certain point, it’s less about feedback or reporting, and more about students “wanting credit” and teachers “needing to get grades in.”

7. Making them fixed

Rather than flexible. (See below.)

8. Not using the data

That’s the point, yes–using data to revise planned instruction. Not using that data-and those corresponding grades–to make key adjustments that keeps learning in their “ZPD” is a problem, no?

Students:Letter Grades::You:Credit Rating

The closest analogue I can think of for adults is the credit score. It acts as a record of what you’ve borrowed and what you repaid and have not repaid in an effort to predict–for someone that doesn’t know you well enough to make an evaluation of their own–the likelihood that you’ll repay. This predictor is reduced down to a number, arrived it by some combination of both accurate and mistaken reporting on behalf of the companies you’ve borrowed money from.

Within this number there is a lot going on–how frequently you borrow, how much you borrow, errors that claim you still owe money you paid, open accounts you forgot about years ago, and so on. And the next time you apply for credit somewhere–to buy a car, a house, even a cell phone–this is the number lenders go by, with cut scores of their own .

But even credit scores have multiple reporting agencies, mistakes drop off after a certain amount of time, and there are ways to get mistakes fixed, and strategies to reestablish credit after years of less-than-perfect decision-making.

As flawed a system as credit rating is–and it’s awful–it’s downright brilliant compared to letter grades. So how can we design that kid of flexibility in our grading system? Or better yet, something light years better? Parts of gamification in learning may help–especially badges, unlocks, and achievements–but that’s not it either.

As it exists, our current system for grading sets up the students that need it the most to fail. It provides a laundry lists of weaknesses and failures that often haunt students the rest of their lives–paint them as this or not that. More often than not, they lock students out of possibility by offering inaccurate and subjective evaluations of performance without letting anyone in on the joke.

That’s the dirty little secret about grades–and the public doesn’t know. If we admit grades are exactly that–best guesses that summon an alphanumeric character to reflect a student’s performance in “our” class, then they’re probably fine. But if we want something more–something student-centered that to “begins to communicate the nuance of the habits, character, knowledge, and critical thinking ability of the student right here in front of you“?

Well then, we’ve got some work to do. And the answer may lie in a combination of learning models and technology.

The Kinds Of Grading Mistakes That Haunt Students


  • What about the *objectivity* of the instructor??? The instructor has their “favorites” and their “dumb kids” and everyone in between. The instructor has biases that they may nor may not really know about. That can affect how they deal with the various students that they instruct.

  • What a load of rhetoric; even the author has trouble keeping things straight!

    The author refers to Tarte’s tweet as a great point, and then almost immediately suggests that grades ought to be a record of a students “journey” (i.e., the “history” of their learning) – that’s not what Tarte suggested at all. Tarte wants to record the end point, not the progress.

    Grading is a necessary evil in our society, and it doesn’t matter whether those grades are numbers, or letters, or gold stars; they exist to provide a scale of achievement. You can’t tell how far you’ve progressed without some form of description of the distance between your start point and your current location.

    I find it disturbing that in our increasingly assesment-based society, the one place where pundits are screaming for LACK of assesment is in education; though only with regard to students, since teachers are certainly experiencing more performance assesment than ever before.

    It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the pundits want to remove teachers from teaching, as much as possible, and replace them with larger classrooms and technological devices. Even a few minutes perusing current educational “issues” easily reveals the big business interests that are driving current “pedagogy”. Current tech is largely incapable of meaningful assessment, so they seek to vilify teachers, and promote an assesment-less learning environment.

    And the general public will likely continue to fall for it.

    • Thanks for the passionate reply.

      I used Tarte’s tweet as an example of how we continuously make mistakes in grading, not to hold it up as the model for how we should grade. I don’t provide such a model either. This is indeed a “load of rhetoric”–as in, a post that simply hopes we can be more thoughtful about what we grade, how, and when. It isn’t a model, framework, or research.

      I couldn’t follow the rest of your criticism–at least as it regards to refuting some the thinking in the original post, so I’m not sure what else to say.

      • My apologies that it was difficult to follow – I wrote it in haste during my commute. I’ll try better to explain.

        I’m simply referring to the overall message, combined with the last statement of the article. The overall message (as I read it, at least) is that there are issues with how grades are assigned, and what they actually reflect. I agree there are always such issues by the way.

        The last statement refers to learning models and technology as possible solutions. It does this in a manner that suggests that “learning models and technology” are something new, when, in contrast, “learning models and technology” have been part of education and learning for thousands of years. Naturally, the models and technologies themselves have changed, but what we have now is exactly the product of those models and tech, so suggesting that models and tech might be the solution is nothing more than simply saying, “let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing”! Since the article obviously is not intended to say such a thing (quite the opposite, it seems), then it is likely intended to suggest that some “specific” model and/or technology will be educations saving grace. So then, the question becomes, “which model, and which tech”?

        Then, when the reflective reader looks back on the article, one sees the telltale language of the current educational paradigm that is insidiously linked to big-business interests (i.e., “innovations” like on-line learning; curriculum designed by industry to produce skilled employees rather than independent thinkers; curriculum linked to publication, electronics tech, and media giants that threaten to privatize the education system for profit; etc.); terms like “gamefication”, “student-centered”, and references to the “old way” of teaching.

        Whether the article was written intentionally from that perspective or not (and I hope it was, otherwise it suggests the author is epistemologically unaware of how such paradigms shape one’s perspective), it is another piece on the dissatisfaction bandwagon that turns blind faith toward the tired, modernist perspective that we will somehow be saved from the social responsibility of teaching and learning (and the imperfections associated with that) by some future impersonal technology. Take the people out of teaching, and anybody with the right media and tech can then “sell” you your education.

        Just remember, you get what you pay for.

        • I was vague about the roles of technology and learning models to “correct” these issues mainly because I’m not sure what that would look like.

          I think we’re thinking of learning models differently. To me, a “learning model” can be anything from self-directed learning, to an “official” model like Montessori, and so on. None of these have to have anything to do with big business. I share your concerns, but I don’t see how any of this portends a privatized, for-profit, corporate-driven educational system. It doesn’t have to be that way.

      • I am with you, Terry. One of the points that you make is so on point that I have to mention it. You talk about the fallacy of grading everything. As a parent, it irks me to no end to see that my son gets “points” for handing in his learning contract, for homework, and for all other sorts of things that should be part of learning to be responsible, but does not need to be reflected in his grade for the subject. Put it in a citizenship grade if you must, but don’t average it with the other important assessments that reflect his learning of the subject. I want to see what skills he has mastered and what he needs work on, not a grade that incorporates that other stuff. I like the idea of formative assessment being the bulk of assessment practices in the classroom, wherein feedback is given on a regular basis and children have a chance to practice and improve their skills before a summative exam.

        I agreed with the other points made, too, but that first one hit home with me at this point in my son’s academic career.

        Also, I simply don’t get the connection between this post and big business. Perhaps that’s just me, though.

  • @ notquitebaldguy, your own rhetoric is showing. If a “C” should be representative of “progress” when the student started out with an “F”, try telling that to a college or an ill-informed parent or student. Assessment should be a record of the students’ journey, but not the final grade.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with assessment, but if there are legitimate questions about what it is and why it’s done, those had better be answered before a permanent record gets attached.

  • I agree that mastery is what is most important, but here’s a mistake I see many teachers make: they accept a draft, or allow students to rewrite a poor submission, then instruct the student in exactly what was wrong and how to fix it. The student simply fixes according to the teacher’s edits, resubmits, and gets an “A”. They haven’t mastered anything, demonstrated when they submit the next assignment, but the process starts over. At some point the student needs to demonstrate new skills and knowledge. This occurred to me when Terry supported the view that we shouldn’t “average” scores. I would also advise new teachers not to offer too much extra credit for a similar reason. I support the idea that mastery is most important, but we need to be careful that our assessments demonstrate it.


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