How Grades can Actually Improve Student Achievement

Grades are a funny thing to me as an educator. For parents and students, they are the “end all be all” of what happened in my class and what I gave the student. From my perspective as the teacher, they were the “end all be all” of what the student did in my class. These are two very different views of grades, and yet I still feel that grades are an antiquated system that is in need of a much needed update. Traditionally students receive either a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F) or a percentage grade out of 100%. When a student receives a grade of a ‘B’ or an 84% on an assignment, what does this really tell them about their understanding of a concept? The student may think they are above average or that they have the information mastered, or more likely, they think, thank God I passed. In my opinion traditional grades like these tell the student and parents little about their understanding!

These types of traditional grades only lets the students know their overall performance on an assignment or assessment. It does not let the student know what they have mastered, where they need improvement, and most importantly, how they can improve. Of course if you have a high achieving student who spends time in metacognition, then they will analyze their personal understandings and determine where they need to improve. And as educators, we know that all of our students do this (did I lay the sarcasm on thick enough?). So how can we as educators use grading in a different way that will help students to improve and also take ownership of their learning?

One way is to shift from traditional grades to standard based grades. Standard based grading allows students to see where they need improvement and with some added formative feedback, the students can see how to improve. Standards based grading is not new and you can even view a short video that gives a synopsis here: Basically teachers determine what is important for students to learn or understand, which in most cases come from state standards or the Common Core standards, and then develop assessments (projects, assignments, quizzes, tests, etc.) that would allow students to showcase their understanding. This should sound familiar to many of you if you have read anything from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins as it is based on their Backwards Design plan.

Next, the educators develop a rubric for the objective that is being assessed. This sounds like a lot of work, and to be honest, it can be. But I feel that this is necessary to ensure that the students understand where they are going, where they are at now, and how to reach the next level. Let’s say that we are a 5th grade, reading teacher in Texas. Texas developed their own objectives known as the Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills (TEKS), so let’s pretend that we are working on TEKS 5.3A – Compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction. This then would become the goal for all of our students that they would be able to compare and contrast themes from different fictional stories.

Looking at the objective, I would really want my students to be able to compare and contrast. But what does that really mean? Many times educators have objectives with these types of verbs and it is vital that the teachers understand what they mean so that students can work towards them. I would want to sit down with a team of teachers and define what it means to be able to compare and contrast. This is also a great activity to do with educators for all of the objectives they are responsible for, as it allows the teachers to feel more comfortable with the objectives and the expectations that they bring. For help with defining these verbs, I found a great resource that came from the International Baccalaureate program and that you can access here: Now that the teachers have determined the expectation for the students, this becomes the beginning of the rubric. I would set up my rubric in the following manner:

1-2 Points The student is able to identify the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
3-4 Points The student is able to paraphrase the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
5-6 Points The student is able to summarize the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.
7-8 Points The student is able to compare and contrast the themes or moral lessons of several works of fiction.

I would then work backwards to determine what each descending aspect would mean. This could be as simples as changing the verb. Look at my example above to see what I came up with. Remember, I do not believe this is perfect, but it would be a great place to start and by working with other educators, I am positive that we could create a working rubric that is of high quality.

The rubric is not enough for a student to receive a grade (now a 4 or 6 or whatever) and know how to improve. Yes, they know the ultimate goal and where they are performing, but it is up to the educator to provide formative feedback to help the student understand what to work on to move up to a higher score. For our example, let’s say a student received a 5 on their assessment covering themes. This lets the student know that they are able to summarize themes, but are not quite to the level of comparing and contrasting. If the student is given feedback that lets them know that they can determine the major points of a stories’ theme, but they need to be able to give an account of the similarities and differences between two (or more) themes, referring to both of them throughout. As a student, I now know that I need to relate the two themes and that I need to practice looking at both themes and determining how they are alike and how they are different. Of course, the student will also need support from the teacher to do this, but at least they are not in the dark about how to improve. Can we say the same thing if the student just got a ‘B’ or an 87% back? I think not! This is crucial to allowing students in on their education. There is no need for a student to have to guess at how to become better, it is up to the teacher to assist in this.

You may be now saying, “Yeah that is great and all, but I work in a school that gives traditional grades and these grades represent GPAs that are needed for students to be accepted to colleges.” I hear you and I couldn’t agree more. But that is the great thing about developing the rubrics; you can then also create a conversion chart to go back to the traditional grading system. One example of this would be the following:

  • 7-8 = A
  • 5-6 = B
  • 4 = C
  • 2-3 = D
  • 1 = F

Or you could format it any other way to meet your district’s grading system.

I will also say that by shifting to a more standards based grading system combined with formative feedback, your parent-teacher conferences and conversations will be much more helpful and worth while. The reason being is that the parents will already know where their student is struggling and how to help them improve. There is no more guesswork as to how to get to a higher grade. It is all in the rubric, along with the formative feedback. Now your conversations with parents can focus on actionable steps that the student could practice or resources to go over to help the student improve their understanding and performance. I also believe that this type of system will allow your students to take more ownership of their learning because there is now a roadmap for them to follow. And isn’t that what we truly want for our students anyways? I know that is a goal for me.

If you have any questions about this, please leave feedback and I will comment back. Also, if you have suggestions on how to improve this system, I would love to learn from you as well. It would be great to hear from an educator who attempts this and then lets me know how it went and what they would modify or change. We can all learn from each other, just as students can learn from our peers. We don’t have to go it alone in our classrooms!

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.


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