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.

Gaming the System

I was talking to a colleague of mine about the current accountability system that is used for public education in Texas, which I am sure is a lot like other systems around the country, and he mentioned something that stuck with me and made me think for a few days.  We were discussing how to educate principals on the accountability system and how to help principals improve their students’ performance.  My colleague was talking about how he was going over some data points and the principal asked a question about AP tests.  The principal wanted to know how the school could increase the number of students who take the AP assessments, without decreasing the percentage of students who pass the AP assessments.  My colleague called this “gaming the accountability system”.  I am sure that many other administrators have thought about this, how to get the most improvement on the accountability system with a specific strategy, or attempting to get “more bang for their buck”.  But is this what we want as educators and educational leaders?  Do we really want to settle on focusing on specific student populations, specific content areas, and specific assessments with the only goal of improving accountability scores?  It seems as if we as educators are setting our goals to meet standardized tests and accountability systems.  But is this why you got into education?  There is a reason that you can think of a favorite teacher, but not of a favorite assessment.  Our students and all children deserve better than educational leaders “gaming the system”.

Gaming the system has been going on as long as there has been a system, and not just by principals or school administrators.  Teachers have been attempting to game the system, even if they are not planning on it.  In previous years, when the accountability system was just about how many students could pass a test, teachers would focus their instruction and time on the students who were close to being able to pass the assessment so that the passing rates would increase.  I am not blaming the teachers, it is the system that they found themselves in and thus did what they thought was best to meet this system.  But why is this the system that we have in the first place?  Where did the idea about testing students to determine if schools were functioning at high levels come from?  Here is a quick overview of the modern history of testing in the United States:

The US started to notice a decline in test scores starting after World War I, a military exam was modified to determine the best suited for further education and higher-employment (Petersen & West, 2003, p. 3). We know this test better as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. By the 1950’s this test became a requirement for entrance into most colleges in the nation. Soon this test eventually became a tool for a measure of public schools’ achievement (Schmidt 2008). But then in the 1960’s SAT scores began to decline and the American public and government became concerned and sought to intervene by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson developed a multi-tiered educational reform that identified the correlation between low-test scores and students living in poverty, provided funding to schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students, and thus, intended to improve educational opportunities for minority and lower-class children in an attempt to raise the test scores for the entire nation. This funding program is known as Title I (Schmidt 2008).

Then in 1983, Terrel H. Bell published the now famous A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in America. The report claimed that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (Bell, 1983). This report increased the level of concern of parents and government officials for the state of the public education system in the United States. Another concern that came from the report was the US’s low ranking when compared to scores of students from other countries throughout the world. Even though this report became a rallying cry for educational reform, it actually never influenced any federal reform.

Then in the 1990’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) became a hot button topic, as this was a non-biased testing agency that recorded how students from across the nation were performing and if there was improvement in different states. In the state of Texas, a testing program to hold districts and students accountable was in use and NAEP scores began to rise. As governor at the time, George W. Bush was convinced that testing and accountability was at the core of this rise in the NAEP scores. He took these ideas to the White House when he became president in 2000, and was able to pass the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. Even though “Texas is cited as a state in which the increase in the percentage of students meeting the standards was paralleled by increases in the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the low level of the state’s tests and the very different trend lines of the state and NAEP tests call this conclusion into question. More troubling still is that the increase in test scores was not accompanied by increases in outcomes of high value, such as increased high school completion or college attendance” (Mathis, 2003).  I believe that in education, many politicians are attempting to game the system even before the system is in place.  Education has many variables, which creates a complex system that is never black and white, but an infinite number of shades of gray.  But for politicians to win elections, they need money and votes.  I believe to obtain money and votes, they have to show people that things are either working or not working.  The easiest way to do this is to show one number (test score) and then show if it is going up or down.  Very easy to understand, but in this case, basically informs the populace of nothing.  And if we have an uninformed or misinformed populace, it is very easy to manipulate.  Which is why I feel public education is the most important aspect of a functioning democracy.  (For more information about this, you can read the transcripts from CNN’s High Stakes: The Battle to Save our Schools which details how the testing model was created in Houston, TX and even at that time, many were gaming the system.)

So as educators and leaders, what should we do?  Should we continue to set our sites low and just game the system to improve the school’s scores, or should we aim higher?  I believe that we as educators need to create a vision of education that allows all students to succeed and become problem solvers of the future. We cannot make this a simple system where all we focus on is the assessments and accountability system.  Educators should NOT be “Data Driven”! I believe educators need to be STUDENT DRIVEN and data informed.  Students are why we are here and we owe it to ALL of them to become better people, informed people, people who ask questions and solve problems, not just be able to answer standardized questions or only focus on the small group of students who can help us to increase our school’s ratings.  How do we do this?  I don’t believe there is an easy answer to this or just one answer to this.  It is too complicated of a problem to be able to answer it in one sentence or one paragraph, and especial in one blog post.  What I do believe is that we need passionate and engaged educators who have a different type of knowledge base.  In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman introduced a term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom as “pedagogical content knowledge” referring to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). “Conceived as complementary to general pedagogical knowledge and general knowledge of subject matter, the concept of pedagogical content knowledge was thought to include familiarity with topics children find interesting or difficult, the representations most useful for teaching a specific content idea, and learners’ typical errors and misconceptions” (Hill, Ball & Schilling, nd, p.5).  I agree with Shulman that teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge, but I also feel that there is a vital part missing, teachers building relationships with their students.  This may be even more important that pedagogy and content knowledge.  Teachers need to build positive relationships with their students, care about their students’ well being, and know where each student is coming from.  With this addition, teachers would know the content (what to teach), the pedagogy (how to teach), and relationships with students (who they are teaching).  This is a trifecta of teaching for student learning, which is a lofty aspiration, but one that I am willing to chase instead of just gaming the system.

Stay tuned, as I may discuss the trifecta in a future bolt post.  I would love to hear your feedback and questions as my main goal for this blog is to open conversations and create questions.  I feel questioning ideas are at the heart of problem solving and vital to education and growth.

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.

Bell T.C., (1983). A Nation at Risk. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from

Hill, H., Ball, D., & Schilling, S., (nd). Developing measures of teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching. Unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Mathis, William., (2003). No Child Left Behind Costs and Benefits. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from

Peterson P.E., & West M.R., (Eds.). (2003). No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of Accountability. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Schmidt, Tom. (2008) Scratching the Surface of No Child Left Behind: How No Child Left Behind Unfairly Affects Schools with Significant Proportions of Disadvantaged Students. Dominican University of California p1-39.