O’Connor (2010). Grades–When, Why, What Impact, and How?

O’Connor, K. (2010). Grades–When, Why, What Impact, and How? Education Canada, 50(2), 38–41.

“… ‘standards-based’ systems where the focus is on outputs (‘students will’) …” (p 38)

“These two parallel developments have led to a growing recognition of a mismatch between many traditional practices and the requirements of standards based, assessment-literate systems. Practices such as combining achievement and behaviour in grades, the use of penalties for ‘late work’, the use of zeros as punishments, and the role of homework in grading have all come into question.” (p 38)

“… history of grading, the purposes of grades, the impact of grades, and how grades have and should be determined.” (p 38)

“For the purposes of this article, a grade is defined as a symbol (letter or number) on a report card that summarizes student achievement. A mark or score is defined as the symbol (letter or number) given to any student test or performance that provides evidence of student achievement.” (p 38)

[“A Short History Of Grading” [1] …]

“Although student assessment and reporting on student achievement has been part of education for centuries, the use of grades is a fairly recent development. Prior to about 1880, reporting was in a narrative format and often simply listed the skills and concepts that each student had mastered, but by the late 1800s and early 1900s schools started to use letter or number symbols to summarize student learning. This reductionist movement began in universities, and then moved to K-12 schools, especially to high schools, in response to a growing student population. [2]” (p 38)

“… 1912 and 1913 of research studies by Starch and Elliot that showed the unreliability of teacher-marking using percentages, first in English and then in geometry. As a reaction to this research many schools turned to grading scales with three to five categories, and the five-level A-F scale had become a common approach by the early 1920s. … in the 1930s grading on the curve became increasingly popular, reflecting the common belief that student abilities were distributed along a normal curve.” (p 38)

“With increasing concerns about grading on a curve, some schools eliminated grades completely, some used narratives only, some moved to the use of pass/fail grading, while others moved to a mastery approach. Many schools also continued to use percentage or letter grades or some combination of the two. Thus by the 1950s there was wide variation in grading and reporting practices.” (p 39)

[“The Purpose Of Grades” …]

“Trumbull suggests that there have been three main purposes for grading: giving feedback, motivating, and sorting. [3] She expands these broad purposes as illustrated in Figure 1. [4]” (p 39)

“Trumbull’s list of purposes creates a serious problem: with so many purposes for grades, some of which conflict (sorting often conflicts with feedback), it is difficult to get a clear sense of direction.” (p 39)

“However, the critical point here is that ministries, schools, and school districts must clearly identify their primary purpose in grading – whatever it may be – so that subsequent decisions can flow from that purpose.” (p 39)

[“The Impact Of Grades” …]

“Grades are an efficient way to summarize student achievement and have traditionally been believed to motivate students to work hard and behave well. This has been the case for students who receive the grades that they expect or believe they deserve, but for students who receive grades lower than they expect or believe they deserve, grades have often been de-motivators.” (p 39)

“For students motivated by grades, their main impact has been to turn school into a grading ‘game’ not a learning ‘game’ because the student’s focus becomes the accumulation of points, not learning.” (p 39)

“For students not motivated by grades, the grade-driven economy of schools has caused them to withdraw from learning, frequently becoming behaviour problems and/or dropping out.” (p 39)

“Kohn states that ‘researchers have found three consistent effects of using – and especially, emphasizing the importance of — letter or number grades’: Grades reduce students’ interest in learning; Grades reduce students’ choice for challenging tasks; Grades reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” (p 40)

[“How Grades Are Determined”]

“For most of the history of grades, the mission of schools was seen as sorting students into a reliable rank order so that they could be appropriately placed into educational programs and the world beyond school. But over the last twenty years the mission of schools has changed; it is now to ensure that all students have met essential learning goals.” (p 40)

[“Reference Points”]

[“Purpose and Use of Assessments” …]

“… assessment _of_ learning (summative assessment) and assessment _for_ learning (formative assessment). … formative assessments support learning by providing students with descriptive feedback that they can use to improve. This has significant implications for classroom practice and is supported by a large and growing body of research demonstrating that when formative assessment is done well, subsequent student achievement improves dramatically. [10]” (p 40)

[“The Quality of Assessment”]

“… it is now essential that all teachers are assessment literate and understand that quality assessments require clear learning goals, clear purpose, and sound design. The latter requires target-method match and assessments that are well written, well sampled, and free of bias or distortion.” (p 40)

[“The Basis for Grades”]

“… ‘Nobody wants to fly with a pilot who scored 50 percent on his or her exams in flight training school. Pass/fail cutpoints are an outdated relic of norm-referenced approach to grading.’ [11]” (p 40)

[“Ingredients included in Grades”]

“If the focus is on learning goals, it is essential that grades be as pure measures of achievement as possible without penalties for such behaviours as handing assessment evidence in late.” (p 40)

[“The Appropriateness of the Mean as THE Measure”]

“… there has been a growing realization that consideration should be given to the median or mode as a more accurate summary of student achievement. There has also been increasing recognition that no measure of central tendency adequately allows for appropriate representation of more recent achievement, … an exercise in professional judgement.” (p 40)

“… consensus about what is best practice in grading has emerged. [14]” (p 41)

Selected references

  • [1] The information in this section has mostly been obtained from T. R. Guskey and J. M. Bailey, Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2001).
  • [2] B. Farr, “Grading Practices: An Overview of the Issues,” in Grading and Reporting Student Progress in an Age of Standards, eds. E. Trumbull and B. Farr (Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon, 2000), 4.
  • [3] E. Trumbull, “Why Do We Grade – And Should We?” in Trumbull and Farr, 24.
  • [8] A. Kohn, “From Degrading to De-grading,” HighSchool Magazine (March, 1999).
  • [10] P. Black and D. Wiliam. 1998. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment” Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 2 (October, 1998): 139-148.
  • [11] D. Cooper, Talk About Assessment: High School Strategies and Tools (Toronto: Nelson, 2010), 188.
  • [14]
    • C. A. Tomlinson and J. McTighe. Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design (ASCD, Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006): 129-134;
    • R. Stiggins et al, 2004. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing it Right, Using it Well (Portland, OR: ETS, 2004), 312;
    • A. Davies, S. Herbst and B. Parrott Reynolds, Transforming Barriers to Assessment for Learning (Courtenay, B.C.: Connections Publishing, 2008), 113-114;
    • Cooper, 208-213;
    • K. O’Connor, How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards. 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2009), 247-248;
    • K. O’Connor, A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (Portland, OR: ETS, 2007), 14-15.
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