Six Steps Toward Fair and Accurate Grading

Another school year ended this week. With that comes the dreaded chore of entering students’ final grades.

In a perfect world, teachers would be able to “just” teach and the concept of recording grades would not exist. Teachers would teach for the purpose of sharing their content expertise with students who worked hard for the joy of gaining knowledge.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world.

Teachers grading student papers.

Grading is inherently a subjective process. There are many ways to make it less so, but there are so many factors that go into assigning a final report card grade that my priority is to make sure the grades I record are as valid and reliable as possible.

Some schools have taken steps towards more equitable, valid grades such as using the Standards Based Grading system, allowing re-dos and re-takes, building portfolios, and utilizing student-led conferences. However, the majority of schools have not.

Most schools still use the traditional system we all grew up with. The good news is that even if we are among the multitudes who don’t teach in a grade-less utopia, there are steps we can all take to become more accurate and equitable in our grading policies.

My Own Search for Fair and Accurate Grading

I used to teach an Assessment and Evaluation teacher education course at Eastern Michigan University. One of my greatest influences when developing this course (as well as my personal grade policy) was Rick Wormeli. His list of Grading Malpractices in the first edition of Fair Isn’t Always Equal struck a chord with me when I first read them, and I try to implement his suggestions with as much fidelity as possible within the confines of my current teaching situation.

Other experts I consult often are W. James Popham, Ken O’Connor, Susan Brookhart, and James McMillan. I have boiled down what I have learned about responsible grading from these experts and how I incorporate them into my own practice into six “first steps” all of us can take.

1. Establish Clear Criteria for Graded Work

Students can’t hit a target they can’t see, so be sure to thoroughly explain and model what a student will be expected to do and how you will assess the final product. If you use a rubric (I use single-point rubrics for larger projects and written assignments), provide it when you explain the assignment so that all involved understand the expectations.

Student holding exam results.

2. Reconsider the Zero

Like most teachers, I used to record a zero in my gradebook for missing work. Once I attended a Rick Wormeli presentation about how the zero grade is mathematically unfair on a 100-point scale, I quit using it immediately.

Now, for the rare occasion when no credit is earned, I use the highest “F” score available to me, which in my case is a 59%. This ensures that one blip does not destroy a student’s entire marking period grade and does not result in a lower grade that does not necessarily represent the child’s knowledge of the content.

3. Don’t Include Homework and Formative Assessment

Athletes are not graded on daily practice because they use that time and those drills to improve their performance under the guidance of a good coach. They are only scored during the game when it counts. This is analogous to why homework and formative assessments should count for very little in the final grade.

Other reasons to make homework a small part (if any part) of the final grade are:

First, the only level playing field is your classroom. Unless you can ensure that all students have equal access to time, adult assistance, technology, and materials outside of school (and of course you cannot), you should not make work done outside of your room a significant portion of their grade.

Second, my rule of thumb with homework is “if it can be copied, it will be.” The majority of homework I see assigned does not incorporate original thought, but rather practicing a skill. (See “practice” above.)

Third, we have all had students who rarely or never do homework but earn high marks on final assessments. This just shows that this student does not need to complete a worksheet to understand a topic and his or her grade should not be lowered as a result of failing to do unneeded practice.

4. Consider Using Weighted Grading Categories

Most teachers I know are married to the idea of grading schemes using straight points. A straight-points system is easy for students, teachers, and parents to understand because it just means that all points a student earned are divided by the maximum earnable points.

There are two points to make here:

First, if one goes back and looks at the grade calculations at the end of the marking period, a straight-points system almost always skews heavily toward homework and classwork and not toward summative assessments. Unless teachers are so supremely organized that they know in advance every single item of graded work and can determine how to make sure that final tests, quizzes, and projects are worth the majority of points, the math rarely works out to “fair and accurate” in the end.

Grading - young girl holding up hands in victory.

Second, a category system (for example, Formative Assessments are worth 25% of final grade and Summative Assessments are worth 75%) allows for flexibility in number and types of assignments. The number of points per item is irrelevant as they get averaged by category at the end.

Yes, this does take some explaining by the teacher at the outset so that students and parents understand the concept, but I have had much more success using a category system than total points. It also makes the final grade more reflective of the child’s actual abilities because – for example – a child cannot earn an A in the course merely by completing all the homework and getting Cs on tests and quizzes.

5. Grade Students as Individuals

Though it is becoming less common, there are still examples of students being graded on a curve in order to force a certain distribution of scores. This is unethical for many reasons. Another unethical practice is assigning group grades to group work. There are many ways to avoid this, but the easiest is to consider group work as ungraded practice as there is almost no way to determine an accurate group score.

6. Only Include Academic Performance in Grading

First, extra credit should be eliminated. Every fall, I see teachers post on social media about giving students extra credit for bringing in hand sanitizer, paper, or tissues. This is an unethical use of points. Likewise, giving extra credit or bonus points on a test or quiz can skew the final test score and does not represent what a student learned.

Extra credit should never be assigned for out of class work for the same reasons listed under homework above. Finally, incorporating extra credit allows students to earn more than 100% for the course which should never be mathematically possible.

Second, behavior should not be incorporated into final scores. Measuring factors such as academic dishonesty, late work, missing homework, using an improper heading on a paper, forgetting their name, classroom behavior, or class participation ends up painting a misleading picture of the student as a learner. What’s more, it sets grades up to be punitive in nature, and grades should never be used as rewards or punishments.

These First Steps Can Make a Difference

As I shared earlier, I taught an entire semester course in this material and there is so much more to share. But taking even these first baby steps toward improving classroom grading practices will help ensure that our classroom scores are more fair and more accurate and more focused on authentic academic growth and development.

This video by Cult of Pedagogy shows you how to use rubric codes to grade student writing, a way that keeps the feedback but cuts way down on the time.

This article was originally posted on MiddleWeb by Cheryl Mizerny.

Cheryl Mizerny
Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 25 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.