Friday, October 9, 2015

Grades Should Report LEARNING

I think you may need to know where I'm coming from if you're going to read this post, so you don't think I'm just suddenly ranting out of thin air.

Early in my teaching career, I was all about the points. I've written before about my "bucket-o-points" approach to grading, and how I slowly shifted away from this perspective. (I encourage you to read the article linked above for that story.) But this is still a passion area for me, and I think most teachers aren't nearly mindful enough about our assessment practices, and more specifically, about our grading practices.

Okay, on with the post...


I was recently doing some reading in preparation for a lesson I'm teaching next week, and I am using John D. Mays's lovely little book Teaching Science so that Students Learn Science as a text for the course. While Mays is giving advice to science teachers in particular, much of what he has to say applies to teachers in general.

Take this gem, for instance:
What should it mean for a student to make an A in your science class? I argue that it should mean that if one walks up to that student without warning in July and asks her a question that relates directly to the basic learning objectives that were addressed in the class during the previous year, there is a good chance that she will still be able to give a decent answer to the question. ...If an A does not mean this, then what does it mean? It means that the student did a good job at completing all of the assignments and passing tests. But if the completion of those assignments does not result in the student knowing the material, why is the student doing them? (Mays, 2009, p. 78)
What do we make of this?

Is this what grades do? When a student gets an "A" in your class...does it mean she really understands the content? Or does it mean that she complied with your expectations?

I believe that a grade should report LEARNING.

Not effort.

Not attendance.

Not whether a student submitted all their homework on time.

Not compliance with jumping through the teachers' hoops.

Of course we want students to work hard, and show up, and be timely, and comply. Of course we do.

But that is not the purpose of a grade.

Or, at least, it should not be the purpose of a grade.

Grades should report a student's learning.

So now I'm thinking this: if your students are making "A" grades, but can't recall what they have learned...maybe it's time to rethink your assessment strategies...and perhaps your teaching strategies as well!



Mays, J. D. (2009). Teaching Science so that Students Learn Science: A Paradigm for Christian Schools. Austin, TX: Novare Science and Math.


  1. I tend to agree with what you're saying here. It's part of what's led me to specifications grading (more good reasons described here: ). An even more radical system is proposed here: Interestingly, the A/B/C/D/F paradigm is pretty new (, and while we're pretty far down that rabbit hole, you could make a compelling case that it's counterproductive to learning and relatively meaningless.

    I remember hearing about an article the Lincoln Journal Star did about the GPAs of different departments at the University of Nebraska (i.e., the grades awarded in all classes taught by different departments); the math department GPA was in the 2.5-3.0 range, while some departments in the humanities and social sciences had departmental GPAs of around 4.0, meaning that basically every student was getting an A in all courses taught by that department.

  2. Hi Dave! I saw your post on Twitter and was interested to read your perspective on grading. I'm in the process of redoing my assessment/grading practices for next school year, but I'm stuck on a few issues. Can you provide a little more detail about what assessments look like in your classroom?

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for asking! I am teaching in higher ed now, so I don't use my full standards-based assessment system anymore, but here is a link to my old school website where I shared my class policies, including my grading policy (I've linked directly to the grading policy here...)

      When I was conducting my M.Ed. work in the mid-2000s I was just a bit ahead of the curve for widespread use of standards-based assessment. You can access my thesis here, if you're interested. It describes an action research project I did to implement standards-based assessment and evaluation in my middle school science classes:

      I also have quite a few other posts sharing some of my thoughts about grading, which you can access here, if you are so inclined:

      Hope that gives a little food for thought. :-) If you have more questions, please ask, okay? Happy to help, if I can!