What Are Grades For, and Why Should We Care?

I hope that back-to-school is going smoothly for all of you. I also hope that this post begins the fulfillment of a promise I made a while ago to have a running conversation on the importance of linking grades to standards for the improvement of student achievement.

Some of this dialog will be cross-posted on the Edublogger wiki discussion on standards-based grading.


Any discussion of grading should begin with a common understanding of what grades are for, who needs to know what grades tell about a student, and what grades should and should not describe, and why.

In his book Transforming Classroom Grading, Robert Marzano (2000) cites the work of measurement expert Peter Airasian (1994) who tells us that grades can serve a number of purposes, including administrative (to decide on who moves through the system and who does not); guidance (based on grades, what a student should or should not pursue vocationally – a very suspect use, in my opinion); feedback about student achievement (no surprise here); instructional planning (try to steer clear of tracking — a bad word these days); and motivation (beware, very difficult to substantiate).

Marzano concludes, not surprisingly, that the primary purpose of student grading is to provide feedback (accurate, undistorted, valid, and reliable) about student achievement. All other uses for grades flow from that, whether the consumers of grading information are parents, counselors, administration, admissions officers, or the students themselves.

It’s also interesting to note that when Bob Marzano conducts professional development sessions on grading and asks his audiences of teachers if they have ever received grades that were not indicative of their academic achievement in a course of study, virtually all raise their hands. When he asks about their total school achievement report, 50% or so indicate that the grades they received did not reflect what they learned in school.

If teachers don’t trust grades, why should anyone else?

Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming Classroom Grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Airasian, P. (1994). Classroom Assessment, 2nd ed.. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


3 thoughts on “What Are Grades For, and Why Should We Care?

  1. In answering your question, my hunch is simply that we currently don’t have any other communication measures in place. Grades—especially at the secondary level—are assumed to do that.

    From what I’ve heard, many high schools that tried to use other communication measures returned to “traditional” grades because of pressure from colleges. Admissions offices weren’t equipped to evaluate the candidacy of students if there was no regular transcript—and kids’ college careers were hurt as a result.

    For me, the bottom line isn’t that grades are bad. It’s what they represent that we really need to clean up in our schools.

  2. Great post (again).

    I have moved to standards-based rubrics, which I can then compute into a traditional number grade. Since doing this I have felt more accurate and more comfortable with my grading.

    I also use categories for my grading, which ranges from tests/quizzes to literary analysis to the final. This way the students can immediately see their weaknesses and no one weakness can destroy an overall grade. I feel more just in my grading now and hope to continue improving this area of my classes.

  3. The problem with grading is not with grades per se, but with that they mean to different constituents.

    Parents and students (or anyone outside the school system) may not have the time, energy or ability to understand what a report card means or what letter grades mean unless they are explained simply and sensibly.

    If you must use Grades, let grades distinguish one type of performance from another and allow an explanation of what can be done to improve.

    I take you back to 3 simple and easy conditions to guarantee clear & credible reports that encourage actionability (excerpted from Wiggins’ Educative Assessment):

    1. A Stable, known and credible basis for comparing students’ performance to some standards, grade-level experience, cohort norms or a combination of these, must be clear.

    2. Relative weight attached to the diverse factors that make up grades – achievement, progress, habits, attitudes and conduct- must be made explicit and kept uniform across students, teachers and times.

    3. Any summary judgements must be supported by data. The ideal report card enables readers to see grades, scores and comments as justified, based on documentation.

    If this happens, maybe teachers will go back to finding grading useful.

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