Which do you care about more - Learning or Grading?

Educators always answer that question with Learning.  And if you've spent much time on The Assessment Network, you know that our focus is to help educators use assessment FOR the purpose of learning - rather than to help ecucators figure out new grading systems.  

So while our goal is to explore best practices related to assessment so we can increase learning, the reality is that in order to do so we must spend some amount of time examining our grading practices.  It's not that grading practices are the focus, but many traditional grading practices have a negative impact on our ability to provide the type of feedback that leads to learning and on our ability to get students to focus on learning - rather than on "earning" a grade.

One traditional grading practice that has such an impact is an overreliance on creating mathematical formulas to determine a student's grade on a particular assignment.  Based on our stated priority - Learning - we should instead be developing methods for providing descriptive feedback that helps students learn.  Instead, our profession tends to try to develop just the right formula to "calculate a grade," thereby practicing assessment for GRADING rather than assessment for LEARNING

For example, take a look a the scored rubric below.  Pretend this rubric was used in your class.  The student had an assignment that covered 4 standards or topics - 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4.  You've scored the assignment as evidenced by the Xs in the boxes. 

Based on this rubric, what letter grade ( A, B, C, D, or F) would you think the student should receive for this assignment?


If you said B, then you answered the same as almost every single educator who has seen this rubric.

When educators are shown this rubric, they tend to think the student should receive a B.  After all, in 3 of the 4 standards the student was marked as being in the 2nd best (out of 5) category.  Perhaps because in one standard the student was marked in the middle category, the student might receive a B minus, if "shades of B-ness" must be used.  But most teachers would use their professional expertise to classify this student as roughly a B student on this assignment.

But, unfortunately, in an attempt to be objective, educators often find the need to "hide" behind mathematical formulas.  They choose to let fractions, rather than professional expertise, make grading decisions and choose to provide grade information rather than learning-focused feedback. 

Here's what that same rubric might look like when a formula is applied to it:


In this scenario the student would receive a total of 15 points (4+4+3+4) out of a possible 20.  This fraction would then be converted to a percentage and the student would receive a 75%.  Depending on the school system, this 75% would either be a C or a D.

But when we first analyzed the rubric, our professional expertise and instinct told us this student was in the B range on this assignment.  Why then would we allow a mathematical formula to tell us the student should receive a C or a D?  Why would we remove our expertise from the decision?  More importantly, though, why would we get ourselves caught up in a "grading game"?  Why would we employ practices that lead to students arguing about a grade or scrambling to earn more points when, instead, we could employ practices that provided feedback useful for learning?

Here's another way to use that same rubric:


By using this rubric, we prevent ourselves from getting caught up in a numbers game.  We're not arguing between 75 or 76 or 77.  It's very easy to see that, by and large, this student should be rated in the B range.  We don't need 100 different points of rating to determine that this student falls into the B range - and frankly, does it really matter where in the B range the student falls?  Because we're most interested in learning, right?  Therefore, we don't really care about the B or the 75 or whatever the grade is.  We care about providing feedback that will help a student learn, correct?

A numerical score of 75 leads to 1 of 2 things.  It leads either to:

  1. A debate about the grading system, or
  2. A request by the student to earn more points

But if we provide feedback in the form of a letter grade that is not necessarily the result of a mathematical formula, we have the potential to get students to ask questions about how they can improve their learning, especially if the letter grade feedback is attached to descriptive feedback.

What if you used a descriptive chart like the one below that was created by Math teachers at Salem High School in Salem, Virginia?


A chart like this one attaches a descriptive meaning to the letter grades.  The B no longer means that the student received 80-89% or 87-93% of the possible points.  Instead, we now know that:

  • In 3 of the 4 standards the student has a strong understanding but a fair number of mistakes are still being made;
  • To improve to the A level in these standards, the student needs to check his/her work and strive to reach a point of complete understanding as evidenced by little to no mistakes and the ability to lead someone else; and
  • In 1 of the standards assessed the student shows a basic understanding of the concepts but needs a lot more practice as evidenced by his/her ability to start but then the tendency to get stuck..  

The descriptions in the chart above might not be the perfect ones for your class or your grade or your school, but they are examples of feedback that is much more learning-focused than typical fraction-based grading practices.  If our goal was just sorting and selecting students, then perhaps a focus on an assessment OF learning based on fractions would suffice.  But we are in the business of unlocking human potential to help all students learn and grow.  Therefore, we need to focus on assessment FOR learning and descriptive feedback.

Please don't fall into the trap of thinking a mathematical formula is more objective than your expertise.  You know much more about learning and about your students and about their growth than a formula does.  Use your expertise to provide descriptive feedback.  Tell your students where they are and what they need to do - not so they can earn enough numerator points to raise their grade but so they can master the important content and skills you teach.

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  • I like how the grading scale given does not allow for less than a C. It also does not allow for failure. I imagine after redoing something enough a student would learn to try to do his/her best the first time which would help keep them from slacking off on their work.

  • I agree, Elizabeth. There is such power in the use of descriptive feedback. And students tend to argue less about meaningful feedback than they do about points. We think we're being objective when we use points, but we actually subject ourselves to more valid critism.

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