Purifying Grades

Disclosure: I’ve been out of the classroom for a while. But I continue to teach in a variety of ways. And there is no part of instructional practice to which I have devoted more study over the last fifteen years or so than grading practices. This blog is designed to provide practical examples of how to get better at grading. This is one such story.

Our grades are corrupted. If you doubt me, check out a grade distribution of your school or district. I saw a district level grade distribution (all subjects, all grade levels) a couple of weeks ago that made me wince: nearly 75% A’s and B’s.  In some schools, it was more than 90% A’s and B’s. The problem I have with this distortion is that no other evidence of student learning suggests that students are achieving at the level these grades seem to imply. No matter how you measure learning (and I am a rabid critic of standardized testing), there is no evidence that the majority of our students have mastered a majority of what they are supposed to. If grades don’t mean what they are supposed to, surely they don’t mean anything at all. If that is the case, we are simply teaching students to work the system to get the symbol they want. Tangentially, we teach them that same lesson in lots of other ways too; just check the bumper stickers in pick up line or the staff parking lot this afternoon.

What’s the implication here? A grade should communicate the degree to which the student has demonstrated mastery of the learning targets or standards … and nothing else. So forget “standards-based grading”. Forget all the discussion about the nuance of what to do and how to record and how to report. Let’s start with the simple notion that our grades are impure because there are factors in them that don’t belong there. All those factors need to be stripped out. Our grades need to be purified. Make no mistake though: just as the process of refining gold (or other metals) is hot, difficult and dangerous so is the process of digging out and burning off all that other fluff in grades.

Here’s how I did it.

  • Told the students exactly what I was doing. I said “I don’t really care about your grade, I care about your learning. Your grade will be an accurate reflection of the evidence of your learning. Let’s keep our eye on learning all the time. If you want a better grade, keep learning.” They got it. They bought in. They held me to high standards. Did I mention that these were seniors who had 12 years of being inculcated with the pursuit of grades and point grubbing? It still worked.
  • Ended extra credit. I said “Giving extra credit is the same thing as lying about the evidence of your learning. I love you too much to lie about where you are on the learning journey.” They wanted their extra credit. But most of the time, that was really code for “Mr. Maxey, I want a better symbol of learning but I don’t want to learn more; what deal can we make”. And, as I said, I refused to lie no matter how many tissue boxes and cans of soup anyone donated.
  • Made actual evidence of learning worth most of the grade. I never completely eliminated from the gradebook homework or other assignments that I knew perfectly well were more about completing the assignment than about evidence of learning. Sometimes I wish I could teach at least one more year so I could find the courage to take the step of eliminating that final 10% of gradebook fluff. But it was a smaller part of the grade every year and I was intimidated in my solitude of practice.
  • Instituted grading practices that valued learning over points. For example, retakes were allowed. Honestly, my practice much more crude than what I have learned from amazing teachers since then but it always provided a path to more learning. Remember the ban on extra credit? I said “The only extra credit available is for extra learning. Prove you have learned more and the report of your learning will be changed to reflect your new level.” By the way, points for effort are not a real thing either. Just because you tried to learn more does not mean you actually did. We owe students honest and accurate reporting – even when the news is very disappointing. One more aside: I never “lost” a conference with a parent angry about a grade after I started allowing make-ups. I can’t tell you how many times the parent flipped from “HOW COME MY CHILD HAS A ____?” to “Oh, he can study and make this up? And he’s known this all along? Thank you so much Mr. Maxey, we will be going now” in the space of about 86 seconds.

I speak, write and present about better grading practices all the time. And sincerely believe this is a very difficult issue for a range of reasons. But even if you never go to standards-based reporting or flip to mode instead of mean or count the most recent evidence more heavily, surely purifying your grades can not be objectionable. Why wouldn’t you want grades that work correctly.

We could spend a whole post addressing “yeah, but”s and maybe we will later. For example, yes we do care about responsibility. I’m just offended that you think I can only figure out a single way (a letter grade) to motivate a 15-year-old.  I’m smarter than that. There are concerns or objections about this daunting work. But if we can agree that our grades are flawed the way we do them now, perhaps that would be enough to begin finding a way to make them better. I did.


Andrew Maxey is the Director of Special Programs for Tuscaloosa City Schools. In addition to harassing anyone who will sit still long enough to listen about improving their grading practices, he is working hard to inculcate into his own children a love of their learning more than their grades.

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