If I could change grades

Should teachers use a traditional A B C D F system or a standards based 1 2 3 4 to report learning and growth to stakeholders? I say both are inadequate systems. 

Traditional Grades

Traditional grading provides letters to the accumulation of points students earn throughout a term. It takes into account all work, including compliance (homework, class work, attendance, etc.), formative assessments, and summative assessments and averages the points to an overall percentage. However, traditional grade reporting is unclear and does not highlight strengths or weaknesses of a learner nor does it reflect if a learner has met proficiency in essential learning objectives. 

When a learner gets behind in a traditional system, grades demotivate. I have heard learners say, “Why try? I’m not going to pass the class anyway” as early as October. With three months left in the semester no learner should be giving up. As a matter of fact, at that point, teachers should be just starting the assessment process. 

On the flip side, I have also seen learners known as “Grade Grubbers” focus more on points than learning. They will argue with a teacher about a 97% on an assignment. The learner is more interested in how to get the additional 3% than how to better understand some concept. The conversation is about points and not learning, which is contrary to what conversations should be in school. 

Traditional grades focus on the accumulation of points as if school were a video game and  the winner is the one with the highest score and the losers have the fewest. 

Standards-Based Grading

I attempted to implement Standards-Based Grading (SBG). The first assignment I assessed using SBG ended up falling flat on its face. 

I had several learners do an excellent job on the assignment and provided work that clearly exceeded standard but wasn’t defined in the advanced column. I asked myself if the work was a 3 or a 4. I couldn’t come to a conclusion. I was frustrated and felt I was assessing to a rubric rather than looking for potential in the learner. 

Also, the 1-4 system easily translates to an A B C F system. Learners know this and, just like letter grades, many end up focusing on the score translation rather than the learning. There were times when I returned work and learners would argue they had 4s rather than 3s. I went on the defensive and I felt as if I was acting like a gatekeeper of achievement rather than the purveyor of hope. When I realized all I was doing was protecting the integrity of the 4 I knew this system was not for me. I did not walk away from traditional grades to limit my learners. Rather, I made the change because I wanted to promote learning. 

Standards Based Grading is better than traditional grading as it provides a clearer picture of where the learner is in relation to learning objectives, it is still a numbers game that translates to an empasis on the accumulation of points rather than learning. 

My Proposal

If I could have my way, I would use the following system to report student learning:

Proficient – Learners who meet ALL course objectives should be labeled Proficient. Though there may be varying degrees of proficiency, it is impossible to define them all. The learner has either met or has not met the the learning objective. And when a learner demonstrates proficiency, the teacher should always provide some suggestion for further growth. Learning never ends. There is always room for growth. 

Incomplete – Learners who have not currently met ALL essential learning objectives should receive an Incomplete. An Incomplete suggests that there is an expectation for  learners to complete requirements and meet proficiency. An F carries a negative stigma and seems so permanent. If learning is important then offering F grades suggests that not meeting learning objectives is an acceptable option. F grades send the wrong message. If the F is removed and replaced with an Incomplete failure is no longer an option and proficiency is ultimately expected. 

Proficient With Honors – Learners who decide to take on additional challenges through enrichment activities that provide deeper understanding deserve recognition. Proficient With Honors could be grated to learners who help teachers with a series of videos for flipped learning, or do additional research projects, or maintain a class blog, or work on personal, ongoing projects such as running regular poetry competitions, book clubs, or vlog chapters of a book. Enrichment opportunities should be meaningful, personalized extensions that allow the learners to contribute to their own and other’s learning. 

I’ve heard it said the fewer the levels of proficiency the more accurate the reporting. This system of reporting  offers a positive spin and holds learners accountable to meet learning objectives. It does not punish those who can not or do not meet learning objectives YET,  but encourages growth and acknowledges those who make contributions to their community. 


5 thoughts on “If I could change grades

  1. I’m a kindergarten teacher in Canada and our province instituted a new curriculum this year, complete with a shift in grading practices. I’m not sure what they’re doing at the high school level and in our school, the intermediate students are still given a letter grade, but our main reporting is now done on a 3 point scale of: “Emerging”. “Developing” and “Proficient”. I like this much better than our previous scale of “not meeting expectations”, “minimally meeting”, “meeting” and “exceeding” because it honours the fact that learning is on a continuum and that not all learners reach proficiency at the same time. It’s also much more positive and honours the child where they are at while still measuring them against where they should be. (Our report cards are now also far more anecdotal instead of a 2 page checklist of standards we used to have with a 5 sentence comment – there’s now a full paragraph for each key subject area along with an overall placement of Emerging, Developing or Proficient. Which allows us to clearly state what the child has accomplished over the term and how parents can support them to help them continue to grow. Even my emergent students have made progress even if they are still not proficient, and this allows me to show that growth in a way our previous reporting didn’t).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Teachers should be held accountable to share with learners and stakeholders the growth that has occurred over time. The problem with traditional grades is they only point out that a learner is either a letter.


      1. Exactly. Also traditional grades assume everyone learns at the same rate which we know is not true, particularly with young children. They also imply that learning stops once a grade is given which is why so many kids forget what they’ve learned after a test or term.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree with your thinking. I would have Proficient as my middle column. To the left , What Evidence of Proficiency is Demonstrated? To the right, What Can I Improve? All learners even the most advanced can go beyond and that can be documented on the right.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment. All learners do things that go beyond proficiency. We need to stop defining what it is for them and allow them to simply be themselves.

      The more we define what learning should look like, the more teachers look to categorize a learner.

      Liked by 1 person

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