What Type of Grading System is Best?


Love them or hate them, they are necessary. At least, a version of them is necessary.

The purpose is to communicate a student’s achievement to his or her parents. Here, achievement is defined as a student’s progress toward mastery of grade level standards. Unfortunately, grades don’t always deliver an accurate message.

Picture this scenario.

Distracted Donny seems to leave a trail of papers wherever he goes. He has a binder, which his teacher organized flawlessly at the beginning of the semester. But as weeks turned into months, Donny’s binder became a collection of drawings, lunch menus, forms to be signed, and untouched homework.

Donny races into the classroom as the late bell rings. The teacher directs students to place their homework in the usual basket before placing a summative test on each desk. Donny digs through his binder, promising that he did his homework. When he gives up on locating it, he slides his binder under his chair and looks at the test weighing down his desk.

Twenty complicated questions stare back at him: fifteen multiple choice and five written response. Each question requires Donny to apply knowledge and skills from multiple units of study. Donny looks confident as he begins. He moves his pencil vigorously across his paper. At the end of the designated time, Donny submits his test with the rest of his classmates

You probably know Donny. If not, you know a similar student. You might not be surprised to learn that Donny’s report card grade was a D.

But does Donny’s grade reflect a lack of achievement or something else? Does the teacher truly know that Donny has not mastered the standards?

While Donny may or may not have completed his homework independently, his grade reflects his lack of organization. He may or may not have known what to do when working on his test, but his grade reflects his distractability. Neither of these fit the purpose of grades.

Too often, grades are also reflective of compliance, listening comprehension, and stamina. These are important, but they are not the intention of grades. If the grade is listed on the report card as “reading”, it should indicate the student’s mastery of grade level reading standards and that is all. Grades are also impacted by teachers’ expectations. According to GreatSchools Staff (2015), “Research suggests that grading practices vary considerably among schools and among teachers in the same school, despite attempts in many schools to build in more consistency and predictability”. Thus, students with similar achievement but different teachers, may very likely have differing grades.

So how do we fix the problem? How do we ensure that our grades are equitable and that they reflect a student’s achievement?

It starts with honest reflection. Do you truly know what each of your students is capable of? If you assessed them in a one-on-one setting with no distractions or time limits (What a dream!), would the assessments yield the same results as your classroom test? It isn’t realistic to test each student individually, but that could be an option for your students with the most need.

Additionally, assessments don’t all have to be the same. As long as the measures are aligned with the appropriate standard, they do not have to match. Racing Ryan might be fine with twenty questions. Long-winded Leon needs twenty questions to thoroughly express himself. But Distracted Donny could express his learning much more effectively if he was only given five.

In my opinion, the most accurate report cards are standards-based. Traditional A through F report cards are ambiguous and often reflect behavior as much as academic learning. Susan M. Brookhart (2011) helped to explain the paradigm shift necessary when adopting standards-based report cards. “Standards-based grading is based on the principle that grades should convey how well students have achieved standards. In other words, grades are not about what students earn; they are about what students learn.” With standards-based report cards, there is no question about which students are progressing appropriately and which ones need more support, which is ultimately what educators work tirelessly every day to find out.


Brookhart, S. M. (2011). Starting the conversation about grading. Educational Leadership,69(3), 10-14. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov11/vol69/num03/Starting-the-Conversation-About-Grading.aspx

GreatSchools Staff. (2015). Fair and equitable grading practices for students with LD who have IEPs. Retrieved from https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/grading-students-with-ieps/.



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