by Jacalyn Lea Lund, PhD, and Mary Fortman Kirk, PhD
If the primary purpose of grading is to communicate student achievement to others, then the grade should represent what the student has learned. Unfortunately, in many cases, there is lack of consistency about what the grade represents. This inconsistency can vary greatly with some teachers using product criteria to represent achievement, others using behavior to represent achievement, and still others using improvement or progress to determine the grade. When teachers fail to clearly define what the grade represents, this variation can even be seen in grades assigned to different students by the same teacher.
According to Guskey (1996a), grades should indicate the proportion of targets that students have mastered. Since grades are designed to report student accomplishments to others (e.g., parents, administrators, potential employers, college officials), they should be based on student achievement. Grade reports, if done correctly, represent a summary of students’ major strengths and weaknesses. Because people are accustomed to receiving letter grades, they are deemed user-friendly because others understand (or think they do) what the grade represents. Despite the problems with grading, it is likely that letter grades will continue to be the way that grades are reported.
In this era of standards and standards-based curriculums, many teachers and researchers advocate for the use of a standards-based grade reporting system (Marzano 2006; Scriffiny 2008), in which a student receives a score or grade on each of the standards that the class addresses, which links the grade directly with student achievement. In many of these grading systems, progress is often reported in terms of whether the student has demonstrated an expected level of performance (e.g., proficient or advanced) or has failed to satisfy the grade-level expectations (e.g., partially proficient or below expectations) based on the standards written for the content area in the state or district.
Regardless of the grade reporting system used, if a grading format is to be effective and meaningful, teachers should formulate a grading plan before beginning instruction. Instead of merely summing all assessments that contributed to a grade during a marking period, teachers must decide in advance what they will use as a basis for the grade. After determining what types of knowledge students will need to achieve the targeted outcomes of the course, teachers design assessments to measure mastery for the covered content. Additional assessments (i.e., formative ones) may be used to provide feedback about performance, but they will not necessarily contribute to a student’s final grade.
Just as it takes all of the pieces of a puzzle to make a complete picture, each assessment should represent part of the total assessment picture. When all the pieces are in place and fit together, teachers have a picture of student achievement and mastery of content that accurately portrays the extent of student learning. To assemble a complete picture, assessments must be planned before starting a marking period to ensure that they align with the teacher’s vision of student achievement. Some teachers fail to do this, which results in a shotgun approach to grading. Just as one would not begin painting a wall by flicking a brush loaded with paint at the wall, student assessment should not be done in a haphazard manner in which one hopes everything will eventually be covered. “Building assessment to improve performance . . . requires that grades and reports reflect our values and provide apt feedback” (Wiggins 1998a, 288).