More on Grading—A Synthesis of Some of my Favorite Thinkers (Part Two)

[A continuation of part one.]

Cohen, Guskey, Schimmer, Wormeli

Many teachers worship at the church of the arithmetic mean.

In Fair Isn’t Always Equal (2006), Rick Wormeli writes:

… it’s easier to defend a grade to students and their parents when the numbers add up to what we proclaim. It’s when we seriously reflect on student mastery and make a professional decision that some teachers get nervous, doubt themselves, and worry about rationalizing a grade. These reflections are made against clear criteria, however, and they are based on our professional expertise, so they are often more accurate. Sterling Middle School assistant principal Tom Pollack agrees. He comments, “If teachers are just mathematically averaging grades, we’re in bad shape.” (p. 153)

The best case I’ve been able  to make for why the practice of averaging is so fraught is given by Thomas Guskey in On Your Mark (2014):

Can you imagine, for example, the karate teacher suggesting that a student who starts with a white belt but then progresses to achieve a black belt actually deserves a gray belt? (p. 89)

Tom Schimmer hammered this point home in a December 2013 webinar called “Accurate Grading with a Standards-based Mindset”:

Adults are rarely mean averaged and certainly, it is irrelevant to an adult that they used to not know how to do something. Yet for a student, these two factors are dominant in their school experience.

In his article published in the April 2016 issue of “Educational Leadership,” Guskey echoes Wormeli’s point that defensibility and the perception of objectivity are highly prized among many teachers:

In teachers’ minds, these dispassionate mathematical calculations make grades fairer and more objective. Explaining grades to students, parents, or school leaders involves simply “doing the math.” Doubting their own professional judgment, teachers often believe that grades calculated from statistical algorithms are more accurate and more reliable.

In this blog post, David B. Cohen makes the case for reforms many folks in the TTOG community have been pushing for for some time:

We need to relinquish our preconceptions about the meanings of specific numbers and percents. Giving up the idea of points altogether would help; points are a convenient fiction, as long as you don’t think too hard about what they supposedly represent.

Cohen recommends ditching the 100-point system:

Why do we need 100 points then? That’s a level of definition that has no meaning. It would be like having a weather report stating today’s high temperature was 58.3 degrees, or including cents in conversations about rents or mortgage payments.

All of these points and reforms encounter institutional resistance, however, because of how much they ask teachers to make major shifts in their practice.

For me, though, it’s worth it. I was so glad to see this article by Alex Carpenter and Alberto Oros in the August 2016 edition of “Educational Leadership,” which made the connection explicit between grading practices and enacting a social justice pedagogy. The authors implore us to “take a moment, right now, to think about how we can modify our gradebooks in the name of justice.”

I’ll reiterate my questions from a year ago, because they are still very fresh on my mind.

A couple questions on my mind

  1. What practices do you, your department, and/or your institution have in place to facilitate difficult conversations about grading, reporting, and assessment?
  2. To what extent would it be a useful exercise for each department within a school to produce its own purpose statement for grading? (“The purpose of grades within the ___ department at ____ School is …”)


  1. Here’s a dilemma related to this: From an assessment perspective, I’m all for shifting from the quantitative to the qualitative, to the point where I’d support doing away with grades and scores entirely. Yet many leaders in the field of diversity and equity implore teachers to shift in the opposite direction, primarily to ensure that teachers’ implicit biases don’t affect their evaluations of students. So whereas the progressive educator in me wants to avoid being beholden to rubric points and arithmetic means, the anti-bias educator in me feels an urge to stick close to such numbers so that my inevitable subconscious judgments about my students — as Blacks, Latinos, females, or students from lower-income neighborhoods — don’t overpower their demonstration of “mastery” in my gradebook. To put it another way, we believe we should trust our own professional, experienced judgment and that of our colleagues, especially since we’re working with our students closely each day and are getting to know numerous non-measurable aspects of their learning and growth, yet implicit bias research suggests that we should be wary of trusting that judgment. Tom, since I know you take an interest in both of these areas, I wonder how you reconcile them.


    1. This is a really great question, Mike. I think it’s especially important to provide a clear backbone for our professional judgments in order to be accountable to our students.

      For me, the main safeguard against implicit bias in our evaluations of students is having well-articulated standards and observable levels of performance. Of course, it’s a lot harder to set these out clearly for the “non-measurable aspects” of students’ performance you refer to than for specific mathematical concepts. Vague rubrics seem more susceptible to poor inter-rater reliability, and so I wonder if implicit bias impacts our qualitative judgments about student effort, engagement, curiosity, behavior, etc. differently than it might for more airtight rubrics for mastery of a particular mathematical strand. I should also say that I don’t see a problem with rubrics per se, but rather the thoughtless use of them—for example, using the arithmetic mean as the default algorithm for synthesizing scores on multiple scales into a final evaluative grade (which I have been guilty of in the past) rather thinking deeply about how different dimensions of learning fit together to form a more complete picture of a student’s performance.

      There are different types of judgments we make as teachers, and it seems to me that the greater the degree of subjectivity required to evaluate a student’s performance along some dimension, the more cautious we should be about how much significance we assign to that evaluation. That is to say, I think we should tend to use clearly articulated standards and scales (that the students have had a hand in generating) as a key tool for equity in grading and reporting rather than falling back on algorithms as our insurance of fairness.

      This is a messy issue, but I agree that it’s vital to ask ourselves about the extent to which each of our choices about grading and reporting are subject to implicit bias.


  2. We do NOT have a place (currently) to talk about grades in our middle school. After hearing Rick Wormeli and reading some of the same research you have (and also Mark Barnes’ “how to” books), I’ve come up with this: My administration supports me! All of my reflections are here: It’s something I am passionate about – especially in ELA classes. Thanks for summing up some great points – it’s what I tried to do in the video for parents. This is my first year going whole-hog, and parents haven’t been informed yet. I’ve just been adding feedback into the online grade book. Keeping my fingers crossed they understand the reasons why!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *