When properly designed, grades can be a powerful tool, shifting student beliefs and motivation in a positive direction.  This requires rethinking the meaning and purpose of grades.

Grades express values. 

Whether we intend to or not, any grading system is communicating what we think is important.  This can lead to unwanted consequences (such as rewarding behavior like grade-grubbing), but also provides an opportunity.  If you value a student’s self-directedness or perseverance, for example, it is possible to create a grading scheme that rewards such behavior.  What is needed is clarity about the most important aspects of a student’s experiences in your classroom — clarity about what is it that they should know and be able to do, as always, but also about who they should become.  Grading schemes should be planned backwards from that perspective.

Consistency is not the same as fairness. 

How can we define fairness when each student’s experience of learning is unique?  We can make grades consistent and always follow the rules, obeying the letter of the law (no pun intended).  But something is lost when we do that. The individualistic nature of every student working through the learning process in her own way requires us to pay attention to what success looks like on a case-by-case basis.

Giving students a voice. 

A prerequisite for fair grades is a consensus about what is valued, what is being represented by the grade.  The teacher and the student need to agree that the grade is meaningful and appropriate, which, in turn, requires giving students a voice in the grading process.  The most direct means of accomplishing this comes through student self-evaluation, which is described in detail below.

Giving students a say in their grades flies in the face of most classroom practice.  But if you believe in the validity of the grading scheme you are using and you trust yourself as a teacher to be honest with your students, then an evaluation in which you and the student agree is doable.  If students have been self-evaluating their work, there will generally be little or no disagreement about what a fair grade is.

Grade conferences are another important mechanism for having meaningful conversations with students.  Carefully defining the students’ role in the process of generating report card grades allows them to have a say without compromising the standards that the grades represent.  It also creates opportunities for boosting student self-awareness and self-directedness. In my experience, students have agreed, almost without exception, that this approach to defining report card grades makes more sense and is fairer than many traditional schemes.  Grade conferences will also be explored in detail below.

Points and the question of precision. 

The use of points allows grades to be calculated to a high level of precision, but precision is not the same thing as accuracy.  Throwing darts in a pattern like the one below shows how something can be precise but inaccurate.


Precision is not the same as relevancy, either.  A prediction of 74.8% chance of rain is 0% relevant if it doesn’t rain and 100% if it does.
Similarly, being precise is not the same as being meaningful.  The percentage of letters on every page of this chapter that are “g’s” can be calculated to 8 decimal places, but that doesn’t make it significant.  

The problem is this: points are easily quantifiable, but learning is not. What does it mean that a student has an 82.6% average score on her tests this quarter?  Has she learned 82.6% of the material? Is she completely wrong about 17.4%? The apparent precision of grades distorts the “fuzziness” of how human beings learn.  When we use points, we run the risk of confusing the very simple, even crude quantification of grades with the infinitely complex and fluid landscape of the learning process.  

This confusion has real and counterproductive consequences.  Points formalize grades and make them “official”, which reduces the ability of teachers to talk candidly with students about learning.  It makes grades appear objective and fixed, when they are often malleable. It implies that students are powerless to affect the “official” grade.