You may be surprised at the inaccuracies and lack of fairness in your grading system. See what the problems are and find out how to fix them.

One of the most important things that teachers do is to provide feedback to students. It’s possible to have wonderful curricula, engaging lesson plans, and high expectations, but when your feedback is ineffective, students don’t understand how to translate curricula and lessons into improved academic performance. For a student, grades are very important elements of feedback. This means that our grading systems should contain all the elements of good feedback. Most important, they should be accurate and fair.

I realize that being a new teacher or a student teacher is exceptionally challenging and, for the most part, many decisions about grading systems are made by more experienced teachers. But once you reconsider traditional views of grading, reframing this process from an evaluation to a vital form of feedback, you can be a professional advocate for more effective grading systems.

What’s wrong with grading systems?

Try this experiment with a couple dozen colleagues who are student teachers, teachers, and professors. First, ask, “What’s the difference between students who receive A’s and B’s and those who receive D’s and F’s? Brainstorm at least 10 reasons for these differences: organization, parental support, intelligence, and so on.” Then ask your colleagues to do the following simple task that, in the course of a teaching career, we will do thousands of times. Ask them to calculate the final grade for a student, working silently and alone, just as we usually do when calculating real final grades. Here are the marks the student earned during the semester: C, C, MA (missing assignment), D, C, B, MA, MA, B, A. Finally, ask your colleagues to reveal their final grades.

When students do not complete homework, the consequence must be a logical one: doing the work.

I’ve conducted this simple experiment with more than 10,000 teachers, administrators, and professors in North America and four other continents. The results are always the same. The same student, with the same intelligence, same organization, and same parental support, received final grades including A, B, C, D, and F. It turns out that the difference between the A and B student and the D and F student had nothing to do with intelligence or home support and everything to do with the different grading systems of individual teachers. When students are asked by their parents, “How did you get that grade?” the most common response is, “I don’t know.” The kids are telling the truth.

How to fix your grading system

Educators must start with the understanding that grading is feedback, and the purpose of feedback is improved performance, not just the announcement of a final evaluation. Feedback that is mysterious, inconsistent, inaccurate, and unfair will never lead to better performance. I’m not suggesting that every teacher use the same grading system. I am, however, making the observation that if three different students with the same performance could earn an A, C, or F depending entirely on the personal choices of the teachers, it is as if the rules changed for every basketball game. As the rules continue to change, the students become discouraged and eventually quit playing the game. In the parts of schooling that society values, like basketball, we tend to insist on consistency, fairness, and accuracy in the officiating. This consistency is the only way students can practice and improve. But change the venue from the court to the academic classroom, and the expectations for consistency go out the window. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some simple things that you can do now.

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