Students and parents have begun suing school districts over grading policies and practices they say are unfair.
As a scholar of education who studies grading practices, I’ve seen how important grades are to schools, students and their families.
Grades are the primary basis for making important decisions about students. They determine whether students are promoted from one grade level to the next. They also determine honor roll status and enrollment in advanced or remedial classes, and they factor into special education services and college or university admissions.
More than 1,800 colleges and universities now allow applicants to choose whether they want to take the ACT or SAT. That means grades are more important in admissions decisions and scholarship awards – and students and their parents know it.
In early 2022, a local political figure and his wife sued Baltimore Public Schools, claiming the city’s entire education system was not serving the public. They said unfair grading practices limited students’ academic access.
Later that year, a parent in Kentucky sued the local school district, alleging unfair grading practices had tainted remote learning classes that had been established during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those cases are still pending, but even as far back as 2007, parents sued a West Virginia school district because their daughter got a lower grade than expected on a biology project she turned in late. The lawsuit argued that the bad grade was unfair and hurt the student’s grade-point average, valedictorian status, scholarship potential and chances of getting into a good college.
These lawsuits show how important grades are to students and their parents.
Teachers spend lots of time grading
Teachers know how important grades are, too. In fact, teachers spend over one-third of their professional work time assessing and evaluating student learning.
But most university teacher-education programs focus on curriculum and instruction, with less attention given to assessment. My research has found that these programs do not talk about how to actually grade student work.
In keeping with a long-held tradition in education, teachers also have, and like, the autonomy to set their own practices. That results in inconsistency, inequity and even unreliability in teachers’ grading practices.
For example, teachers decide if grades will be based on tests, quizzes, homework, participation, behavior, effort, extra credit or other evidence. When surveying over 15,000 teachers, administrators, support educators, parents and students, I found teachers use a wide range of evidence in grades. While they primarily use tests, quizzes, projects, and homework to assign grades, teachers at all grade levels also include nonacademic evidence, like behavior and effort, in their grading equations.
Teachers also decide whether students will get a second chance to take tests if they fail on the first attempt, or be allowed to turn in work late, sometimes reducing their maximum possible grade.
Once teachers decide what to include in their grades, they decide how much weight to assign to each grade category. One teacher may weigh homework as 20% of the final course grade, while another teacher in the same grade level may choose a different weight or not grade homework at all.
In my work, I have talked to teachers who curve grades, especially at the end of a course when they discover lots of students did poorly. To curve, these teachers adjust grades by adding points to all students’ scores to bring the highest score up to 100%. Other teachers in the same school told me they do not grade on a curve. Instead, they add extra credit points to students’ final course grades if they attend a school event, such as a play. Some teachers told me they also add grade points if a student was never tardy to class or never missed an assignment deadline.
Traditional grading is confusing and inaccurate
Schools do often have a common grade system all teachers must use, such as a scale from zero to 100. But my research has found that it’s very rare that all teachers in a district, or even a school or a grade level, use the same grading policies and procedures.
The variation among teachers’ grading policies and practices causes confusion for students and their parents. High school students, for instance, typically have seven different teachers each semester. That means they have to keep up with seven different grading policies and procedures – and cope with the obvious differences.
My research indicates that the effort to keep up with multiple teachers’ different grading expectations causes students chronic stress and anxiety, especially for those students with poor organizational, time-management and self-regulation skills. This is also the case for students competing for high grade-point averages and class rank. Still, students rarely question teachers’ grading or the grading differences between teachers.
It might seem unfair, for example, that one algebra teacher allows for extra credit to boost final course grades and another does not. But students have accepted these differences because this is how it’s always been. And parents often pass these grading differences off as what they experienced in school themselves.
Three ways to improve grading
Grading consistency and effectiveness could be improved if universities’ teacher-training programs included specific training on grading practices in their educator preparation programs, but not any training will do. Evidence-based research on grading conducted over the past century identifies ways grades can be effective, fair and accurate.
First, grades are accurate and meaningful when they are based on reliable and valid evidence from classroom assessments. This information allows teachers to provide students and parents with feedback on learning progress, and to guide teachers’ own efforts to improve their teaching. For instance, an assessment strategy called Mastery Learning has been shown to improve student achievement and deliver reliable evidence upon which teachers can base grades.
Second, grading works best when students, parents, teachers, administrators and others in the school are clear on the purpose of grades. These groups have different beliefs and expectations, but clarity in grades can be achieved when they agree on grading intentions to then anchor policies and practices.
Third, grade reports that include three to five categories of performance more meaningfully communicate students’ actual academic proficiency. Reducing a grade to a single letter or number that incorporates many aspects of learning, including behavior and effort, does not inform anyone as clearly about what a student has achieved, needs or is ready for.