First of all, tests, quizzes, projects, and homework do not give a clear picture of how much language a student has acquired. When you use tests, quizzes, projects, homework, and participation as grade-book indicators, you are unable to clearly see a student’s strengths and weaknesses. All that they do tell you is which of these the student is better at and that is not very helpful when guiding a student towards success. And, without going back and analyzing each assignment/assessment, there’s no way to determine which skills have been mastered and which still need some work.

Traditional grading practices are also not based on standards. For decades, grades have been based on curves and norms. Students in classes with more high-achieving students tend to get lower grades and those in classes with less high-achieving students tend to get higher grades. These are moving targets for students and moving targets are often missed. Not only that, but because the targets are ever moving, grades can vary greatly from one class to another, from one teacher to another, from one school to another, and from one state to another. How can we compare apples to apples with such a variance?

Another reason traditional grading is problematic is the math just doesn’t add up. Rick Wormeli said in his Parent Presentation: Standards-Based Assessment and Grading (2014) that, “Just because it’s mathematically easy to calculate doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically correct.” And this is never more apparent than knowing that depending on how you crunch the numbers, students can have very different grades. Traditional systems generally take the average or “mean” of a set of numbers which does not take into account improvement or lack there of as the year goes on. Students are penalized for low scores that are very difficult to recover from. Just take a look at the following table taken from Ken O’Connor’s book How to Grade for Learning:

Averaging destroys students' grades.
Ken O'Connor - How to Grade for Learning

As you can see, depending on how you calculate the grades, the grades can vary greatly.

Another problem with the math is that zeros destroy student grades. A single zero drops a 100% to a 50% and it will take another 1000 more 100%-assignments to bring the grade back up to a 99.9%. That’s just not even in the realm of possibility. Kids who continue to get zeros throughout their school years are more likely to give up and eventually drop out.

Continuing with the math, all points are created equal. Points assigned to low-value assignments cancel out points assigned to high-value assignments. For example, if you assigned homework 5x per week and each homework assignment was worth 10 points each, over a period of 10 weeks, a student could potentially earn 500 points. Now if you also set the final exam at 500 points, all of the positive points assigned to homework would cancel out all of the negative points of the final exam which is certainly not anyone’s intent. It is extremely difficult to plan ahead your entire year’s worth of assignments to get the ratios right, and even if you could, because there is no barrier around your points, negative points will always cancel out positive ones.

And here’s my last point on the math. Weights can dramatically distort grades. Weighting skills incorrectly can indicate false trends or indicate ability when little to none actually exists. There has to be a reason to weight skills. It cannot just be haphazard.

And finally, traditional grades don’t give a clear direction of instruction. The goal of assessment is not to give a grade, but to provide feedback. Rick Wormeli says in his presentation in Farmington, NM (2014), “With grades we document progress in students and our teaching, we provide feedback to students and their parents, and we make instructional decisions.”

We can certainly learn without grades, but we cannot learn without descriptive feedback. This feedback lives in a feedback loop that starts with identifying the standard, identify where the student is in relation to the standard, and then identify what needs to happen in order to close the gap. The way that traditional grades are set up, it is difficult to see the standards to initiate this feedback loop.

Grades are not meant to be compensation for work well done. Grades are communication: they are an accurate report of what happened. (Wormeli 2014)

Read other articles in this series:

Proficiency-Based Grading: Making grades meaningful.

Principles of Power Grading.