What is the Purpose of a “Grade”?

This post stems from much thought I have been giving to the climate of assessment that seems to be present within each school for which I have worked, and most likely at a fair number of schools across the globe for which I have not. It seems as though the professionals at these schools have been debating the same issues for many many years. Presently I seem to be having a deja vu moment as heated discussions are being had and controversial opinions are being shared, and perhaps picked apart.

The most controversial philosophies being dissected include not giving zeroes for missing work, taking behaviour out of the grade, and not reducing the grade for assignments submitted late. Here are some of the key points I have overheard throughout the grape vine, both in favour and against these main issues. Please keep in mind that these pros and cons are not necessarily representative of my personal beliefs, they are simply a snapshot of what I interpret to be talking points of discussions.

 Zeros should not be given for Missing Work

  1. Pros:
    • A zero for missing work is not a accurate representation of knowledge gained.
    • Missing work should be recorded apart from an academic grade, and more as a behaviour.
    • Using an alternate symbol for incomplete or missing assignments, such as “I” or “M” sends more accurate message than a poor grade does.
  2. Cons:
    • A zero is evidence of students’ not doing their work & should be included as a  grade.
    • Zero reflects a valid consequence for not completing an assignment.
    • communicates to parents why students may not be achieving

Behaviour should not be a part of the grade

  1. Pros:
    • A student’s behaviour has nothing to do with academic mastery and therefore not be considered a part of an academic grade.
    • Appropriate Behaviours are important  but should be part of a non-academic grade such a “citizenship”.
    • may be counted in citizenship grade
  2. Cons:
    • Academic achievement not the only goal to keep in mind (i.e., real world skills include other criteria)
    • Effort should affect grades because of wide range of students’ abilities (some try harder than others).
    • How hard a student works should count because it is a real life skill.

Grades should not be reduced for late assignments

  1. Pros:
    • A grade that has been reduced for late assignments doesn’t reflect real learning or ability.
    • Tardiness is strictly a behaviour and has no place being represented in an academic grade.
  2. Cons:
    • Reducing marks for late assignments can really motivate students.

What the above illustrates is that there are some wildly different points of view regarding grading and what should be included in a grade. For example, one person might argue that taking marks away for a late assignment distorts the grade and is not an actual representation of what that student does or doesn’t know. Another individual might argue that by taking marks away for late assignments the student will be motivated to get their work completed and submitted by the due date, thus learning a valuable skill which will be applied in the “real world”.

While attending a conference with Ken O’Conner, author of A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, he shared that “the main difficulty driving grading issues both historically and currently is that grades are pressed to serve a variety of conflicting purposes.” (p. 31) —Brookhart, Grading (2004). I feel that it is these conflicting purposes that are at the root of the conflict about grades and assessment. If one teacher’s purpose differs from that of another, which it does, than that grade will undoubtably be composed of a different substance.

What I wish to point out is that before we attempt to discuss assessment philosophy, we as educators must develop a clear and well articulated purpose of a grade. This purpose must then be communicated to all stakeholders. This may seem a little bit like common sense, but how can we agree upon what goes into a grade, and what does not, if we don’t first agree upon a grade’s purpose.

“How can we agree upon what goes into a grade if we don’t first agree upon a grade’s purpose”.
Perhaps we should begin with Bailey and McTighe belief that “the primary purpose of … grades … (is) to communicate student achievement to students, parents, school administrators, post-secondary institutions, and employers.”  We can then begin to formulate and define a purpose that best fits our school’s standards, culture, vision, and mission.
Once a school has developed, defined, and clearly published it’s primary purpose of a grade, then the conversation regarding the composition of a grade becomes focused and a bit more clearcut. Differences in assessment philosophy may still exist among the faculty, but the clearly stated position of the school can point people toward best practice assessment procedures.
Getting teachers on the same assessment page is crucial for student learning, and I feel that developing an accepted school wide purpose of a grade is critical first step!

Bailey & McTighe, Reporting Achievement at the Secondary School Level: What and How? in Guskey [Ed.] Communicating Student Learning: ASCD Yearbook 1996, p. 120.
Featured Photo:
flickr photo by ludwg http://flickr.com/photos/ludwg/8668129713 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
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“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”

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