Grading Research - Q&A

(Last updated:7/25/22)

Q: What was school like before grades?
A: There was always informal communication between teachers and parents. Some popular systems involved frequently ranking students directly against each other.

S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., ... & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848

During the 19th century, student progress reports were presented to parents orally by the teacher during a visit to a student’s home, with little standardization of content. Oral reports were eventually abandoned in favor of written narrative descriptions of how students were performing in certain skills like penmanship, reading, or arithmetic (Guskey & Bailey, 2001).

Schneider, J., & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A–F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224.

Before grading, communication about a student’s work was without short-hand; it required full-length communication between teacher and pupil.

Many schools, particularly in rural areas, had no formal record-keeping mechanisms––in part because students attended irregularly, in part because students of different ages were grouped together, and in part because there were no common texts with which to work (Kaestle 1983). Many schools in urban areas, by contrast, were organized after the Lancasterian, ‘monitorial’ model. Under the Lancasterian model, students were frequently subject to examinations and direct ranking against their classmates. Each day, students finished their assignments and were literally repositioned in the classroom––the top students moving to the front of the class and the less capable students moving to the back (Kaestle 1983)

Q: Why were grades introduced?
A: Direct ranking was unsavory and seen as ineffective by Horace Mann. Grades would be more private, less frequent, and one's past achievements would still count, i.e. one was not being continuously ranked in public.

Schneider, J., & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A–F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224.

The solution to this problem, according to Mann, was not only to transform schools from one giant competition into a series of graded steps, but also to substitute the public quizzes and frequent re-ranking for written examinations and a series of monthly report cards. Thus, as Mann saw it, a student might come to understand that ‘his mind will be submit- ted for inspection not only on its bright side, but on all the sides; and that it will be useless for him to expect to shine on that occasion with only a radiant beam of light thrown across it here and there, while wide intervals of darkness lie between’ (Mann 1846: 508). Reformers likened these report cards to merchant ledgers, which emphasized the accumulation of success over time and provided a running account of a student’s academic success (‘School records, 1864’).

Just as importantly, this less overt form of grading would reduce the general level of competition among students within a school––a move that complimented the broader organizational move to age-grading. No longer in direct competition with each other to get to the ‘head of the class’, students were free to be more collegial and less competitive.

Taken together, these developments show how much American grad- ing systems diverged from their early European origins. As the system of common schools took root in America, reformers recognized the need for grades to act as important internal organizational devices––to maintain student motivation while minimizing competition and emphasizing the accretion of knowledge.

Q: OK, and then it took off. But does every country give grades and report cards?
A: Basically, as far as I can tell, yes.

Q: And what is the point of grades today?
A: Across the world, grades are used to communicate between the “local” stakeholders – teachers, schools, students, families.

Q: Aren’t they also important for deciding where a student can go to college?
A: Yes, though that’s more of a US thing. In many (most?) countries external exams, not designed by the teacher, are used for admissions decisions.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2005). Lessons from around the world: How policies, politics and cultures constrain and afford assessment practices. Curriculum Journal, 16(2), 249-261.

During the final year of elementary school (grade 4), on the basis of the student’s performance, teachers recommend the appropriate form of lower secondary school (in one Land there is a central examination)... The teachers’ recommendations are based largely on the scores that students achieve on a series of tests and examinations administered during the year, the format, length and frequency of which are determined by the Ministry of Education.

While it would be going too far to say that the use of traditional, timed examinations is regarded as unproblematic in France, there certainly seems to be a strong and widespread belief that such assessments are fair and valid ways of assessing students. More importantly, the fact that the teacher has no role in assessing the student summatively leaves the teacher free to concentrate on learning, and it is therefore probably not a coincidence that the role of assessment in the support of learning has been such a strong aspect of French teaching for many years.

Q: What goes into these grades?
A: Lots of stuff, a lot more than just knowledge.

Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., ... & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848

Although some variability exists across years and subjects, correlations have remained moderate but remarkably consistent in studies based on large, nationally representative data sets. Across 100 years of research, teacher-assigned grades typically correlate about .5 with standardized measures of achievement. In other words, 25% of the variation in grades teachers assign is attributable to a trait measured by standardized tests (Bowers, 2011). The remaining 75% is attributable to something else.

Q: What kind of stuff?
A: Think of all the things besides measurable academic knowledge it takes to succeed in school. Teachers usually include that stuff – which you could call “persistence” or “overall engagement” or “motivation” – in the grade. Basically, grades indicate to what degree a student is thriving in school. And it’s not just the US.

Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., ... & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848

Grades, therefore, must be considered multidimensional measures that reflect mostly achievement of classroom learning intentions and also, to a lesser degree, students’ efforts at getting there. Grades are not unidimensional measures of pure achievement.

There is evidence that even teachers who explicitly decide to grade solely on achievement of learning stan- dards sometimes mix effort, improvement, and other academic enablers when determining grades (Cox, 2011; Hay & Macdonald, 2008; McMunn et al., 2003).

A set of recent studies focused on the Swedish national context … which is interesting because report cards are uniform throughout the country and require teachers to grade students using the same performance level scoring system used by the national exam. Klapp Lekholm and Cliffordson (2008) showed that grades consisted of two major factors: a cognitive achievement factor and a noncognitive “common grade dimension.”

Q: And teachers grade differently, right?
A: Oh yeah, totally differently. And different schools have different standards as well.

Brimi, H. M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in English. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 16(1), 17.

Within the population of 73, the range of scores was 46 points (high of 96; low of 50). These teachers gave the paper a mean score of 81.1599 (See Table 1). These participants also assigned a total of 30 different scores… ten participants scored the paper as an “A,” 18 assigned a “B,” 30 marked the paper a “C,” nine gave a “D,” and six graded it as an “F.”

Q: Wow. That means grades are totally meaningless.
A: Remarkably, they are not! When you aggregate them into GPA grades do a decent job predicting a student’s future outcomes. Better than tests alone.

Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., ... & Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848

Interestingly, although standardized assessment scores have been shown to have low criterion validity for overall schooling out- comes (e.g., high school graduation and admission to postsecondary institutions), grades consistently predict K–12 educational persistence, completion, and transition from high school to college (Atkinson & Geiser, 2009; Bowers et al., 2013).

Zwick, R. (2017). Who gets in?: Strategies for fair and effective college admissions. Harvard University Press

High school grades have typically been found to be a somewhat better predictor than test scores [for predicting college GPA].

Perhaps the most interesting finding concerns the percentages of students who completed a postbaccalaureate credential by 2013, nine years after high school graduation. The vast majority of the credentials received were either master’s degrees or “professional doctorates.

Q: Why does any of this matter?
A: In the US, it’s relevant to discussions about whether grades should be used to decide e.g. who goes to college. We might want to know whether grades are fair to include in that discussion, and that goes well beyond what research can tell you.
If you’re a teacher, though, your job often involves creating your own system for assigning grades. Your grading system might impact how motivated students are and how much they learn. You might want research to provide some insight into how you design that system.

Q: Oh, cool. So is there research that attempts to connect grading choices to desirable outcomes?
A: Haha no, absolutely not, not at all. Why would you think anyone would study that?

Q: Wait – what?
A: There is maybe a study or two that has sort of compared alternate grading systems, but really there is hardly anything out there.

Q: What about as feedback, to students? Do we know whether grades on assignments help motivate learning?
A: They probably don’t.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153.

Feedback should note areas of strength and provide information on how to improve, as warranted and without overall grading. Wiliam (2007) summarized the following findings: (a) students receiving just grades showed no learning gains, (b) those getting just comments showed large gains, and (c) those with grades and comments showed no gains (likely due to focusing on the grade and ignoring comments). Effective feedback relates to the content of the comments (Butler, 1987; McColskey & Leary, 1985).

Other features of feedback that tend to impede learning include: providing grades or overall scores indicating the student’s standing relative to peers, and coupling such normative feedback with low levels of specificity (i.e., vagueness).

Q: Then let's just get rid of grades!
A: Do you mean, get rid of grades as feedback on assignments? Because this research doesn't say anything about report cards, i.e. summative feedback.

Q: Can we get rid of both?
A: It is possible, and there are a significant number of schools (almost all private) that have no grades. They still send report cards of a sort home -- they typically rely more on written, descriptive summaries of work, employ checklists, portfolios of selected work, or some combination of these things. Some simply disaggregate several skills that students are supposed to master and report their progress in each category separately. But no "grades," sure, it's possible. There's not really any research that speaks to this practice that I know of, but I think it probably works fine as long as there is some degree of accountability and feedback.

There's only one problem with this.

Q: What is it?
A: If you aren't giving grades, but you're living in a world with competitive admissions, then eliminating grades effectively makes the big tests count for more. That's fine, if you're OK with that, though grades offer different information than tests do. (See above.)

Q: What is the best grading system?
A: Research cannot say, though grades should not be used as a method for giving feedback on learning. Teachers should know that grades typically involve a tremendous amount of information about a student's efforts and engagement with the class. This information actually is meaningful, so teachers should feel empowered to include it in grades if they want to.

Anything beyond this, though, would simply be advice, not guidance from research, so it probably belongs elsewhere.