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Teachers second-guess letter grades as they search for a fairer way

Across the country, educators are experimenting with a more tolerant grading system

“We’re aligning the letter grade with actual learning,” says Joshua Moreno, who works in the Alhambra Unified School District in Southern California. “It’s sad that it had to be for a worldwide pandemic to get people to look at this, but at the same time, it’s good that it’s happening. It had to.” (tupungato/iStock)
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Sixteen-year-old Sam Luo nearly panicked when he learned about his Advanced Placement English Language teacher’s grading system at his California high school. Gone was the 100-point system he knew well. Homework, extra credit, behavior — they would no longer count.

His teacher, Joshua Moreno, among a few other instructors, grades students on a 50-point scale — 10 points for each of the A-F letter grades — a change from giving so much weight to a failing grade, with Fs ranging from 60 points down to zero. Students can retake exams and redo assignments but only after scrutinizing their own mistakes. The goal is to measure only whether the student has learned the material.

What he and other educators are doing is part of a revolution in grading, one that started years before the coronavirus pandemic in some school districts but that has taken on new urgency as educators around the country think twice about assigning those judgmental letters A-F to students whose schooling has been disrupted for two years.

Instructors typically penalize children for late, incomplete or sloppy work, finding many opportunities (via homework and incremental tests) throughout the semester to do so, scholars say. These strictures, studies have shown, unfairly privilege one type of student — the kind with means, a supportive family, good nutrition, mental well-being and a peaceable home life — over others who may work after school, have a defective laptop or lack a desk and a quiet space to spit-shine their schoolwork every night. And though many districts handed out technology to students and beefed up Internet service during the pandemic, the digital “homework gap” is still affecting low-income families far more than families earning more.

Districts around the country — from California to Virginia and more — are experimenting to level the competition and focus on what experts think matters most: What should a grade represent? How can grades be used to motivate students to learn and retain information? How can grading be equitable? The change has sparked headlines decrying the elimination of D’s and F’s. But many teachers had already stopped giving those grades during the pandemic.

“We’re aligning the letter grade with actual learning,” said Moreno, who works in the Alhambra Unified School District in Southern California. “It’s sad that it had to be for a worldwide pandemic to get people to look at this, but at the same time, it’s good that it’s happening. It had to.”

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Some, such as Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico, are moving to standards-based grading, which measures student performance on benchmarks, sometimes with number grades from 1 to 4; teachers there will use new specific standards set by the state’s education department to assess student performance.

“A grade should represent learning, not behavior,” said Nick Hoover, principal of Cantwell’s Bridge Middle School in the Appoquinimink District in Delaware, which is just starting an overhaul of its own policies. “Look at someone who gets a B. It could be an A student who turned in work late, or a student who averages out at 88 percent in academic work but turns in work on time. That grade doesn’t really represent how much that student has learned.” He added, “We still want to report behavior” — meaning punctuality and other parts of performance — but said it shouldn’t shape how a student is judged on a transcript.

Patrick Truman, a science teacher in Montgomery County, Md., since 2013 and an educator for more than 20 years, offers a hypothetical: Consider a student with marginal motivation who gets 30 points — an F — on their first test. “If you get a couple of really poor grades, you can’t recover,” he said. “Kids give up.”

Grading experts say that since the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, they have been bombarded with requests for help from administrators seeking to change what has been common practice for generations. One of these experts is Joe Feldman, whose book “Grading for Equity: What It is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms” (2018) has become a bible for many revising their practices. Feldman said that schools “perpetuate very antiquated and ineffective and even harmful ways of grading,” because there is no or little training on how to grade for students in teacher preparation courses.

The old ways are not without their defenders. Some districts have encountered pushback from teachers and parents who worry the new approach is too easy for students, or too difficult. That’s what Luo thought when he walked into Moreno’s AP English class. Because grades are based only on certain tests and assignments, he said he feared it was “a high-stakes system that would cause a lot of anxiety.”

Moreno said his grading approach is intended, rather, to make students own their learning. There is “a misunderstanding that this is not as rigorous as the traditional system,” he said.

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He likens it to sports. In English classes, all writing — in and out of class — is for practice. No points. “When it’s time for an essay or a presentation or a Socratic seminar, I call that game time,” Moreno said. “You get points.” But a competitive season is "not just one game. If you aren’t happy with what happened in that game, I say, ‘Let’s meet. Let’s conference. Tell me how you are going to work to learn what you missed.’ We can do another game.”

Luo said that the most important change for him in Moreno’s grading system has been that, instead of focusing on formatting his assignments correctly and punctually, he has been forced to think about his learning more deeply and, as a result, he absorbs more information and gets graded on his best work. He observed that he witnesses kids ask their English teachers every year, “How do I write a thesis? How do I write a body paragraph?” — even though they’ve ostensibly learned this skill every year starting in middle school. “With this, as we improve, we are internalizing this information better.”

Still, Luo said, he doesn’t think the system will work for every student. “For students who want to slack off or are not motivated to learn, this class will probably be very enticing. Assignments aren’t graded. Due dates are soft. They will think they can get away with things.”

Other concerns about this kind of grading system were raised by teachers at Wakefield High School in Arlington Public Schools in Northern Virginia after administrators there announced they were considering a new assessment system that would eliminate graded homework and make other changes. One of them may be that any “remediations” of a grade could be undertaken only with a formal one-on-one exchange between student and teacher.

In an open letter that was unsigned, teachers said such a system places new burdens on them. For example, they don’t have time to talk to each student about every grade change. Teachers are already overworked. They face large classes, have little planning time and, with the pandemic, often take over classes for sick colleagues.

The letter also says having nongraded homework makes it more difficult to foster good behaviors and nonacademic skills in students.

“The changes, if implemented, will ... result in the decline of high expectations and rigor in the classroom,” the Arlington teachers said. Students need incentives to “develop organizational, time and stress management skills and grow as responsible, civically engaged, and considerate young adults.”

Bridget Loft, Arlington schools’ chief academic officer, said officials are now considering what to do “without making it feel like it is something being forced upon people. We are thinking about what might be better for students in the long run and how to bring in more equitable experiences.”

Rick Wormeli, a former National Board Certified teacher and now a consultant on classroom practice and grading systems, and others said that report cards should capture academic and nonacademic performance in different ways. A-F grades should be academic, and other habits and behaviors can be recorded through notes or other numerical or alphabetical symbols.

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That doesn’t mean, Wormeli and other grading reformers say, that students can get away without doing work. With the new systems, they can still flunk, and they are still responsible for making academic progress.

“I would never want to remove the burden of a child’s learning from his or her shoulders,” Wormeli said. “They have to do the work. But if we read the research about executive functioning — how do you instill moral fiber, time management, perseverance, tenacity? — none of it, not one bit of it, says, ‘yeah, use your grades to do it.’ ”

Each element of grading changes presents challenges. Truman allows students to retake exams. “Many things in life are reassessable,” he said. “Can you imagine if you had one shot at your driver’s license? That’s not the real world.”

But in college, many students don’t get that opportunity. Truman said he has heard about University of Maryland professors who feel they need to remind students from the state’s largest school system that college rules are less forgiving: There are no do-overs. Similarly, he’s heard of students asking professors: “When is the reassessment?”

Another example is softening deadlines of assignments, allowing students to turn them in when they can. Opponents say this practice harms efforts to instill responsibility in students and leads to students falling behind in their work. Supporters say that students often don’t turn in work because they don’t understand it, or have after-school or night jobs, or lack adequate technology or Internet service to complete assignments. But in class, they are forced to move ahead with work they haven’t mastered, making things worse.

The issue of equity runs through the charged conversation about grading. The Wakefield teachers said that some of the proposed changes in Arlington would have “a detrimental impact” toward achieving educational equity in part because “we are providing [lower-performing students] with a variety of excuses and/or enabling them to ‘game the system,’ prompting them to expect the least of themselves in terms of effort, results, and responsibility.”

Wormeli and others said the opposite is what happens — that students are motivated when they feel some ownership of the learning process.

At Wakefield High School, teacher Nisha Sensharma said she began experimenting with different grading systems about seven years ago, after she realized how stressed her students were about grades.

She began to relax due dates for assignments to give students more time to complete them, and, she said, she found that it “helped a little.” Then, she said, she cut back on the amount of homework and found “the kids were happier” and learning just as much. She began teaching mindfulness.

“I really got into social-emotional learning. What bothered me was motivation. And when I asked kids to answer, ‘Why am I in school,’ and ‘What do I want to get from school,’ there was a lot of silence for a long time. And then they say, ‘I want to get the best grade. I want to get into college.’”

So she changed her curriculum to create lessons “that really connected with the kids.” And she began to look at accountability in different ways. “If I expect kids to use social-emotional skills and be self-directed and meet due dates, I need to make some changes,” she said.

She experimented with how she assigned grades and homework. She began giving more feedback to students about their work and behavior, hoping that they would use the information to improve their mind-sets and learning process. Unfortunately, she said, about half of her students don’t look at her feedback and are still overly concerned with grades.

“That’s the grading system we created,” she said. “I think if we all made a change, that would make a big difference for kids.”

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