The Grading Game

As the International School of Prague continues its journey from traditional assessment practices to a more meaningful approach to support learning, famed assessment expert, Ken O’connor, recently spent two days working with ISP faculty, students and parents. Ken is the author of a number of books and articles about making assessment and grading in schools more effective and relevant.

Ken O'Conner

Ken O’Connor

To a large extent, we are all a product of our schooling experiences, and we tend to expect that schools will still grade in the same way as they did when we were students. Our memories take us back to a time when we sat our tests, did our homework, and were given a grade (letter or number) for each effort, regardless of whether it was a final exam or a draft essay. When report card time came around, the teacher would accumulate our marks, and using a mathematical formula (average, mean, drop the lowest score etc), would derive a grade for that subject, resulting in a B- in Math, an A in English or a C in Science, for example. The teacher would often take other factors into account as well to calculate a grade, such as behavior, late work, effort etc. In the end, with so many factors in play, the resulting grade we received was a single symbol, imprecise at best, or as Marzano puts it, “almost meaningless.”

old report card

Report Card 1943

As I pointed out in a previous blog:

The reality is that there are many disconnected factors which potentially make up a grade. Typically, they are applied differently by different teachers.

Grading Goulash

Grading Goulash

In order to discuss ideas about assessment and grading without confusion, we need to agree on terms. O’Connor differentiates the term grades, from marks or scores as follows:

MARK(s)/SCORE(s) (marking/scoring) refer to the number (or letter) “score” given to any student test of performance.

GRADE(S) (grading) refer to the number (or letter) reported at the end of a period of time as a ssummary statement of student performance.

This distinction matters, as it highlights the difference between what is called formative and summative assessments. Formative assessment refers to the regular feedback a teacher gives to help students learn during the learning process, while summative assessment refers to an end of unit test or assessment, and is used to summarize the learning. Here’s a good metaphor, presented by O’Connor, to help us think about formative and summative assessments. Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 3.08.27 PM

With the above definitions in mind, O’Connor suggests that best practice is for teachers to, assess everything, but not grade formative assessments, only summative assessments. The idea is that in order to learn and understand, students need regular, relevant feedback. What they don’t need during the learning process is the distraction of marks. This is supported by research which shows that the most meaningful kind of feedback to support learning is through comments without assigning a score or mark.

This can be seen in the following study, which shows that feedback in the form of teacher comments have the greatest positive impact on student learning. When feedback is provided as a mark or score, little progress occurs. Even when a comment is accompanied by a number or letter, the student is still primarily focused on the symbol, and progress is limited. But students whose work receives comments without an accompanying mark, progresses, in this case, by an average of 30%!

Butler, R. ( 1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 1-14.
Butler, R. ( 1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 1-14.

In case the reader is concerned that the above study might be an anomaly, I can confirm that I have seen numerous other studies which have been conducted with similar results.

“Evidence from several studies that investigated the effect of differential feedback on learning suggested that using grades to improve learning was simply not effective.” (Lipnevich, Smith 2008)

In addition to differentiating between formative and summative assessments, other important factors such as behavior, effort, time on task, etc, should not be factored into a summative assessment or the report card grade. In order for the grade to accurately reflect academic achievement, behaviors or learning habits should be reported as a separate area of student development on the report card or elsewhere.

Furthermore, as the graph below indicates, if a culminating grade is to be an accurate reflection of learning, it should not be influenced by whether or not a student struggled early on and then got it, or whether a student got it right away. Here it is clear, while Bob got it right away, Pam struggled and eventually got it, but ultimately, they all reached the same level of learning, in their own way and through their own process.

Do we really believe that one way of reaching a learning outcome is worthy of a higher or lower grade than another on a report card? If the learning is the objective, why would Pam receive a lower grade than Bob, just because she took a different route to get to the same understanding?

Each student in this graphic arrived at the same point in their learning and should receive the same grade.

Each student in this graphic eventually arrived at the same point in their learning and should receive the same grade.

There is much more that can be said about how schools should change their grading  and assessment practices, for example, using standards-based assessment or establishing teacher-moderated assessment practices.

What is clear is that we can and must do a better job of providing students with relevant feedback to help them learn. We must also communicate an accurate picture of student learning to parents and other stakeholders. This can only be accomplished through a shift of mindset away from one that has held sway for generations.

Ken O'connor working with teachers at the International School of Prague

Ken O’connor working with teachers at the International School of Prague


  1. I just spent all weekend in presentations by Thomas Guskey which focused on these same issues. One of the things that I really liked was his insistence that schools and teachers start by determining their ‘purpose of grading’ and that it is then printed at the top of every report that goes home to parents.


  2. And I thought I was alone in the education world. This is one of the best articles I have ever read on the grading system. So many people left behind from the old system. i got goosebumps !!!!


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