Does tough grading improve student learning?

Students perform better when educators have high expectations, experts say
By: | February 19, 2020
Students of all races and from all types of schools tend to learn more when teachers assign lower grades for similar work, says a new study on grading and student achievement. (gettyimages.com: rjp85)Students of all races and from all types of schools tend to learn more when teachers assign lower grades for similar work, says a new study on grading and student achievement. (gettyimages.com: rjp85)

As your schools are going gradeless or switching to standards-based grading, a new report says that grading—tough grading backed by high expectations—will elevate student achievement.

Students of all races and from all types of schools tend to learn more when teachers assign lower grades for similar work, says the Fordham Institute study, “Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement.”

“Even though there might be pressure to bump up grades, in the long run, that’s not helping students as much as you think—it might even be hurting them,” says the study’s author, Seth Gershenson, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University. “It’s related to fostering a culture of high expectations and not making assumptions or using stereotypes to assume that some people will perform differently than others.”


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The study found that the benefit of tougher grading standards can persist for up to two years. It also found that these standards tend to be higher in schools with more affluent students and that teachers who attended selective undergraduate institutions, hold graduate degrees and have more experience tend to be tougher graders.

Administrators who want to increase rigor can start by using district data to show each teacher how their grading practices compare to their colleagues’ standards. Next, teachers have to make sure that students understand the heightened grading standards, and what they have to do to achieve high marks.

Teachers also should be encouraged to think carefully about how students interpret grades. “If there’s legitimate room for a student to improve, teachers have to think, ‘Do I want to give an A?’ Because an A can suggest there is no room for improvement,” Gershenson says.

Finally, the research found no evidence that low grades discourage students or cause them to become disengaged or give up.

“Grades play an important role because if there isn’t accurate information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses, then it’s really hard to think optimally about where to intervene more or what a student needs to study more,” he says. “Giving overly high grades creates a sense of complacency where there’s going to be less interest and effort from students, parent and teachers in terms of shoring up the weaknesses.”

And if you choose to go gradeless …

High expectations, however, don’t have to be tied to letter or number grades, says education author Starr Sackstein, a former administrator and teacher who is now a consultant with The Core Collaborative, a professional learning network that focuses on student-centered learning and social justice.


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As a classroom teacher, Sackstein says she was a tough grader who eventually went gradeless.

“Too much of traditional education mandates this idea that students need a number grade in order to be successful with their learning,” says Sackstein, author of Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. “Students can and will rise to the occasion with or without grades, as long your expectations are clear and they’re invested in the learning that’s happening.”

Grades, in fact, can distract students from the actual content. Sackstein recalls students in her AP English class discussing their results on math and economics exams they’d taken weeks before and not being able to recall what was on the tests. “Sometimes, the scores become the focal point of the learning instead of the learning itself,” she says.

Like Gershenson, Sackstein says expectations and learning targets have to be clear to students—perhaps even more so when no grades are being given. Unlike Gershenson, Sackstein says, the lowest grade—a zero—can not only shatter a student’s confidence but it holds little value for communicating a students’ abilities.

“When we put a zero in the grade book, for whatever reason, we’re basically obliterating a kid’s chance of digging themselves out of that hole,” Sackstein says. “If we are going to use grades, we should all agree they should communicate how kids are doing against the standards. A zero degrades the precision of what we’re supposed to be communicating.”


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