By: Jeff Heyck-Williams

What’s in a grade?  Why do we grade? What do grades communicate?

These questions may seem to have obvious answers, but they warrant consideration as we realize that grading is a major way that schools communicate both how individual students are doing and how our schools are doing at educating our children.

The most basic way that we answer the question of why we grade is to communicate the progress and achievement of students within a class.  But this begs the question of what, exactly, these grades are communicating about progress and achievement. 

Unfortunately, traditional grades too often have been a bit vague at communicating the achievement of students.  At Two Rivers we have intentionally designed a grading system that communicates the complexity and depth of student learning.  We recognize that our system is different and therefore creates dissonance with traditional notions of grading.

There are three basic ways that traditional grading systems fail that we address through our grading system at Two Rivers:

  1. Traditional grades compare students to each other or to assignments.  Two Rivers’ grades compare students to standards.
  2. Traditional grades are general and one-dimensional.  Two Rivers’ grades are specific and Two Rivers’ reports acknowledge the multiple dimensions of learning.
  3. Traditional grading compartmentalizes learning.  Two Rivers’ grading recognizes that learning occurs along a continuum.    

Traditional Grades Compare Students to Each Other or To Assignments

At their worst, traditional grades are assigned by comparing students to one another.  This system of assigning grades comes out of a misapplication of the famous bell curve.  If grades are assigned in this way, only the top 10% or so can receive an A because grades are assigned on the curve.  With a system of comparative grading the majority of students receive C’s and inevitably some students fail the class.  This system of assigning grades is flawed from the start because it assumes that schools are in the business of ranking students versus teaching them.  A teaching perspective would necessitate the possibility that all students can achieve and thus receive the highest marks possible in the class.

Slightly better – though not by much — are grading systems that evaluate students on assignments.  In this system of assigning grades, tests count for a certain percentage, homework counts for a different percentage, projects for a different percentage and so on.  The problem with this system is that schools aren’t just teaching kids to take tests or create projects.  Rather, it is the content of the tests and skillsapplied in the projects that we are trying to teach. An effective system of grading should assess the knowledge and skills that we actually want kids to develop, not the assignment.

Two Rivers Grades Compare Student Performance to Standards

At Two Rivers, we have responded to this by developing a standards-based grading system.  This means that students are not graded either in comparison to each other or on how well they did on a given assignment, but rather on the degree to which they have mastered a given standard.  A single assignment may require students to call upon content knowledge and skills from several different standards. Thus, any given assignment  — whether a test, quiz, or project — can potentially have more than one grade associated with it.  Multiple grades would reflect the level of proficiency in each of those standards.  In this way, students can look at their grades and know specifically what content and skills they have mastered or still need to work on, information that a single grade for an assignment cannot capture.

Traditional Grades Are Too General and One-Dimensional

If your experience around grading has been similar to mine, grading at its best has always been an amalgamation of scores created by taking into account mastery of content, development of skills, and the amount of effort and focus.  Those scores are then boiled down to a single letter grade for the class.  Even with a syllabus that outlines weighting of assignments, it is often difficult to understand how each of the component assignments led to the final grade.

More importantly a single letter grade can’t tell you much about what a student actually knows and can do even.  After all, what does an “A” in physics mean?  An “A” does not tell you if a student understands quantum theory or if they can balance an equation.   It also doesn’t tell you how much effort they had to put into their work to earn the “A.”

Furthermore, while some traditional reports clump multiple dimensions, such as effort, skills, and content, into a single letter grade for a class, others effectively boil all learning in that class down to a single dimension — usually content knowledge.  This single grade from a given class thus conveys only information on how well the student mastered a given set of information.

However, as I’ve have written before, we know that students need more than a set of content knowledge to be successful in the 21st century economy.  They also need what we term expert thinking and complex communication skills.  A single grade — even a grade that takes into account multiple dimensions of learning — masks these dimensions by lumping process skills, collaboration skills, and content knowledge into the same bucket.

Two Rivers Grades Are Specific and Two Rivers; Reports Acknowledge the Multiple Dimensions of Learning

In contrast to traditional grading systems, Two Rivers intentionally provide grades on specific standards rather than giving omnibus grades for a given class.  By focusing on specific standards, a student and her family can know exactly what skills and knowledge she has mastered and what skills and knowledge continue to need work.  On our progress reports, we report on strands that comprise a group of standards, once again giving students a more specific understanding of the discrete areas on which they need to improve.

Our grading system is also designed to provide information across multiple dimensions.  The grades on given standards only reflect how a student is performing in comparison to that standard and not their level of engagement, participation, and collaboration in class.

Two Rivers addresses these type of intrapersonal skills through our Scholarly Habits: I work hard, I am responsible and independent, I am a team player, I care for my community.   Currently we provide narrative reports on how students are achieving these Scholarly Habits, separating them from assessment of whether or not a student understands a concept taught in class.  In this way we acknowledge that there are multiple dimensions of learning that can be teased out and reported on separately, and that each component builds on the other to form a well-rounded learner.

Consequently we don’t include homework as a component in determining grades for two major reasons.  First, independent work completed outside of class is not a reliable measure of whether or not a student has mastered content.  Second, homework completion is often a sign that a student has integrated a combination of organization skills and motivation that have less to do with understanding of a standard and more to do with what we would describe as intrapersonal skills.

Ultimately, reporting in this way provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge the specific strengths and areas for growth of each individual student.  Thus the student who needs to work on developing understanding but has excellent study skills can be acknowledged for the effort that he puts into his work while focusing on the area for his growth.  Similarly, the student who has a strong conceptual understanding but struggles to work with peers can be acknowledged for her understanding and focus on building her collaboration skills.

Traditional Grading Compartmentalizes Learning

The last way in which traditional grading systems fail is they operate under the assumption that learning has a clear beginning, middle, and an end — at which point grades are reported.  While there inevitably is a beginning and an end to the school year and there must be a point in which grades are reported, learning itself does not occur this way.  This assumption about a beginning, middle, and an end compartmentalizes learning into discrete elements of learning.  However, compartmentalizing learning in this way breaks up knowledge and skills into pieces that are often unnatural.

One result of compartmentalizing learning is that a student can’t achieve higher than an A or 100%.  This suggests that after a student has earned the A they have nowhere to grow in the class.  What this guarantees for a great many of our students is that they come to class having already mastered the content and effectively learn nothing more, though they achieve the A.  It is a reality in our schools today as always that there is a wide range of student ability in every class and some students will master the given content faster than others.  If our grading system doesn’t provide a place to report on students who meet the challenge to move beyond the outlined standards for a grade level or class then there is little incentive for the teacher to provide experiences that provides that challenge or for the students to strive to meet it.

Two Rivers Grading Recognizes that Learning is on a Continuum

Our scale acknowledges that learning is on a continuum and that knowledge doesn’t end with the mastery of a discrete standard.  Thus, a 3 in a given standard shows that students  have met or are on target to meet the standard by the end of the year; indicating that they are on grade level and performing the skills and acquiring the concepts we would expect of a student at that grade level. A 4 means they have exceeded the standard by no more than one grade level, while a 5 indicates that they are performing in relation to a given standard more than one grade level above their current grade.

Grading in this way communicates that learning – and the grades associated with learning — is a continuous process and that students can not only master a concept but can also continue to deepen their understanding and application of the concept.

While we realize that our grading system challenges the assumptions of traditional grading systems, we do so with the intent to fix what is broken about those systems. While our system may not be perfect, it better captures the essence of a community of learners that recognizes the necessity for authentic feedback to learners so that they can become leaders of their own learning.   By empowering our students with the  knowledge of what they need to improve upon, we uncover for them the process of learning and provide a foundation to make learning a life-long endeavor.