Educators agree: grades should motivate students and measure learning fairly, but not all grading systems do. Educational leaders across the nation are turning to alternative grading systems to foster more equitable student development and raise student achievement.
Limitations of Letter-Based Grading
Letter-based grading has significant limitations, which can produce inconsistent results and widen achievement gaps.
Inconsistent Grading Methods
Letter grades can be inconsistent measures of student learning and work. Few educators receive in-depth preparation when it comes to best practices and research regarding grading. As a result, teachers resort to vastly different grading approaches:
- Weighing soft skills, behavior, test scores, and attendance into grades
- Formulating grades based on a combination of student effort and academic achievement
- Determining grades strictly on academic scores and the completion of assignments
Grades matter. Grade-point averages determine college acceptance, scholarships, and other important opportunities. As such, the wide variation in what a letter grade may represent creates an inherently flawed and unfair system for students: “A” work to one teacher could easily be “C” work to another.
Educators, like everyone, can hold unconscious attitudes that affect their understanding of students based on their race, gender, and class, among other factors. These implicit biases can influence how teachers interpret student behavior and effort. Biased perceptions can cause them to lower some students’ scores unfairly.
For example, research has shown that white teachers tend to give Black students lower scores than white students when judging student effort and participation. These lower grades can block students from educational opportunities and thereby widen the divide in student achievement.
6 Alternative Grading Systems
Educators can explore several alternatives to the traditional letter-based grading system. Each alternative method offers benefits that warrant consideration. The following approaches shift the learning focus and foster student development.
1. Mastery-Based Education
Mastery-based education helps students master a set of skills appropriate to their grade level. Once students become proficient in a skill, they progress to the next level. For example, in a math class, students may work on mastering the multiplication table. After demonstrating competency a designated number of times, they move on to another skill.
Struggling students don’t get failing grades. Instead, they continue to practice concepts until they’ve grasped them—and then move forward. Teachers give students updates on their progress, including what they still need to master. As long as students have picked up the skills they need by the end of the school year, they can advance to the next grade level.
This system allows students to progress at their own pace. Fast learners can advance quickly and excel, while slower learners have the time they need.
Pass/fail grading systems are straightforward. Students either receive credit for a class or not. This binary approach allows students to move forward as long as they complete the work that exceeds a failing threshold.
The pass/fail grading system can reduce pressure on students to earn high grades. This pressure can get in the way of learning. In some cases, grades can tempt students to cheat. In others, it can make struggling students withdraw and stop trying. These outcomes result in missed learning opportunities. A pass/fail approach shifts the focus away from grades and eliminates using grades as rewards; instead, learning is the reward.
Shifting attention away from grades redirects students. For example, students who might forgo extracurricular activities in an effort to get all A’s in a traditional grading system broaden their idea of what school success looks like. The pass/fail approach can also minimize competition.
Rather than tracking who earns the highest grades, students can spend more time reflecting on their own learning processes and goals. For struggling students, the pass/fail system offers needed relief and gives them room to concentrate on what they need to work on.
3. Live Feedback
Live feedback involves giving students constructive criticism and advice as they work. Rather than receiving an assessment at the end of an assignment, students receive guidance and input from their teachers while they work.
The live feedback approach emphasizes collaboration between teachers and students. Teachers help students along the way, responding to individual student needs. Students feel encouraged and guided when they don’t immediately understand a concept.
Live feedback has the added advantage of giving teachers important insights into student learning in real time. This allows teachers to better gauge what materials to review in lessons and how to pace instruction.
Self-assessments are another way to track student progress. Students consider the goals and learning objectives relevant to an assignment and then evaluate their work’s quality in light of those standards. Their self-assessments identify their strengths and weaknesses, giving them a chance to see where they may need to improve.
Self-assessment is reflective. By establishing their measures for performance, students monitor their learning processes. They also gain ownership of their learning. Self-assessments allow students to become problem solvers. The process shifts the focus from end results to process.
5. Digital Portfolios
Digital portfolios are multimedia collections of student work. They showcase student learning and skills and allow teachers and students to curate students’ best work.
Students explain their own portfolio pieces. This allows them to self-reflect. Additionally, portfolios offer a holistic way for teachers to assess students’ progress. A portfolio typically includes work from throughout the course of the school year. Choosing representative pieces over time lets students reflect on the learning process and note how they’ve grown.
Portfolios also give students various opportunities to demonstrate they reached learning objectives and standards. For example, although students may not have performed well on an exam about literary analysis, they can include a project in which they skillfully analyzed Macbeth.
Gamification in education involves applying game design concepts to learning in a way that tracks student progress. It turns mastering the skills and subject matter into a game. In doing so, gamification offers a fun, motivational alternative to letter-based grading.
For example, teachers can replace letter grades with point systems. Students collect points for various achievements. Points can buy students badges that show their mastery of concepts or skills. This approach converts homework and class time into opportunities to advance, as in a game. The process can be inspirational.
Build More Equitable Learning Environments With a Doctorate in Education
Finding effective grading systems that measure student learning equitably in addition to motivating students requires expertise in assessment strategies. Educational leaders should consider how alternative grading systems can achieve those goals while addressing differences among grading methods and issues such as implicit bias.
Learn more about American University’s Online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program and its focus on creating equitable and excellent learning environments.