Why Do We Grade? A Look Into Evaluations and Assessments

Why do we grade?When it comes to evaluating the grading system of a school or school district, many teachers are content with maintaining the status quo. After all, there are so many other things to worry about in the classroom: discipline, curriculum development, lesson planning, parent conferences. Why waste time looking at a process that has worked for decades, if not longer?

This question is precisely the reason why more educational environments should take an in-depth look at how students are assessed each day. Schools are meant to be progressive atmospheres where pedagogy is constantly advancing to meet the needs of our students, so why should the process in which we determine their success or failure be any different?

A short history of grading

Historical record of grading and assessment in schools dates back into the 1700s. From the beginning, grades were based mostly on written comments by the educator. The first institution to use actual grades on a student’s record in the United States was Yale University in 1813. As time went on, the indicators used on a grading scale evolved from Latin phrases to numbers to letters.

By 1877, Harvard University developed the grading system most commonly identified by teachers and students today. Surprisingly, the percentages for each grade division that Harvard used in 1877 are not all that different from the grade divisions in place in many schools today.

Why do we grade?

Educational researchers such as Douglas Reeves, Robert Marzano, and Rick Wormeli have posed the question “Why do we grade?” to educators across the country. As teachers, it is understood that grading is part of the job. There may be a school or district requirement regarding the number of grades that must be recorded for each subject or deadlines that grades have to be posted. Often, grading becomes a clerical rote process that is seen as a chore.

The purpose of grading is simply to provide feedback. Whether the feedback is intended for the teacher, the parent, or the student, this is the foundational idea behind why we grade. Without proper feedback, even the best teacher will not see the type of growth he or she is looking for in the classroom. Teaching and learning can occur without grades, but feedback needs to take place.

Beyond the foundation of feedback, grades are intended to document student progress. This data allows teachers and administrators to assess curriculum and teaching skills for effectiveness. It also provides crucial information about the academic development of each student.  In turn this allows grading to guide the instructional decisions that take place within lesson planning. The best educators are those who allow the feedback to influence the direction of the lesson planning. These are the teachers who use a pencil in their plan books rather than a pen.

The dark side of grading

People become teachers because they believe they can help others. Visit classrooms across the country, and you will find dedicated individuals working above and beyond the confines of their required responsibilities. Still, these are the same individuals who often use grading practices that are detrimental to a student. Educational author and teacher Rick Wormeli would say that a grade represents a valid and undiluted indicator of what a student knows and is able to do. Teachers can be guilty of using grading practices that invalidate the grade that is given.

Are grades being used to provide feedback or are they being used to motivate and punish? Children are told that a report card is like their paycheck from a job, but grades are not compensation. Grades are communication. If an educator tries to use a grade for anything outside of feedback or documentation of progress, they are not doing their job effectively.

Proper grading leads to a brighter future

Academic Planning for College and Career Readiness is just one of the eight components of college and career readiness listed by the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy. In order for students to be prepared for the world beyond high school, they need planning, preparation, participation, and performance in a rigorous academic program that connects to college and career goals. Without proper feedback through effective and accurate grading practices, this component cannot be met. Teachers must look beyond practices that have been in place for generations and act in a progressive manner to help guide students toward the future.

As adults in the workplace, we desire feedback that is accurate and specific to our performance. This feedback shouldn’t be diluted with information that isn’t relevant to the tasks we are expected to perform. So there is no reason why we shouldn’t strive to provide the exact same service for those that we serve in the classroom each day. As highly effective professionals, we have a responsibility to review, refine, and question the paradigms in our career field. This is especially true if those paradigms keep us from doing the right things for children.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teacher Master of Education Administration courses.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.
  • Rick Wormeli, "Fair Isn’t Always Equal," Stenhouse Publishers
  • "Eight Components of College and Career Readiness," National Office for School Counselor Advocacy
  • Robert J. Marzano, "Transforming Classroom Grading," ASCD
  • Douglas B. Reeves, "Accountability for Learning: How Teachers and School Leaders Can Take Charge," ASCD