5 Ways to Build a Grading System for Student Success

Oct 26, 2023
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I still remember sitting in the conference room in 2010 when the idea was brought to me. Two of my colleagues had attended a conference that flipped everything I knew about teaching and the grading system on its head.

I folded my arms across my chest and knew that the alternative approach to grading that they proposed would never work. 

But, I always hear that open-mindedness is a virtue, so I decided to give it a shot in my classroom anyway so they had a chance to prove me wrong.

Seven years, and many successful students, later, the way I look at grading will never be the same. 

Here are five tips to apply the student-centered grading strategy my colleagues introduced me to in your own classroom.

Grading System Tip #1: Only Use Grades to Reflect Learning

It can be tempting to tell students that they will lose points if they are tardy, talk out of turn, or are otherwise being disrespectful in the classroom. However, when grades are influenced by behavioral factors, they don’t necessarily reflect the students’ actual learning.

Negative behaviors should certainly carry consequences, but make sure that those consequences don’t impact a student’s academic grade in your class.

Grading System Tip #2: Focus on Performance on Summative Assessments

Formative assessments, homework assignments, and small quizzes are all important learning tools that give students a chance to practice what they are learning. It’s important to remember, though, that small-scale measures of understanding like these should be weighted significantly less than higher-stakes summative assessments. 

Formative assessments gauge understanding as you move along the chapter or unit; summative assessments are intended to be administered after students have achieved mastery in order to demonstrate their learning. 

When the majority of a student’s grade is based on summative assessments, it will more accurately reflect their learning and mastery at the end of the unit and not the series of small breakthroughs and failures it took to get there.

Grading System Tip #3: Consider Accepting Late Work Without Penalty

Each student learns at a different pace. 

In a sequential course like math or a world language, it is problematic to ask students to move on to a new concept when they struggled with the previous skill. Sometimes, student understanding needs to be prioritized over planned curriculum schedules. 

Besides, as my principal pointed out when my colleagues and I were revamping our own approach to grading, in the “real world” beyond the classroom, time is a variable. 

When I am having a very busy April, and my taxes are due, I can ask for an extension. In fact, I was even late writing this blog post, so I simply asked my editor for an extension.

When a student comes to you with a valid reason asking for an extension, they’re building self-advocacy skills in addition to taking responsibility for their own learning. 

In the right circumstances, a less strict approach to deadlines can ultimately be beneficial to your students’ progress.

Grading System Tip #4: Offer Second Chances on Summative Assessments

Allowing a student to retake a summative exam is a polarizing issue. 

In my class grading system, students’ summative assessments are weighted to equal 85% of their total grade. So, when a summative assessment does not go well, their grade suffers immensely. I allow my students to retake these assessments, but only if they have completed all of their other formative assessments with a cumulative score of at least 70%. 

This immediately reduced the number of retakes in my class since most students who have met this prerequisite are already well-prepared to succeed on the summative assessment on their first try.

However, if a student is not happy with their summative assessment grade, I give them a completely different (though similar) summative assessment to retake that measures the same concepts. 

And, if students choose to go ahead with a retake, they don’t get to pick from their best score; they will receive the retake score, even if it is lower. After all, if the student did worse on the retake, then there is a clear disconnect in learning that needs to be addressed with the student. 

Plus, requiring students to accept their retake score serves as motivation to thoroughly prepare and master the concepts they need to.

Grading System Tip #5: Eliminate Grades Below 50%

No educator wants to see any student fail, and a zero in the grade book should be used only as a last resort when a student has not even attempted the assessment or assignment. 

On most grading scales, a score of 59% or lower is considered an “F.” If a student has attempted the assignment and only earned 20%, bouncing back from that score can be difficult or almost impossible. But 20% is an “F,” just the same as a score of 50%. 

Consider giving students a minimum score of 50% in your grading system when they have put legitimate effort toward the assignment. 

With the hard work and dedication that is what you ultimately want to see, it will be possible for the student to make sufficient progress to bounce back from their failure and fairly achieve a passing grade in your class.

Grading shouldn’t be all about judgment and punishment—it’s about progress. Adopting this approach has been revolutionary both for my teaching and my students learning. 

Thanks to my colleagues Kim B. and Renée K. for opening my eyes to a grading system that finally makes sense. Let me know how it goes in your own classroom!

Looking for more ideas to rework your approach to grading and other essential classroom processes? Check out this blog for helpful tips on all things classroom management!

*These opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Independent School District 192.

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