Grading Students: Changing the Rules, Finding the Balance

Community May / Out of The Box May / May 11, 2018

– by Dan Jones –


  1. “If your assignment is one day late, you will receive half credit on the assignment.”
  2. “All missing assignments will be entered into the grade card as a zero.”

I can remember using these rules in my classroom as a way to encourage students to turn in assignments on time. Not surprisingly, though, the students who were not going to turn in assignments on time were not motivated by either of these rules. These rules just served to frustrate me.  I struggled with the dilemma of a student who had written a fantastic paper but was earning an F on it because it was late. What was I grading: academics or behavior? What was my classroom focused on, learning or authority?

When I moved from a traditional classroom to a flipped classroom, not only did I evaluate how I presented content to my students, but I also reflected on how, what, and when I graded. As a traditional teacher, I graded everything. I graded worksheets, participation, and, I am ashamed to say, I even entered completion-of-assignment grades. The grades were final…I was working from a fixed mindset. I did this for eight years.

So much of my professional reflection, which led me to flip, came from how my administrators handled my decision to quit teaching. I had hit rock bottom in my career. I could not see the point in teaching one more year. My students didn’t care about their academics, and I felt completely ineffective as a teacher. I expressed my frustration and jaded attitude during a meeting with my administrators. If they had responded to me as I would have if a student came to me, hating school and not able to show any mastery of content, I would have been out in the hall getting disciplined for my attitude. That is not how my administrators handled the situation. They told me that I could not continue to teach the way I had been, but I was a teacher. They encouraged me to find a new way to teach. My administrators were not looking at where I was mentally as a final assessment of my ability as a teacher; they were looking at my potential. Why, then, was I treating my students as though their behaviors were a reflection of their ability as students? Talk about an awakening.

As my instructional strategies evolved, it became more and more apparent that flipped learning was more than a teaching strategy; it was the underlying instructional method (meta-strategy) that allows other methods to be more effective and class time to be more supportive. Shouldn’t our grading be taken to the next level as well? Grades are meant to reflect how well a student understands the content standards, not how successfully a student checks the boxes of assignments. The problem arises when a student doesn’t do the assignment at all. Should that student get a zero for not doing the assignment, especially if the grade is meant to reflect how well the student knows the content? In Thomas R. Guskey’s article, “Solving the Problem of Zeros in Grading” (Phi Delta Kappa International, 10 June 2013,, he discusses that if a student receives a zero for incomplete work, it will take nine perfect scores to recover academically. There is also the pitfall of the completion grade. Because a student completed the assignment, he/she receives a complete mastery grade of 100%. In both cases, we are grading a behavior and not the learning.

The idea of growth versus fixed mindsets gives us a window into how to consider student learning instead of behavior. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. A fixed mindset sees learning as static. It is focused on an individual’s performance. When faced with challenges, someone with a fixed mindset either avoids or gives up easily. The opposite is true of a growth mindset. Learning is seen as something that can be developed or grown. It is also viewed as a process, not an event. When faced with challenges, a growth mindset allows a person to persevere or push through.

The table below shows some of the striking differences between traditional percentile grading compared to standards-based grading. As you look at the differences, one can easily see the correlation between percentile grading and fixed mindsets and standards-based grading and growth mindsets.


Traditional Grading System Standards-based Grading System
1. Based on assessment methods (quizzes, tests, homework, projects, etc.). One grade entry is given per assignment 1. Based on learning goals and standards. One grade/entry is given per learning standard.
2. Assessments are based on a percentage system. Criteria for success may be unclear.   2. Standards are criterion- or proficiency-based. Criteria and targets are made available to students ahead of time.
3. Uses an uncertain mix of assessments, achievement, effort, and behavior to determine the final grade. May use late penalties and extra credit. 3. Measures achievement only OR separates achievement from effort/behavior. No penalties or extra credit is given.
4. Everything goes in gradebook regardless of purpose. 4. Selected assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, etc.) are used for grading purposes.
5. Include every score, regardless of when it was collected. Assessments record the average – not the best – work. 5. Emphasize the most recent evidence of learning when grading.

Adapted from O’Connor, K (2002). How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

A grade is a measurement of the learning that has occurred. When we grade an assignment, what are we looking for? Are we looking for how many answers the student got right, or are we looking to measure the learning that has occurred? A student who gets 50% of an assignment correct fails the assignment. If we look at the learning that has occurred, has that student demonstrated mastery of some of the content? With traditional grading, there is finality to the grade, especially on summative assessments. How often have teachers graded an essay by going over it with a fine-toothed comb, making corrections to grammar, adding comments about the wording of sentences or paragraphs, only to have a student look at the grade and ignore the edits? The grade is a finalizing statement about how well the student did on the assignment. My question is this: Does the grade reflect the learning that has occurred?

Kids are by far more complicated than what an A, B, C, D, or F can communicate. The student who maintains a B or C average may be one of the hardest working kids in the class and has developed a sense of ownership in the learning process. What’s more, if that student began the class with no mastery of the content at all, a B represents a substantial amount of learning. Flipped Learning gives us the time to get to know the complexities of our students because we are working with them in an active learning environment. If a traditional grading system isn’t the best measurement of student learning, where do we go from here? I recommend a look into Standards-Based Grading (SBG).

SBG is a system of grading based on academic content standards. Students’ learning is measured based on their growth through the academic standards. Because students’ grades connect to the content standards, they do not align to a test or assignment. The tests and assignments are used to determine a student’s degree of mastery of a standard. SBG focuses on growth rather than a fixed interpretation of proficiency. SBG is focused on the academic growth of a student. Because the grade is not determined by an average of test scores, it is determined by the growth a student has made toward mastery of a given standard.

Grading using SBG is much simpler than it may appear. Instead of a student earning an A, B, C, D, or F, the student earns a 4, 3, 2, or 1. These numbers tell the student the level of mastery that they are achieving. Take a look at this chart:

4 = The student has exceeded the standard.

3 = The student has met the standard.

2 = The student is approaching the standard.

1 = The student is not approaching the standard.

Work Habits = This category covers behaviors: Completion of homework, behavior in class, timeliness, working with peers, etc.

Using this method of grading also allows teachers to grade what state Departments of Education ask schools to assess: state standards. Students are no longer given a zero due to behavior. Behaviors are an entirely separate category. SBG puts the focus on academic achievement and not on activities, homework, or organization.

Have a Conversation

In a flipped environment, the group space is an active learning environment centered around a growth mindset. Teachers can move throughout the classroom having meaningful conversations with students about the content. These conversations lead to a deeper understanding of the content where students grow toward mastery. Teachers can identify where a student is struggling and clear up any misconceptions. Because the discussions are focused on moving students forward in their understanding, students do not have to fear failure on a given task. The focus is on learning. Flipped Learning is the meta-strategy that enhances the implementation of SBG.

When compared to a traditional classroom, assignments in an SBG-flipped environment take on a whole new meaning. Traditional homework is completed outside of the guidance of the teacher. Flipped classrooms have students complete those assignments with the teacher. The attention moves away from completion of the assignment toward attainment of understanding, and the student quickly realizes that his/her learning is the focus and priority.

Stop Grading Homework and Activities

Homework is the practice. When we grade the practice, and we allow that to have a direct impact on the overall score of the final evaluation of mastery, we have negated the whole purpose of the practice. Practice is where it is okay to fail. It is where we learn what we are doing incorrectly so that we can advance in our understanding. If a student struggles to understand a concept at the beginning of instruction and gets 65% of the information correct but by the end of the unit is demonstrating complete mastery, why, oh why, would the student not be marked as having complete mastery of a state learning standard? To be clear, homework should still be corrected and marked and extensive feedback given to the student. It’s just that no grade should be attached to that work. The learning process is not where the grade should be placed; the end result of learning is what needs to be assessed. Standards-Based Grading has a focus on where the student is at the end of a unit, not at the beginning or during the middle of the process.

Include Your Students in the Evaluation

Students need to be included in the evaluation process. A very simple way to involve students in the evaluation process is to ask them to rate their understanding of the content. I use a student rubric that looks at the essential question, as well as topics found throughout the unit of study. The students use the scale covered in part 2 of this series (scale of 1-4). By asking students to evaluate their knowledge, it allows teachers to see the student’s perspective on their own growth. Exit tickets are commonly used by teachers to see what students learned during a class session, but in a flipped classroom self-evaluations have the potential to play a more significant role in a student’s ability to recognize if they are achieving mastery.


Flipped Learning is the meta-strategy to give grades a whole new meaning. Flipped Learning supports the learning in an active classroom, and SBG is the assessment that evaluates what students learn. Due to the amount of time that Flipped Learning provides teachers to work individually with their students, SBG becomes a natural transition in taking grading to the next level. I would love to hear about your experiences with SBG and Flipped Learning.

Dan Jones
Dan Jones Jones
Dan Jones is a middle school social studies teacher at the Richland School of Academic Arts. He earned a BS in Middle Grades Education from Ashland University and a Master's Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from American College of Education. Dan is the author of Flipped 3.0 Project Based Learning: An Insanely Simple Guide. He is a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty and has earned numerous FLGI certifications including the certification Flipped Learning 3.0 Master Class Facilitator Certification Level - I.

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on May 27, 2018

I think this is an important piece on many levels but there is one that interests me the most. I think by changing the way we grade we can improve the social and emotional well-being of not only the student but the teacher as well. I know from being a father, a teacher and an administrator that kids stress over grades. Comments such as, “I’m worried about my grade in … or if I don’t get a …then I won’t have an A, B, C”, whatever. On the other hand, rarely do I hear the phrase, “I don’t think I can learn this skill or I’m not sure I can master…”
Standards-based grading help with this. It allows students to focus on the skill and the content and consequently they worry less about making mistakes. A student can do poorly on an assignment but eventually learn the skill and/or content and still do well. I also think this helps teachers relax because they can focus more on the student. They are less of a number, if that makes sense. Instead of, “this kid has an 87% in my class” it is like “this kid is so close to learning x skill.” It leads to a more thoughtful relationship.

    on June 3, 2018

    Jon, I love your comment that rarely does a student say, “I don’t think I can learn this skill or I’m not sure I can master…” This resonates with me. I had never really thought about this, but you are absolutely correct. I hear all the time, “I’m not a good student,” or “I just don’t get good grades.” Standards-Based Grading supports student learning rather than punishes failure. It tells students that they just haven’t mastered the standard yet. And yet is the keyword. Thanks Jon.

on May 28, 2018

Does this leave the conversation open about changing the system?
Unfortunately, we teachers live with the overriding imperative to have grades and marks producing a quantified result.
Good for political charts and data crunching.
I like the ideas put forward in the article and feel they are relevant and helpful to the learner.
Is the answer to completely divorce the two, evidence of learning and timeliness?
That is the ultimate but must be supported by a system that allows teachers the ability to actually have evidence to determine learning.
Without being the one responsible for chasing students who do not produce. Time poor teachers cannot be adding another administrative burden to their load.

on October 8, 2018

I felt this topic to be extreme interest to me on a personal level. I am a science teacher at a high school in an urban district with many low performing students who have much more to be worried about than the structure of DNA. It is a constant battle to get students to be engaged in their learning of things that do not have a direct impact on their everyday lives(as thy might see it). Many are poor test takers and have difficulty focusing. I struggled with holding students accountable for timely practice and I must admit that I am the “Traditional” style grading teacher. I have had numerous conversations with administrators and some teachers about not giving zeros. I agree that mastery of the academic content or skill should not be fixed and provide students with the opportunity to grow and allow them to fail. I believe that teachers who allow students to retake assessments to improve their score or allow them to stay after school to fix a homework assignment and get extra help are possible strategies to use that incorporate the growth mindset. However I also believe that school is not just meant to teach our youth academics. It also provides opportunities for them to show they can be dependable, responsible, and and reliable especially if working collaboratively with other learners. Aren’t these behaviors desirable to employers when they enter the workforce? Clearly the job of teachers is not just academic. On one hand my administrators are sending us to PD on social and emotional learning to better equipt us as teachers to help develop our students abilities to cope, communicate, and care with one another. Yet on the other hand grading practices are questioned based on the philosophy that we are assessing academics only and should not include scores that do not reflect this. Maybe perhaps there should be a grade for work ethic and a separate grade for academics? Which one do you think employers will look at? I would love to incorporate flipped learning. I believe this holds the student more accountable for the amount they are learning and how they are learning best. I agree that teachers can have rich discussions with students on an individual bases to address personal needs and misconceptions. I just am skeptical on whether this type of system requires a certain type of learner and environment or if flipped learning can be implemented for all learners no matter what but I would be willing to give it a try.

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