Grading to Communicate

As part of our professional development focus on assessment, my colleagues and I were asked to read from our choice of several articles (many of which came from the November 2005 edition of Educational Leadership, which focused on “Assessment to Promote Learning.” One article I found particularly interesting was Tony Winger’s “Grading to Communicate.” If you are concerned about the recent trend in grade inflation, I have to highly recommend that you read this article.

Winger proposes that teachers assess students in specific areas, such as formal writing, application, and conceptual understanding. The specific areas upon which each individual teacher focuses would vary according to subject matter, grade level, and individual course emphasis. Winger’s contention is that too often, students who do the homework are able to make excellent or above average grades — A’s and B’s — when their understanding is lacking as shown on tests or writing assignments. As teachers, we understand that the students’ true understanding and/or ability to apply or synthesize material is not what is reflected in their grades; rather, their work habits are the focus. As a result, we have a school culture that values the grade above the learning. Student assessment is not a reflection of what the student knows, but how well the student plays the school game. I think we have all had a student who demonstrates a firm grasp of the concepts we teach but has poor work habits that keep him/her from earning a grade commensurate with his/her true understanding of the material. I have several every year. These students don’t do the homework, but in spite of that, they still ace the test. On the other hand, we also have those little worker bees who do each and every assignment, but demonstrate large gaps in writing or on tests. In our hearts, we feel as if we are not sending them an accurate picture with that A or B, but as grades are most commonly assessed, it is more likely that the student who demonstrates little or no understanding but has excellent work habits will have an “inflated” grade.

As I read through this article, my mind started swimming with the possibilities. If I could make this work out, I could genuinely show students where they are, what they know instead of how hard they work. Don’t get me wrong. Strong work habits are necessary, and they should figure into the grade. Winger suggest making Work Habits about 10-20% of the average. Thus, a student who turned in a paper late, as in the example he gives in the article, might earn an A for conceptual understanding, but an F in work habits. The student is still penalized for not turning the assignment in on time, but he/she still has a true picture of his or her understanding rather than a grade that has been deflated due to lateness. In addition, in Winger’s configuration, homework assignments are part of the work habits grade; therefore, a student who always does his/her homework and turns work in on time is still rewarded and students who do not will earn poor work habits grades.

I think this system could give a student a clear picture of exactly what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, once the different areas of assessment are broken down. For example, students may discover that their poor work habits are truly an issue if isolated from their other grades — there is a direct correlation between whether they do their homework and turn in assignments on time and a percentage of their grade.

I think one thing a teacher would have to do to make this work is to grade assignments from several angles, which may not be feasible. I admit to feeling daunted by the prospect of grading an assignment in three areas or more — for example, work habits, conceptual understanding, and formal writing skills. On the other hand, I think this sort of feedback could be so critical for students in helping them to see a true picture of their progress.

I would like to learn more about it before I proceed to try it out, but the prospect of this sort of assessment really excites me. Some things I need to do to make it work:

  • Probably weigh grades by percentages instead of figuring by total points, as I do now.
  • Collect fewer work samples, or I will go crazy with grading.
  • Create more rubrics.
  • Do more formative assessment, less formal assessment.
  • Figure out what to do about parents and students who “treat a ‘C’ grade the same way that students a few years ago would have treated an ‘F.'”
  • Determine whether or not this is something my department and administration buy into and support (my gut feeling is yes, but it’s better to know before I start).

9 thoughts on “Grading to Communicate”

  1. This sounds like an exciting way to go about grading, and something I try to do. I spend a lot fo time pulling kids into my room to go over their grades with them — much of what I explain is about missing work (the "work habit" portion stated above), and the fact that it is missing is what hampers their grade(s). Eventually all that work comes in and everything's hunky dory.

    Also, I speak with some students who diligently do every assignment, and talk with them about alternative assessments (more difficult for the students who get the work, and more stringent for those students who "know" but only give half-assed efforts to meet the already low requirements).

    I really like the idea of creating rubrics for this type of grading, because it becomes a necessity when you're leveling like this. I'll have to check out Rubistar (thanks for the link!).

    Surely your department and administration would see this type of grading as fair. Good luck!

  2. First, thanks for your thoughtful response to my post about Scott McConnell (here).

    My daughter's elementary school used rubrics for a lot of grading–very helpful for parents in understanding what was going well, and where the student was missing the boat. My daughter's middle school The Girls' Middle School, does not use letter grades. Instead there is a form of rubric, in which the students are evaluated both on quality of effort, compared to potential, and quantity of effort. I couldn't find a link to a sample evaluation. Over time, it has become more standardized.

    When she went to high school, she was really dissatisfied with the single-point grades. A full scale, rubric-type assessment she thought was more motivating and more educational.

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  4. is it possible that you have this article (grading to communicate) on your computer and could email it to me? thanks!

  5. Have you checked out Grant Wiggins' "Big Idea" online newsletter ( The current issue focuses on grades, and some of the articles are fantastic. They should be — Wiggins is the father of "backwards design" in curriculum development.

    Love your blog. Great writing, and very thoughtful.

  6. Why is it important to give students who "ace the test" but who don't have good "work habits" anything less than an A? If the goal is to teach them knowledge and skills, and they demonstrate that they've acquired those things, what difference does it make if they had to work as hard as the other students to get there? Obviously, if they can ace the test without working hard, they don't *need* to work hard, so why should they? Why can't they work on something else instead? Or daydream?

    I do understand the desire to reward hard workers with higher grades. I've done it myself: I've given students who never got a B on a paper a B for a final grade because I counted things like timeliness as part of the final grade. But really, those grades were inflated, and I always figured some history prof would read a paper by one of my former students and wonder what I'd been smoking when I gave him or her that grade. Either that, or s/he'd wonder if I knew what the hell I was doing.

    In the end, I'd rather we did away with letter grades altogether, as others have suggested. Just evaluate the how well each student is progressing toward the desired outcome, or standard, or whatever it's called. Then you can call out things like "work habits" if they're negatively affecting the student's progress or if you want parents to know that you know how hard the kid is working.

    No matter what, it just doesn't seem right to penalize kids who don't need to work hard any more than it seems right to penalize kids who are working hard but who still struggle academically. If you get rid of grades, you get rid of the reward/punishment piece of evaluation and get down to the nitty gritty.

  7. Grades are not going anywhere anytime soon. That's a reality we have to deal with. I can think of few instances when I have had students whose poor work habits did not have a negative impact their learning; however, I can think of many instances when good work habits had a postive impact on their learning. I should have been more clear about that, because students with poor work habits do well on some things and not on others; I don't think I've ever had a student with poor work habits ace the entire class. Let's say, hypothetically, that you do have a student who can ace tests without taking notes, doing homework, etc. What happens when they reach the wall? What happens when they find themselves in a class or life situation in which their lack of work habits does have a detrimental effect on what they learn? What then? They can demonstrate that they have acquired knowledge, but I argue that work habits are a skill, and poor work habits do have a negative impact and should be considered.

  8. Thank you for this food for thought. It's complicated to be fair, maximize the students' learning, and not tax my already heavy workload. Students need the skills, but from what I've seen, the ones who are determined find the most success in life–no matter their deficiencies. Most of these students don't have parents breathing down my neck, though. We're talking about the students who work themselves to death trying to get ahead. I always get the feeling, "If we can just get them through school, they'll be fine."

    Thanks for the discussion…I'm already thinking of some new approaches for next year.

    I enjoy your blog and plan to visit again soon!

  9. Hey-

    My administrator had us read the same article. I thought it was great as well and decided to try it this semester. I had also read Grant Wiggins' book "Understanding By Design" last summer and felt like the two ideas fit well together. I'm almost done with the semester and it was much more of an undertaking then I first realized. However, I'm very glad I did it and will continue to work on the "conversion" process.

    I'm also beginning my master's project and would like to focus on all of this. Have you done any more research or run into any more good resources?

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