Grading: What Have We Got to Lose?

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March 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, after having some conversations about time management with student teachers, I felt inspired to tweet about it. Just to set the stage, I had about 1,400 followers and have never had anything go viral. I use Twitter for fun, for professional learning, and to connect with people I don’t know in real life.
This is what I tweeted: “Teachers: you do not have to assign points or a grade to every single thing kids do. Please like, respond, or retweet if you agree. Trying to reassure a young educator.” No hashtags, and I didn’t tag anyone. Just — what I thought — was a simple, true statement, with an equally simple ask. Well, after 440 comments, 1,400 retweets, over 12,000 likes and about 300 (!) new followers … it seems I touched a nerve.
Grading is a touchy subject for teachers, and one we take personally. We pride ourselves on knowing how and when to assign grades, and often follow the same procedures for years without much thought about if what we’re doing is working. I know I did. We teach, kids do the work, we assess it. Seems pretty straightforward, right?
Assessing student work is one of the most time consuming aspects of this job. It takes up planning time, early mornings, evenings, weekends, holidays and breaks. Given that, if a teacher attempts to grade or “put points on” every single thing students do, the task can be overwhelming to the point of exhaustion and burnout.  
So we have to ask ourselves some tough questions.
  • Why am I grading this?
  • Have my students had adequate instruction and practice prior to this grade I’m saying they have earned?
  • Should I even be grading work that is practice?
  • Is this grade “final”? Can/should I allow retakes or reassessment?
  • How can I use class time more effectively so I don’t have to take so much home?
  • What about if my school or district requires us to enter a certain amount of grades?
  • How will I get kids to do this work if there are no “points” attached to it?
All of these questions came up in the 400 responses to my original tweet, as well as some really smart answers. (Shout out to Teacher Twitter!) I read through and saved a chunk of these ideas to compile for my student teachers (but then it occurred to me that perhaps I should write a blog about it — sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake). Here are just a few of the pieces and ideas teachers across the country shared:
This post by Catlin Tucker about grading student essays when your district has a requirement for number of grades entered is a keeper, for sure. I already have ideas about how to make this work with my juniors and seniors, even though my school (thankfully) does not take away teacher autonomy in that way.
Angelina Murphy (@magicalmsmurphy) created this thread about Peer Editing Circles which — with some adjustments — could be used for many types of writing assignments.
This piece was astounding to me. In it, Jeffery Frieden (@SurThrivEDU) tells the story of having 170 (!!) conversations with his students to find out what they REALLY think about learning, grades and anxiety. It is inspirational, but absolutely critical work that we can and should do. Not to mention investing this kind of time in our students will help answer some of those questions above.
Prefer to listen rather than read? Caroline Davis (@CarolineFabianD) shared this podcast episode of “The Happiness Lab” with Laurie Santos (@lauriesantos) called “Making the Grade.”
Need a new math mindset? Check out this piece, “A Grading Strategy That Puts the Focus on Learning from Mistakes” by Katrina Schwartz (@Kschwart), tweeted by Doreen Bergman (@DoreenBergman). The teacher featured in the piece has found a happy middle ground between all grades and no grades.
Matthew Johnson (@a2Matthew) even went so far as to share the first chapter of his new book, “Flash Feedback,” with my feed.
The Human Restoration Project (@HumResPro) shared this incredible Evidence Journal, created by Nick Covington (@CovingtonAHS). This YouTube video walks you through how to use this with students.
The responses are numerous and so, so smart. I encourage you to read through them yourself, and contribute if you think of something to add. Let’s keep this conversation going. Our kids and their success is much too important (and too complex) for us to reduce everything they do to points and letter grades.
And really, what do we have to lose by re-evaluating some grading practices? What do we have to lose by letting kids retake or practice before evaluating for a grade? What do we have to lose by giving kids second … or seventh … or twelfth … chances? Certainly not points.

About Cara Lougheed: I am a white, straight, cis-gender, non-disabled, married, middle class woman with 21 years of classroom experience in a suburban public school district in occupied Anishinabewaki land. My pronouns are she/her/hers. Anything you find here is based on my perspective, but I acknowledge that perspective has been limited by my experiences, choices, biases (implicit & not), and the unearned privilege I have had in my life. I hope to learn and grow from my colleagues across the state in the coming months as your Michigan Teacher of the Year.
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