Rethinking Grading Policies in a PLC

There’s an interesting conversation brewing here in Wake County, y’all.

Our system—which adopted a standards-based report card for elementary schools seven years ago and which has long talked about moving the standards-based reporting system to middle and high schools—is considering dropping the practice in grades 3-5 for a return to traditional letter grading.

What caught my attention, though, was the feedback being left by parents, teachers and community leaders in the comment section of the article. 

One comment in particular—left by a tutor—stood out as an accurate reflection of both our traditional beliefs about—and the ever-present failures in—our grading practices. 

She wrote:

I will never forget the child I tutored once who was thrilled to get a "3" in math and immediately announced she would get a "4" next quarter, except that was never going to happen.

This is a kid who turned in everything on time, worked hard, her work was neat and clearly had taken her a long time.

In another grading system she would have been rewarded for her work ethic — which by the way is the quality that really defines a good student more than anything else.

But in the 1-4 system, the quality of the work is not taken into account. It was so dispiriting for her that she could never receive the "top" grade no matter how hard she tried.

Interesting, isn’t it?  For this tutorand for the majority of teachers and parents raised in traditional school systems—mastery of content isn’t the indicator that should determine a student’s final grade.  Instead, a final grade should be a combination of content mastery and work behaviors.

At the risk of being blunt, the children that I never forget are the ones who roll into my classroom with huge knowledge and skill gaps, but have made straight As for their entire school careers because they are polite, well-mannered and hard working. 

I can’t get past thinking how badly their teachers have failed. 

You see, when we mix work behaviors into student grades, EVERYONE—parents, students, teachers, principals, guidance counselors—are left to guess at what the letter grades being assigned REALLY represent. 

That means children with average levels of content mastery—like the tutored child in the comment spotlighted above—earn the highest grades simply because they turn everything in on time, produce neat work, and are well-behaved. 

How is THAT helpful?

Rather than being honest and accurate in reporting the essential outcomes that wonderful kids have yet to completely master, teachers who mix work behaviors into grades often sugarcoat the truth because it makes everyone feel a little better.

Think about the consequences of these careless choices:

  • Parents are prevented from the opportunity to seek additional help for their children.
  • Students are prevented from the opportunity to have a clear picture of the areas where they need to continue to study.
  • Teachers are prevented from the opportunity to intervene immediately.
  • Schools are prevented from the opportunity to target the skills that large numbers of students are struggling with.

To put it simply, mixing work behaviors into our reporting of student grades blurs our collective vision—and when our collective vision is blurred, it’s impossible to work smarter.

What does this mean for your PLC? 

Here’s a few thoughts:

You’ve got to develop a system for clearly defining the academic outcomes that you expect students to master—and then you’ve got to share those outcomes in approachable language with parents and students.

One of the reasons that parents and students want to prioritize work behaviors in our grading practices is that they are tangible and observable. 

Neat work and determination are obvious to everyone who works with children.  You can see it in action no matter who you are or what training you’ve had.

For parents who have little real knowledge of what is in the academic curriculum for each grade level, that’s often the only way to judge just how well their children are doing. 

Recognizing this, responsible PLCs develop lists of essential objectives written in student and parent friendly language that are referred to constantly. 

Doing so enables both parents and students to begin evaluating levels of content mastery, too.  No longer are their opinions about success based on work behaviors only.

Need some help with this process?  Then check out these two posts:

Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals

More on Student Friendly Learning Goals


You’ve got to find a way to report on work behaviors without mixing those reports into a student’s academic average.

Don’t get me wrong:  I DEFINITELY believe that work behaviors have an impact on the future success and failure of students.

In fact, I spend a TON of time trying to help my middle schoolers to develop the kinds of habits that characterize the most effective adults.

But I’m determined to try to report on those behaviors separately from a child’s level of content mastery. 

I want the number grades on student interims and the letter grades on student report cards to be a representation of content mastery ONLY. 

What does that look like in action? 

Most years, I use a work behaviors rubric developed by a guy named Robert Canady with my students. 

Sent home with every report card, this rubric allows me to give targeted, specific feedback about the kinds of work behaviors that a student is demonstrating in my classes.

My goal isn’t to eliminate work behaviors from my assessment of students.  Instead, it’s to elevate work behaviors in importance by reporting on them separately.

Want to learn more about separating work behaviors from academics?  Then check out these two posts:

Waiting to be Torched

Pushing Back the Flames


Long story short:  Our traditional views on what grades are supposed to represent need to change if we ever really want to see students achieving at higher rates. 

We need to start reporting on mastery at finer grained levels.  Parents and students need to understand the content that they’re being expected to learn—something that is nearly impossible if we don’t consider rewriting standards into student-friendly language.

Parents and students also need to have a clear picture of content mastery AND work behaviors.  The only way to do that responsibly is to start reporting on content mastery and work behaviors separately. 

Is this a conversation your PLC is ready to have?

13 thoughts on “Rethinking Grading Policies in a PLC

  1. Matt Johnston

    Admittedly, I have only skimmed all the comments, so if this was covered, I apologize.
    Let me put a different spin on matters. Not to blow my own horn too much, but in my early schooling in elementary and middle schools, I didn’t have to work very hard to make good grades in the academics. I was able to get by with doing the reading (what little there was), the homework and listening in class.
    What I didn’t have was very good work habits. I was sloppy with my homework, didn’t put a lot of time into it (particularly after I learned that I could get good grades despite being sloppy), and did not learn how to do basic things like taking notes in class or on reading until well into high school.
    So while my academic grades were good, my work habits were abyssmal. Had my work habits been a separate grade, my parents and teachers probably would have insisted I develop better work habits. Even now, a 14 years removed from college and six years removed from law school, my note taking habits are something I have to consciously work on, it is not something that comes automatically.
    So, by not separating work habits from academic progress, we actually harm students on both ends of the spectrum–those who have learned that neat homework and respect in a classroom will earn them passing grades despite poor academic understanding AND those who are able to get by academically but who could do so much better with better work habits.
    Just a different spin on the subject.

  2. Mario

    Good topic Bill. Three years ago I made the switch from the 100 point scale to a even distribution scale. I stopped grading non academic factors (i.e. behavior, attendance, participation, etc) and focused my grading on achievement of academic targets (i.e standards).
    What has made this change successful is in educating the parents and students on why an even distribution scale is fair to every student.

  3. Charlie Underwood

    As we know, not all students are good testers and there are many kinds of intelligences. Why not provide alternative assessments for these students? Let them show what they learned in a way different from the traditional summative assessment. However, remember that no test is perfect. There is error in every assessment. Eventually, teacher judgment plays a part in a final evaluation.
    I agree that behavior and effort should not be part of a grade which is supposed to be valid for the learning targets, objectives, goals, or standards.

  4. Christine

    My district went to standards based grading years ago. Our report cards have a separate “effort” section for each of the subjects, as well as grades in each subject (I teach 5th grade). The current thinking at my school, and a few other elementary schools, is that students can’t get a “4” in anything, since that would mean they are working at least one grade level above the one they’re in, and that happens rarely, if at all. (I disagree with this viewpoint) One thing that has to happen is that the standards based report card has to divorce itself from the letter grade system. Mastery is mastery. Parents shouldn’t be trying to find an “A” or a “B” grade in a standards based system. Where I think the standards based system is lacking is in clearly established criteria for simple mastery, more advanced mastery, and very advanced mastery. There’s a vast difference between those, but no way to indicate it other than with a 3.
    Also, since I teach in CA, which uses a 5 point scale on its standardized testing, I wish my district offered the same in grading choices. On that test, a 3 means “basic”, a 4 is “proficient”, and a 5 is “advanced”. While I detest the standardized test itself, I think it offers a much more accurate grading system My school is just beginning to form a PLC, and we’re not ready to take on the grading system yet, but I hope we will address it soon. (PS ~ we don’t include homework in subject grades, but do so in the effort section.)

  5. MelissaSchad

    Wonderfully written post! This is a huge issue I have with our system today. As a special ed teacher at the middle school level, it is often difficult to have the conversations with parents about their students’ skill levels when they have been getting great “grades” through elementary school. We need to separate the content from the behavior. We also have to quit adding in “homework” grades as we shouldn’t be grading the “practice” shots are kids are taking before the assessments. This is always a huge issue in our building, as many teachers come from the traditional “junior high” mentality when it comes to grading, and it is just so frustrating! Thanks again for addressing such a large issue so well!


    Thanks for sharing this perspective. I had no idea that such a big district was engaged in something that I wish my (slightly) smaller one could achieve.
    I agree that evidence-based assessment and student-led conferences are key. How about electronic portfolios for the middle and high schoolers to show what they know?

  7. Jane

    In Los Angeles Unified, we have report cards that divide a students achievement by academics (standards-based) and work habits. The two categories are separate throughout the entire report card. As a parent of a special needs student, I want a clear picture of where he stands in his ability to meet grade level standards AND his work behaviors in class.
    It does no one any good to give a student a 3 in reading just because he is well behaved and works hard, but can’t read. In our system a 3 is meeting standards. It provides parents and students with the assumption that everything is fine, but when they are unable graduate from high school or pass a high school exit exam, it can be too late to provide the intervention they need.
    Even though though teachers are suppose to use mastery towards standards for grading, that is not always the case. Grading is usually done by individual teachers and it could also be subjective. I have had students in the past that have gotten all 4’s on report cards the previous year, and when I give them 3’s or even 2’s, the parents are up in arms. I am not alone. As teachers, we need to provide clear evidence (I am not talking standardize tests) based on student work and educate parents on what standards are expected at each grade level and what they look like, in addition to just providing a score on a report card.
    I am a firm believer in show, not tell when it comes to grades. I have student-led conferences (even in Kinder) where parents can observe their child demonstrate where they are at in meeting standards and learn what they need to do to move them forward. A grade is just a number or letter on paper. It doesn’t mean anything until it’s tied to something concrete and real.
    Thanks for starting this conversation Bill!

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, Paul. You know how much I love your work.
    Whats interesting about my work behaviors rubric and approach is Im not sure how effective it will be at building intrinsic motivation simply because it currently carries very little weight with my students and parents—and that drives me flippin nuts.
    I regularly have kids tell me that their parents dont even look at the rubric. The grade is all that matters, Mr. Ferriter, theyll say. Ill get grounded if I dont have an A.
    So what I worry about is that until we completely pitch grades in true Joe Bower fashion, extrinsic motivators will always be the primary motivators in the minds of parents and students, which pushes formative feedback tools like the work behaviors rubric to the sidelines and limits their effectiveness.
    I guess full-court parent-presses need to become a part of my approach now. Until I can get moms and dads to take work behaviors seriously, theyll be worthless.
    Does this make sense?

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Karen,
    Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words!
    Im going to try to tackle your questions in a follow up entry this week. I just wanted you to know that Im listening—but dont have the time to write more this weekend!
    Rock on,


    As you know, this is a topic that has been on mind a lot over the past few months. I have decided that the steps you describe here might be the easy ones for me and my PLC.
    What we will need to focus out efforts on this year is the second part: teaching and reinforcing work behaviors. We need to come up with a system that builds intrinsic motivation for my students to complete their work on time and to do their best everyday.
    Thanks for expressing this point so clearly.

  11. Hillary Gale

    This is something I have been considering how to do better in my own classroom. However, with a district-wide grading system that does NOT include behaviors, I have had a challenge doing so. For the next school year, I have decided to make it a priority to have more individual contact with students and parents to try to make those “non-academic” qualities a priority, while not…tainting?…the mastery level indicated in their overall grade. We’ll see how it goes as I fumble through creating some kind of system.
    It’s nice to see, though, that I’m not alone in believing that grades should be linked to mastery of content, rather than effort. There should be some way to measure that separately.

  12. Karen janowski

    Once again you have approached a typically sacrosanct topic with a challenging eye based upon years of classroom experience.
    I had this conversation just this week with a mother of a HS sophomore – her son displayed excellent work habits, always did his homework, participated in class, was orepared, yet failed the tests and his grades reflected that behavior only. My response was there must be a better way to assess his knowledge acquisition. Paper based testing wasn’t the best method for this student.
    On the other hand, what do we do with the fact he displayed excellent study and work habits and still performed poorly on tests? He is not unique.
    This scenario plays out in every classroom.
    The question becomes what do we do with the student who, despite excellent work habits, fails to master content? In the past, many teachers believed, “if I taught it and they haven’t learned it, it’s the student’s fault.” Paradigm shift time for those teachers to “if I’ve taught it and they haven’t learned it, time to reflect on my instruction and my methods of assessing knowledge acquisition.”
    Interested in your thoughts.

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