If Grades don’t Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them?

Warning: I’m more than a little grouchy today.  

It’s probably because I spent close to four hours hunched over a stack of student work in the back of a dirty McDonalds grading papers yesterday.  It was a total grind — marking errors, leaving comments and looking for patterns in the mistakes made by close to 100 middle schoolers so that I can plan my next instructional steps is a heck of a lot harder than most people realize.  And that all has to happen BEFORE transcribing student marks into a paper version of my gradebook and then entering scores into our district’s online gradebook program.

All of that time was essentially wasted, however, the minute that I turned the assignment back to my students.  The simple truth is that my kids weren’t all that interested in the comments that I’d written on their papers.  Some quickly filed their papers in their binders and moved on.  Others dropped their tasks into the recycling bin like too much intellectual detritus and wasted energy after asking the question that makes every teacher cringe:  “Do we have to keep this?”

Sound familiar?

Chances are that it does. Grading practices — think writing letter grades or simple percentages on student papers as an indicator of mastery — are almost universally recognized and repeated in American schools.  And while our traditional grading practices might feel comfortable to parents and policymakers, they are stifiling progress.  Isn’t it hypocritical to preach about the importance of innovation in education while simultaneously clinging to a system which is almost as archaic as it is useless.

What’s even more frustrating is that feedback and assessment experts have been pointing out the flaws in our grading practices for a long, long time.

Need proof?  Consider these quotes from three of the biggest feedback and assessment experts in the business:

Dylan Wiliam:  “When students receive both scores and comments, the first thing they look at is their score, and the second thing they look at is…someone else’s score.  Being compared with others triggers a concern for preserving well-being at the expense of growth” (p. 34 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Grant Wiggins:  “The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback.  Grades are here to stay, no doubt — but that doesn’t mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback”  (p. 15 of this Ed Leadership issue).

Alfie Kohn: “Most of the criticisms of grading you’ll hear today were laid out forcefully and eloquently anywhere from four to eight decades ago (Crooks, 1933; De Zouche, 1945; Kirschenbaum, Simon, & Napier, 1971; Linder, 1940; Marshall, 1968), and these early essays make for eye-opening reading.  They remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization” (in this blog entry).

This all begs the obvious question:  If I know full well that grades are ineffective, then why do I keep giving them?

My answers to that question leave me more than a little ashamed, y’all.  I’m giving grades because there are times when my students don’t seem to respond to anything else.  “Is this going to be graded?” is often the first question asked when I introduce a new assignment in my classroom — and my answer can be a hinge-point for students, determining the amount of effort that they plan to invest in the task at hand.

And I’m giving grades because some part of me is convinced that I am being judged by the number of tasks that I score each quarter.  The narrative that I write in my own mind is that people — parents, principals, policymakers — see classes with dozens of individual grades as more rigorous and see teachers who are scoring machines as more professional and determined.  After all, we ARE data-driven organizations, right?  How can you make effective decisions without a heaping cheeseload of scores to sift through?

Finally, I’m giving grades because I’ve learned over the years that families can be consumed by averages.  I’ve seen the panic that sets in at the end of every quarter when the kids in my classroom realize that their letter grades aren’t where they want them to be.  Bs are inherently dissatisfying, Cs are a real disappointment and Ds are a complete disaster.  Giving more grades means giving students more chances to raise their scores — and giving students more chances to raise their scores feels like the right thing to do when averages are a priority for both parents and students.

Did you see what was missing in my rationale for grading papers?  

I spent four hours last night grading papers because my kids wouldn’t have invested in the task unless they knew it was going to be scored.  I spent four hours last night because I am worried about the perceptions of my peers and principals.  Now, I can wear my paper grading grind like a badge of professional honor.  And I spent four hours grading papers last night because I wanted to get a few more grades in the gradebook in order to help my kids maintain their averages.

But I didn’t spend four hours grading papers last night because I’m convinced that it will make a meaningful difference in what my students know and can do.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the four hours that I spent grading papers last night will have almost NO impact on the learning of my students at all.

Stew in that for a minute, would you?

And then explain to me why we are still giving students grades.



Related Radical Reads:

Learning about Grading from the Baljeetles

Are Grades Utterly Useless?

Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient



22 thoughts on “If Grades don’t Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them?

  1. Martin Joyce (@martinsean)

    Bill: When I was reading your introduction to this blog post I related to nearly every word. We want to give feedback, not just scores. And as Dylan Wiliam points out, they will only pay attention to the score, not the feedback. I’ve seen some teachers write the scores down in their gradebook, but not on the assessment, and only written feedback on the assessment. This seems like a solution, it just seems like it’s very time consuming and going to add on to the 4 hours you just spent.

    I’m glad you are raising this topic. I was sick of not getting specific information about what students knew by giving chapter tests. So, I have moved to standards based grading, and there’s a grade for each skill. At least with this system, students and I can pinpoint where they do not understand. They also get multiple attempts at it, with the last attempt staying in the gradebook unless they want to retake it. Unfortunately, this creates higher stakes the 3rd time you work on the skill.

    I like that you quoted Alfie Kohn too, because he points out the ridiculousness of the situation, with research decades ago saying how bad grades are, and we still do it. I think slowly we will get a solution.

    I can also at least say that homework does not count on my students grade so that no longer inflates or deflates their grade, unjustly.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Martin wrote:

      So, I have moved to standards based grading, and there’s a grade for each skill. At least with this system, students and I can pinpoint where they do not understand. They also get multiple attempts at it, with the last attempt staying in the gradebook unless they want to retake it. Unfortunately, this creates higher stakes the 3rd time you work on the skill.

      Sorry for the slow reply, Martin! Been working on a lot of other things. Haven’t checked in here lately.

      And the system you describe here feels just right to me. When we start grading by skill or standard instead of by task, we can really begin to turn grades into valuable feedback.

      I just wish that we could eliminate the grade completely somehow. I know that’s not realistic, but it is what I wish for the most.


  2. Educating the World

    Whilst not advocating the abolition all grading in one fell swoop, for the anguish that it might cause some colleagues in the teaching profession, I do advocate for far less summative assessment especially at the Elementary and Middle School levels, with the gradual phasing out of the practice of grading. As an alternative to graded assignments and tests I advocate frequent peer and self-assessment, continuous oral feedback, and written comments on students work suggesting ways for students to improve their work.

    For many teachers, and for some Administrators, it is going to take a fundamental shift in mindset to come to terms with the fact that formative assessment should rarely be graded! After all formative is a verb not a noun. The references I have read of students “doing a formative” or of “formative assessments not counting” worry me as it displays a lack of understanding of student assessment. In supporting teachers in raising standards we first need to ensure that they understand what formative assessment is per se. Looking over a child’s shoulder and asking them an open-ended question based upon their initial response is formative assessment. Saying “good job” or the alike has no place or value in a modern classroom. How can you improve your work is a formative question and encourages students to think critically. And further giving the student the answer has no benefit to their learning.

    Once a piece of work is graded the student, and often the parent, will take little heed of formative comments. It is the teacher’s formative comments that provoke students to delve deeper in the topic. Good formative assessment celebrates the student’s successes but also offers strategies for improvement and advice on how to develop a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. The only grade that could feasibly be awarded to the student is one of a summative nature and this should come only at the end of an assignment. Even then it is imperative that the teacher still offer formative comments and suggest way by which a student might still further improve their work in generic terms that can be readily applied to other assignments and learning experiences.

    To my mind the most important assessment data is that generated by a “good” classroom teacher. I contest that summative assessment should only conducted at the end of a unit of study. This is effectively between 6-8 times per year in reality. This might be complemented by end of semester subject assessments/examinations. My only real reason for compromising and not completely advocating the throwing out of grades is because of parents’ expectations. By carrying out sporadic summative assessments it will means that parents will have regularly updated data on their child’s progress and will be able to see learning progress on a learning portal such as gradebook. It is essential that a gradebook system is set up to record summative assessment data, with no more than 10 updates per subject permissible and the removal of any averaging tool. Dr Justin Tarte succinctly demonstrates the problem with averaging grades and supports the extensive research of Professor Guskey at the University of Kentucky. Averages do not in any way reflect learning.


    Essentially all Summative tests/exams should be formative in nature. Teachers must modify instruction based upon the performances of their students. Moreover teachers must have a personalized approach when utilizing assessments to inform planning. They should seek to see where there are gaps in learning and understandings across the whole class but also focus on the micro dimension of the individual student. The effective use of formative assessment subsequently informs differentiated planning and instruction.

    When assessing student work I would suggest a teacher adopts a strategy considers the quality of the piece of work as it is at a particular time in a particular place. This does not imply that all students should do the same piece of work at the same time but rather than formative feedback should be individualized and personal. In doing so a teacher should model examples of work that the student should aspire to. Give children an opportunity to flourish and improve their academic performance. We don’t all get it right the first time and we should not be afraid to fail. Furthermore, offer help and advice to the student on how to achieve the desired outcome or learning target. Use what you observe and the evidence you collect in planning future lessons.

    I have compromised considerably on my philosophy relating to grading in the approach I suggest, as instinctively I would abolish all grading up to Grade 8. However, in recognizing the educational climate and the wishes of parents I offer such compromise in an attempt to encourage a much lesser emphasis on grading and a much great emphasis on learning. After all we continually emphasize real world learning experiences in modern education but perversely seek to grade these experiences.

  3. Prasenjit Chakraborty

    It is true that grades don’t enhance learning but it is certainly a measuring tool. Once learning outcomes are measured, remedial or further steps can be taken.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Prasenjit,

      I guess what I would argue is that there are lots of other ways to identify students who are in need of remediation and enrichment — and those methods come with the added advantage of not disincentivizing learning in our students.

      Does this make sense?

      I get that grades can be used to “measure learning,” but their negative impact on learners and learning outweigh any of that value.


      1. mmebunker

        As educators, I think we know which students are struggling without assigning any grades. It is far more effective to provide them with prompts and questions to guide students who are struggling rather than to dishearten them. This doesn’t mean that the language we use shouldn’t indicate that they’re not yet meeting expectations, but a conversation is much more powerful (in a positive way) than a quantitative measurement.

  4. Jenn

    I feel your pain. I am a math teacher and I wish there was a better way. We allow students to do retake which really means I get to grade everything twice. ..they make corrections and do extra practice with a tutoring session from me in between but it’s an exhausting prices and I’m not sure it’s effective.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Jenn,

      And the crazy thing is I’m all for giving kids chances to do reworks. It’s the regrading that drives me nuts. I’m not against demonstrating mastery. I’m just against having to document all of it in an archane manner that has little impact on student learning. Does that make sense?


  5. georgecouros

    Hey Bill…I am struggling with this one. First of all, I don’t know if I agree with the process BUT I think that I am really struggling because of the system that puts a great teacher like yourself in a position that grades do matter.

    I will try to articulate this the best I can.

    I started blogging because I have a real passion for education. I love sharing my thoughts on education and my learning, because it is something that I get really excited about. If you commented on my blog and gave me a grade, I think that you would deflate or hamper that love. Honestly, the thought of it makes me cringe.

    But the difference here is that I get to write about something I love, and there are so many things that we have to teach our kids that they have no interest in for the sake of what someone or often a group of people removed from the classroom and from our kids deems important for them to learn. When we can tap into kids passions we don’t need to use the typical “carrot and stick” motivation, but when they have to share about something they don’t care about, it is really hard to get them excited. Many will say that a teacher’s job is to make learning real and relevant, but often we teach in a system that we are struggling why we have to teach it, and it is hard to be authentic to our students when we are struggling with these questions ourselves.

    Do kids need grades to learn? Honestly depends on what they are learning. It pains me that we are often find ourselves in a system that sometimes promotes “doing our job” over doing what is right.

    I might be way off but these are just my thoughts. Keep doing amazing things my friend. I just hope one day the system catches up to you.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      George wrote:

      But the difference here is that I get to write about something I love, and there are so many things that we have to teach our kids that they have no interest in for the sake of what someone or often a group of people removed from the classroom and from our kids deems important for them to learn.

      Hey Pal,

      First, jazzed to see you in this space and hope you are well! It’s been too long.

      Second, this is the crux, isn’t it? The kids who write for my #sugarkills and Kiva blog don’t get grades and yet they churn out remarkable work month after month — and they are excited to do it. None complain about coming. None complain about the expectation that they will write interesting content. None ask if it will be graded and none throw their work — literally or metaphorically — in the recycle bin when it is done.

      And yet those same kids will do all of those things when I ask them to write a lab report or when I assign a series of questions to measure their mastery of concepts like light, sound and heat.

      It reminds me of Michael Fullan’s thoughts in Stratosphere: “There is only one thing worse than being bored. That is being responsible for teaching the bored under conditions that restrict what you can do.”

      Now I get it: At least a part of my job is building relevance and interest around topics that the students may not recognize as interesting or worth of study. But I KNOW that the minute I grade that work, it serves as a disincentive to kids. It’s as if they’ve been conditioned to think that when something is graded, it’s schooling — and it comes with all of the negative connotations that surround schools — and when something isn’t graded, it’s learning.

      Really interesting stuff, that’s for sure.

      Thanks for pushing my thinking. I’m going to write a follow-up post based on this push.

      Rock right on,

      1. mmebunker

        I think there is a lot of truth in what George says here – passion means there is a natural level of intrinsic motivation present in the learning process. I don’t disagree with the fact that there are things we are required to teach that are not necessarily within the realm of passion for many students… but I do think it is possible to inspire a love for LEARNING in students that can cross disciplinary boundaries. Perfect? No. But it is possible.

  6. wmchamberlain

    My biggest complain about giving grades is that they are often used to grade practice. When it comes to writing though, it seems to make some sense. If we buy into the idea that no writing is ever really finished then we have no true final product to grade anyway. As long as you have taught revisions and have given ungraded practice time for them to learn I think it makes a lot of sense that revisions could then be given for a grade because they are no longer really practice, just part of the writing cycle.

    1. literatureteacher

      Agreed that it’s frustrating when grades are used to assess (and by “assess” I really mean penalize) practice. There are students who produce high-quality writing out there who get “C’s” or “D’s” in courses like English because they didn’t do quick writes — or didn’t try on quick writes — or did poorly on quick writes and then revised and got better through practice.

      I’m not sure how to respond to those who are resistant to re-thinking grading. It’s important to be respectful because challenges to pedagogy (“hey look at this new body of research”) can come off as arrogant. I started creating a list here of concerns and responses: https://hsenglishpage.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/the-grading-question-responding-to-concerns/)

      1. Bill Ferriter Post author

        Hey Literature Teacher,

        First — I love your grading responses. They challenge some fundamentally flawed notions about grading practices.

        Here’s what’s interesting, though: I think teachers are more progressive than we give them credit for. Most of the teachers that I work with — in my school, in my district, in districts around the US — would be open to having the conversations your responses encourage. Sure, there would be one or two holdouts, but a solid majority would be ready to tinker with grading practices.

        The stumbling block in most places are parents and policymakers — and to some extent, principals who have to respond to the demands of parents and policymakers.

        I wonder if you could write a series of similar responses that teachers could use in conversations with parents who have concerns about grading practices. Or I wonder if the same responses work.

        My guess is that grading practices won’t change significantly until parents demand change.

        Any of this make sense?

        1. Amy Williams

          Hi Bill,

          Thanks for checking out the chart. I really haven’t experienced pushback from parents or admins though. My admins keep up with recent research and are pretty innovative folks. Parents also get it. They seem to like it when progress is rewarded, and when their students aren’t punished for something that isn’t related to a course objective.

          Amy Williams

  7. wmchamberlain

    Fortunately I have the backing of my administrators with my grading policy. I only give grades on assessments and projects. This means that I have far fewer grades in the gradebook than other teachers. This also means I spend two years trying to convince my students that the learning is more important than the grades they get for work.

    Here are a couple things I learned from not grading every assignment:

    1) Compliant kids do the work whether it is for a grade or not.
    2) Some kids who might normally fail because they don’t do daily work do really well on the tests. They know the content, they just don’t like doing the work.
    3) The kids that are typically considered the ‘best’ students hate the idea of not having lots of daily work they can cushion their grades with.
    4) Even though the students are encouraged to retake any assessment they don’t do well on, most of them choose not to. Most of them are one and done.
    5) Kids still ask on every assignment if it will be graded….

  8. Sonia

    Hi Bill,
    I think you should require ypir students to act on your feedback. We started doing this in our English dept and we have had great results. We offer 50% of original credit for revisions as a result of feedback (that way the first draft has some skin in the game).

    It also reinforces the idea that most drafts aren’t final until they have had multiple revisions. In addition, the teacher has all kinds of data to show growth to the overlords (legislators).

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Sonia,

      I’m with you. I’ve been working pretty hard at creating time for kids to act on feedback this year and most experts agree that unless you plan on providing time for students to act on feedback, you may as well not give it at all.

      But isn’t it interesting that your team still uses grades to encourage the behavior? I’d do the same thing — so I’m not pointing out a flaw in your practice. It’s just that it seems like even the improved practices that we use are tied to grades, too. That drives me batty!

      Thanks for thinking with me,

  9. rhonimcfarlane

    I feel your anguish Bill! One thing I have tried with my students to encourage their investment in the learning process, is to grade them on their draft development. Let me explain. I use GoogleDocs with my students and the course I teach has 3 large assessment pieces that constitute their final grade. I break their first large summative task into smaller elements where I give them ongoing feedback via comments on their docs. I provide grades on each of these tasks based on how they invest in responding and acting to my feedback on their work. I spend a lot of time talking about the value in seeking feedback, asking questions, evaluating their research processes and how they acknowledge the development of new skills. The grades I apply to these tasks are based on how they invest in their own learning process and challenge themselves. Initially this can mean that a student who submits a task without responding to feedback or developing multiple drafts, may produce something that in traditional grading would warrant a high grade, but I am not grading the end product but instead the process by which they developed the end product. Ultimately those students who push themselves and reflect in these small formative tasks, generally are more successful in the summative tasks which are graded against the achievement criteria. I hope this makes sense (it seems to in my head). I get great feedback from my students by the end of the semester and just last week, another teacher mentioned that one of my students was going on to his peers (in different subjects) documents, commenting and suggesting improvements. If I can support my students to truly engage in the process and value how they can be a support and seek support, I feel like I have had a win. The focus on learning and improving over the final grade is the ultimate success in my book.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Rhoni,

      Totally with you on grading the process over the product as a way to get kids to value something other than just the final product and then moving on.

      But the first reaction that I had while reading your comment was, “If I didn’t grade the process, they wouldn’t do it.”

      I’m not sure if that’s just a function of how I think about students and grades or if it is the truth.

      In an ideal world, the conversations that you are having and the comments that you are leaving would be enough and the grades would be completely unnecessary. Teachers wouldn’t care about them. Students wouldn’t care about them. Parents wouldn’t care about them.

      (Can you tell that I’m wrestling with just how to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in my classroom this year? It’s consuming me — and I think that’s actually a good thing!)

      Hope you are well, by the way. I miss connecting with you!


      1. Cindy

        What if this helped one child find their way to better learning? Doesn’t that make it worthwhile? Sometimes it takes many tries to get through to a child and you don’t know which one will be the trick. I have watched you effect change in my children. One of them is a science teacher. You helped change her life. It was examples of good teaching (and yes that includes hours of grading papers – and occasionally driving a bus) to help mold our future leaders. I do think that grades make the children work harder, no matter the outcome of the grade. I applaud your efforts and have always been a supporter of public education.

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Hey Cindy,

          Sorry it took so long to reply to this! Somehow it ended up in the spam folder.

          And thanks for your kind words — you know how much I enjoy your kids! They are all amazing, that’s for sure. Please tell them that I miss them.

          As for grading, you are right: They do motivate kids right now. It is what most of them respond to.

          But that’s what worries me. Most aren’t all that interested in the learning part. They care about the grade. The learning is forgotten as soon as the grade is given. And they pursue the grade out of compliance — not out of interest for the learning.

          That’s a function of the system. We’ve prioritized grades over learning all along. It’s no surprise that kids learn to adapt to that system. I guess what I hope for is that we imagine a new system that incentivizes the learning over the grades. Not one where grades are abandoned — they communicate information quickly to parents, so they have value — but one where the grades are a second thought to kids instead of the learning being the second thought.

          Does this make sense?

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