Rethinking Grading

Recently, our organization has been focused on Rethinking Education, and the need to reimagine when, where, and how students learn. Our schools are the product of a bygone era, designed to prepare students for work on an assembly line. Some changes have been made, of course, but the overall system and structures of schools look strikingly similar to those of 1924 and don’t align with the needs and realities of students in 2024. 

One way this misalignment manifests itself is in our grading system. Schools have assessed student learning and growth with essentially the same grading system for more than a century. Since this system was created, the field has learned so much more about the way students learn, the systemic inequities embedded in the design of traditional grading and assessment, and what type of learning leads to success in life. 

Reporting on learning (grading) should be aligned with what we know about the learning process, child and adolescent development, and the demands of career, college, and community life in order to build equitable, transparent, and student-centered learning environments. 

But traditional grading is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that making changes to this system can seem like an insurmountable task. That’s why we partnered with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and reDesign to support five unique high schools across Massachusetts as they interrogate their traditional grading practices and make shifts toward new systems that better measure student learning and growth. 

Since launching this “Rethinking Grading” pilot in summer 2022, we’ve seen that grading is just the tip of the iceberg. Moving away from A to F or 0 to 100% grading scales is only as impactful as the shifts made to how students learn on a daily basis. Each of the five schools we’ve been working with approached this iceberg from a different angle. 

Melrose High School made 50% the new minimum grade for completed work in order to make grading more mathematically accurate and less punitive. They created a common retake and revision policy, so that all students could receive up to 90% credit for revised work after following a designated set of steps. And they instituted a universal system where all teachers base grades on the same breakdown of summative assessments, formative assessments, and work habits. The Rethinking Grading team at Melrose High School wants to ensure students don’t have as many distinct grading policies and outcomes as they have teachers. Instead, they want students to know exactly where they stand in each of their classes and what they need to do for continued growth.

South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover has transitioned to a competency-based grade scale that consists of words instead of letters or percentages. They believe the terms Exemplary, Advanced, Proficient, Developing, Unsatisfactory, and No Credit—each of which has corresponding GPA values— better reflect expectations and feedback in the workforce. As the school’s Rethinking Grading team points out, what would it mean to get 70% on a haircut? While this example is especially relevant for vocational students, it is an apt metaphor for the way grading often fails to reflect life in the real world. The school also instituted a new reporting system, where students earn grades for power standards—which are department-determined bundles of skills and knowledge that students should strive to achieve mastery of based on state standards. Their grading portal and report cards display overall course grades as well as power standards for each course, each with their own grade. Any late work penalties are applied only to the “Work Habits” power standard. And the school’s new revision policy expects that students are able to demonstrate relearning, after which they will earn full credit for any revision or redo they complete. 

Springfield International Charter School (SICS) has been rethinking the way they instruct, assess, and grade students. Their goal has been to develop learners who can succeed and thrive at the collegiate level. The school is currently piloting a program where students receive two grades and narrative feedback from their teacher at the end of each assignment. The first grade marks their mastery of course content and the second marks their demonstration of transferable skills like communication, leadership, and peer support. If students apply the feedback on their next assignment, their overall grade is raised to reflect their continued progress. In addition, SICS has revamped their scheduling and instructional model to embrace an approach that mirrors the college experience and gives students greater control over their learning. According to the school, the result has been more academic engagement among students and staff, more well-rounded educators and learners, and an enhanced ability for students of diverse learning styles to access the curriculum. Read more about the SICS approach on page 17 of our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth Action Guide.

Revere Public Schools began exploring their grading system years before joining the Rethinking Grading project. Revere High School (RHS) has been gradually implementing various instructional strategies informed by Competency-Based Learning to better measure, develop, and communicate student proficiency. They’ve worked toward a series of goals including establishing core grading practices, identifying standards, and refining grading rubrics and revision policies. RHS has used their time in the Rethinking Grading project to explore and codify the relationship between curricular outcomes, assessments, instructional practices and grade reporting. A pilot team of teachers collaborated to develop model units across all departments to identify skills and competencies that should result for individual courses, the effective instructional practices that foster their development, and the assessments that demonstrate students’ proficiency.  RHS continues that work through ongoing curricular and assessment development in course teams, the design of and planning for implementation of a standards-based gradebook, and ongoing professional development experiences that grow competency-based learning instruction.

Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington has developed common guidelines for grading, where marks in all classes are determined by the same breakdown: 70-80% of grades are based on summative assessments, 0-20% on formative assessments, and 10-20% on habits of work. Behaviors, like late assignments, are reflected in their habits of work grade, and do not impact the measurement of students’ knowledge. The school encourages revisions and retakes and uses rubrics to help students understand where they are in their learning toward mastery of skills and content. They’ve begun to shift the structure of classes by crafting competencies and performance indicators shared at the district level. Classes now revolve around skills and content is presented in the context of mastering these skills. While they still offer honors, advanced, and AP classes for 11th and 12th graders, the rest of classes have been de-leveled.

Rethinking the concept of grading is complex, nuanced, and pattern-breaking work. We’ve learned so much from working with these five high schools. They’ve shown us that changing the grading process is only effective if it accurately reflects a deep commitment to developing curriculum, instructional approaches, and assessments that are student-centered and focused of students’ continued growth and learning. But they’ve also shown us that, while challenging, this work is possible and doable in all different types of schools across the Commonwealth.