According to a recent study, grading is one of the least stressful activities early career teachers have to complete. Grading is time consuming, however, and more grading-related questions are popping up in the news these days. For instance, are teachers allowed to reduce grades for late work? Are students allowed to retake tests on which they did not do well? It is essential that teachers have a clear and supportive grading system in place to address the scrutiny of today’s students, parents, and other stakeholders.

Setting up a grading system requires more than a calculator. A philosophical foundation is important to how a teacher grades. Having a philosophical basis for grading helps instructors explain grades, their meaning, and their value to students, who may then see the grade as less arbitrary.Two common approaches to further mitigate this arbitrary nature include normative-based grading and criterion- or standards-based grading. To build a strong, meaningful grading policy, instructors must choose the approach that best fits the course design and student learning outcomes.

Instructors who choose a normative approach will grade based upon relative performance. A teacher’s fallback practice may be to grade on a curve; however, curved grading is philosophically flawed in most course level applications. Effective instructional design models and psychometrics generally anticipate that students can master an end-of-course exam with a 70 to 80 percent score. Exams that do not reflect that criteria may have been poorly designed. Otherwise, instructional challenges or lack of student engagement could be to blame. Some college courses simply provide a curved score for students to lower the failure rate or to stratify student performance. This, however, does not evidence how students understood the content. Curved grades only show how students performed in relation to other students instead of reflecting students’ mastery of the materials.

Issues with curved grading methods were especially problematic when remote teaching was enforced during the pandemic. In many cases, remote learning provided new opportunities for cheating, and students were able to buffer their grades at the expense of those who did not cheat. In traditional bell curve criteria, for each student who earns an A another must fail. Therefore, normative grading practices effectively promote a winner and loser approach to grading. For instructors looking for a more equitable classroom, normative grading tends to miss the mark.

The other common approach is criterion-based grading. Students who meet an assignment’s criteria can earn a passing grade or even an A. This offers greater potential for equity in the grading system. Most letter grade systems are effectively criterion based.  A rubric that shows what criteria students must meet to earn an A-F grade communicates clear goals and standards. Students may choose to what degree they engage with an assignment to earn an A, B, or C, for example. One extreme of criterion-based grading is standards-based grading. Students are simply judged on whether they meet the standard. The grade may be Pass/Fail or a “B” in an A-F scale. Other factors eventually shape the final grade, such as whether the instructor accepts late work or the weight of an assignment toward a final course grade.

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