Guskey and Grading: Lots to Think About

Kids holding report cards
from Wikimedia Commons
This article is adapted from the version on my blog in March 2010

In education, the rule of thumb is that if you can use one thing learned at a conference then you should consider it a success.

In March, I joined several staff members from my building and my district at a conference with Thomas Guskey. Dr. Guskey spoke about ways to make grading and report cards more effective and more fair. While much of his presentation was presented in his new book Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading, he made our group think about our practice in a deep way. The group of teachers was so intrigued by what they’d heard that they all agreed to work with me to create a session on our grading practices with the faculty for the May Professional Development half day. Here are some of his main ideas, in italics, with my thoughts interspersed.

Why do we use report cards and assign grades to students' work?
What purpose should report cards or grades serve?
What elements should teachers use in determining students' grades?

We don't agree on the purpose of grades. That's the first problem. The various purposes are at adds with another.

Decide the purpose of grades first. Print it right on the report card for the parents to see.

  • This is the work that the teachers feel we need to do next. What is the purpose of grades and report cards? Communication with parent? Improving learning? Accountability? Middle school or private school admissions? Permanent record? Punishment? Celebration? None of the above? All of the above?

Grading is not essential to learning. Checking is essential to learning.

  • His idea here is that grading is not essential to the instructional process. What they need to learn well is someone checking on their learning; someone to guide them and shape their experiences.

Grading is evaluative, teacher is a Judge. Checking is Diagnostic, teacher is an Advocate.

  • This is a different way of thinking of the teacher. We do our best work with children when they believe we are on their side. I see many teachers make strong connections with the students not just deliver strong content.

Multiple Purposes Require a Multi-Faceted, Comprehensive Reporting System!

Don't have a report card committee, have a REPORTING committee.

Make the first assessment and grade the one that is most likely for kids to be successful as it will set the tone for that child.

  • When I taught, I told all of my students that they were starting the term with 100%, an A. Some never had that high a grade before and were very excited. If I had also followed Guskey's advice and made the first assessment and grade one in which all kids could see success, I am sure that my struggling students would h

    ave done better throughout the year.

Averaging is detrimental to students because one low grade affects the high performance of later work.

  • This is a very radical idea to most of us. We have averaged for many years and thought it was the right way to grade. Guskey makes a strong case for carefully considering whether using averages is the best way to show that the student has learned and made progress. This will surely lead to much discussion.

Give priority to most recent evidence: Throw out midterm if final is much better.

  • This point works really with our standards based report card. The idea behind this is that we are interested in the student mastering the standard. So, it shouldn't matter if earlier in the term or the year the student didn't master the standard. All that matters is that by the end of the term, the student got it. Most teachers were not trained this way. I certainly did not grade this way when I taught middle school. I wish I had.

Instead of zero, assign Incomplete and make the work required and immediate.

  • We should not allow students to fail to complete homework. Of course, there are times when a student can’t get work done (something happens at home, for example). This policy would really be aimed at struggling students who have learned that it is easier to fail then to struggle with the work. The zero allows that student to give up. The zero says that we are not really interested in the student actually learning the material. I am planning on challenging the teachers to ban the zero from their gradebooks. Instead, give incomplete and make the student get the work done. The Before and After School Homework club or a special homework detention would need to be set up so that students have to stay in and get the work done. When we let them get away with a zero we are letting them down. We must insist on there effort.
  • There are many in schools who would say that we are not teaching them responsibility this way. I would answer that a bad grade has rarely taught a student anything. Only a teacher can teach the student a lesson. So, let's teach them that the work and the learning matter, a lot.

Most countries use three grades per class: product (achievement), process (effort, attendance, etc), and Progress (growth)

  • Separate out the other stuff (homework, behavior, attendance, etc). Make the grade about the learning, the achievement. Then, list a score for the other stuff as it does matter and says a lot about a student. When we include those other items in grades, we are diluting what the grade stands for. Also, we end up with grades that do not reflect actual learning.

Grades have some value as Rewards, but NO Value as Punishments!

No evidence that low grades motivate a student. The students instead feels that class is not relevant. Do not use grades as weapons.

As you can see, Thomas Guskey gave us so much to think about in one conference. I'd say we broke the rule of thumb.



  1. Josie said:

    Yet more intensive extensive energy spent rearranging those deck chairs.
    Why on earth are people expending so much intellectual capital on a bankrupt process?

    October 17, 2010
    • Josie,

      While the system may need to be sunk, I am no position to toss teachers off the deck chairs.

      If we are going to take the vast majority of teachers with us as we reform schools, we have to start where they are. Teachers (and students and parents) know grades. They understand grades.

      If, through a series of chair rearranging, I can get a faculty to sit at the table and engage in the discussion, I have made progress. Not as fast or as far as I’d like, but progress none-the-less.

      October 17, 2010
      • Josie said:

        It’s not the teachers who are in the deckchairs. And no one wants to toss teachers anywhere. Teachers need all the support we can offer in their work in the “uncanny art of intellectual temptation” (J.S. Bruner 1962).
        Let’s work to get the focus back to where it belongs – children and learning.

        You write: “While the system may need to be sunk,…” Do you think the system needs to be sunk? If so, what are the best strategies for sinking it?

        October 17, 2010
  2. Chris Wejr said:

    Thanks for bringing this conversation to the CP site. This is one in which I am very passionate. In BC, we are trying to move to more Assessment FOR Learning and less Assessment OF learning. AFL is the ongoing coaching and feedback that takes place while AOL is the judgment that happens at the end that involves a number/letter. NO LEARNING TAKES PLACE WITH GRADING. As you said, if we think grades are a motivation for a struggling student, we need to give our heads a shake. What formative assessment (assessment for learning) does is it makes the majority of assessments part of the learning process – it is developed through the use of criteria, has student input, and relies on descriptive feedback. Research will tell you that if you put a grade or a mark beside some great descriptive feedback, it negates the value of the descriptive feedback as students only look at the mark. We need to stop grading everything – provide feedback but everything does NOT need a mark!

    When do adults get graded on their learning? Do we grade each others’ blogs and tweets? No, but we do this to kids and university/college students.

    I hope that in a few years we look back and say, “What the heck were we doing by trying to move learning to a number/letter?”.

    I have not provided a mark to a student in 4 years (this includes 1 year as a high school teacher and 3 years as an intermediate teacher). The only grade I give goes on the report card (because I have to). The learning that I see with students since I have made this transition is immense! I would NEVER go back to marking and grading everything. I ASSESS everything, but I do not mark everything.

    I could go on and on but if anybody wants to discuss this with me, please email me at or contact me on Twitter at @mrwejr. I love this topic!!!

    Some people that you must google around this topic: Ruth Sutton, Dylan Wiliam, Rick Stiggins, Anne Davies, and Joe Bower. Joe is extremely passionate about this and has abolished grading in his class.

    October 17, 2010
    • Chris Wejr said:

      For those of you interested in this topic, this is a great recent post by Joe Bower called “Grading Inequalities”

      October 17, 2010
    • Josie said:

      Hi Chris: And there are schools where there is no grading. And – gasp! – students actually get admitted to college.

      Point is – we have the knowledge. There is the track record. And although individual schools and teachers may need to make the compromises required by the “system”, they do not need to believe it is essential or necessary.

      And, for as long as they do need to go along, the advice in this post may be helpful (in rearranging the deckchairs.)

      October 17, 2010
    • Chris,

      I would love to hear more about how you used no marks in a school where that was not the norm. Did you need to prepare your admin and parents? What about the kids; did they need lots of work on your system?

      Until last spring, I did not realize the power of these ideas. I would do things so much differently if I were to teach again.

      Anyway, thanks.

      October 17, 2010
  3. There are lots of place in the world of data analysis where averaging results in misleading numbers. The classic is the average income in Kuwait where the billionaires skew the average to a number that makes the average person look well off. If fact, the average person is rather poor. We need a grading system where student efforts can be aggregated so that once their pile of effort and achievement is high enough they can move on to the next topic or course. The worst thing that can happen in this kind of system is no movement as it is impossible to go backwards. This isn’t the case with a system that averages efforts. Courses should have check points that students can challenge whenever they want and try as many times as necessary with no penalty for the number of times they don’t make the grade. This of course begs for an online component to do as much of the assessment as possible. Results of tries that don’t make it can be used to inform instruction for individuals and groups.

    October 17, 2010
    • Doug,

      What you say makes sense. It would require a large change in thinking for so many educators, and that is the challenge.

      I for one will keep moving the conversation in that direction one little bit at a time.


      October 17, 2010
  4. […] reading the article posted by Fliegelman, Guskey and Grading: Lots to Learn, it is clear that we have moved in the right direction according to the most recent […]

    October 18, 2010

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