The problem with diminishing grades

As we’ve just finished our end of year reporting process, I’ve been reflecting on giving students zero if they hand a task in late. Whether it’s a straight zero for being a day late or whether it’s losing 20% per day, it doesn’t make sense. What a policy like this says is that a student who hands in their project a day late (or 5 days late) has learned nothing when in reality, the project that they’ve completed could have communicated the most extensive understanding of the topic they were learning about. Is this fair? Does the lateness say more about their disorganisation than the development of their understanding? In NSW we are required to use Course Performance Descriptors to allocate a grade at the end of the school year for Year 10 (and now Year 11) students. Even if a student handed in all their assessment tasks late and received zero, we should still be able to give them an “A” if their projects showed an extensive understanding. I wonder how many students will have received a lower grade than they deserve because they handed a task in late?

Consider this scenario. A student is working on a project that they have become totally immersed in and is wanting to learn more and add more to their final project because they are continuing to learn more. As the due date looms, the student asks for a request to have an extension, not because they are sick, just because they don’t want to hand in something that’s not as well done as they feel they can do. It’s worth noting that I’ve never encountered this scenario myself, but I wonder what I would do if I wasn’t bound by school policy and have to do what it dictates?

A diminishing grade system, whether it be a zero policy or 20% per day, is no more than a big stick to help with management of students to complete their work in an orderly fashion I’m sure because it doesn’t seem to be there as a tool to help accurately demonstrate what students’ have learned.

Some other things to consider:

  • What effect does the zero have on the student’s motivation to learn? Joe Bower has given some thought to this both here and here
  • Why give a mark or grade anyway? Does it give an accurate reflection on what they know?
  • The board of studies in NSW doesn’t require us to give a grade at all until the end of Year 10 if we don’t believe it’s suitable which means a zero policy could be redundant anyway (although we do need to report a 5 point scale twice per year) but so many of us do anyway. Is that just historical?

I’m planning that in 2013 I will be giving away the grades and working with students to enjoy learning without the fear of judgement. I’ll be focused on giving quality feedback and allowing students the opportunity to improve what they’ve done rather than seeing a grade as an endpoint to their learning.


6 thoughts on “The problem with diminishing grades

  1. Great thoughts.
    Assessment is about informing teacher/student/parent of what has (and hasn’t) been learnt. Always a bit crazy to try and summarise that in a single mark or grade.
    The punitive system misses the point. Quite a challenge to find a system that promotes learning, has a practical timeframe for the marking and is fair.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Peter. I sometimes wonder about the ‘fairness’ of what we do in schools. Is it fair that all students complete the same tasks and learn the same things at the same time all to be submitted by the same deadline? Is it fair that students with different abilities are compared? To give students feedback that they can continue to act on to improve their understanding of the content seems fairer because the assessment of their learning isn’t reliant on performance in one task at one point in time.

      It’s my understanding that in NSW, it’s the outcomes that should be assessed, not the syllabus content (which should provide a framework). Therefore, there is no reason why students have to study or complete the same thing at the same time. In PDHPE, there’s no reason why when studying Nutrition, students shouldn’t be able to choose an area of nutrition they are interested in and learn about it. I can’t help but wonder – Could we have them all studying something completely different at different times and still have them achieve outcomes at the end of the year?

      Does that make sense? I hope it does.

  2. Hi Jay,

    We also give the 20% deduction for a day late and the big zero for three days late. I hate giving the zero and I often end up doing a deal with the student so that I can avoid the dreaded 0 on the report. I have a few questions in relation to your no grades for 2013.
    1) Will you still record a mark for the task but not give it to the student or are you abolishing marks completely?
    2) Will a mark eventually appear on a report or is the school moving to a more outcomes style reporting system?
    It seems to me that the culture of the school community needs to change on not giving a mark as parents in particular seem to see it as evidence that their child is on track. (whatever that means.)
    I sat in the audience of our presentation night yesterday and Student A who is 1st in Maths, 1st in English and 1ST in Science gets the largest round of applause while Student B who receives the diligence award only gets a polite clap. That send the message that 99/100 is a more impressive achievement than the student who works their backside off.

    1. Phil,
      Thanks for your comment. The plan is that in 2013 I won’t give a grade for an individual piece of work that the students produce. However, because we are mandated by the government to report using a five point scale twice per year, I’ll still have to do that. How we come to that (by ‘we’ I mean me and the student) will be by using professional judgment, work samples, self assessment and the feedback on the task that the students receive that will be kept in a portfolio. I’m planning to write a blog post to explain what I will do once I have it firmed in my head. I had a chat to @joe_bower on skype a week or so ago about how he does it and that has been particularly helpful.
      You’re reflections on the school presentation night are a good reason to get rid of grades and even awards nights, which effectively are the highest form of grade that can be awarded in the year. Why should a student who is gifted and can easily get the top grade get extra reward yet the improvement in their learning may be nowhere near as significant as another student. And, who says that one student’s work should be compared to another student’s anyway! Nobody will deny that we are all individuals, however, we are all to learn the same things at the same time and be judged on it and have our learning compared??

  3. I agree Jay. Diminishing grades systems are about punishing tardiness, not recognising understanding. However, in “assessment” world, the issue of equity has to addressed – giving every student a level playing field to demonstrate their understanding. I haven’t yet met a student that needs more time to make a good assignment brilliant, but it may happen. It’s normally because of disruptions and distractions they can’t manage at their age – perhaps another reason to avoid high stakes assessment at that age, but that’s another story…
    I like your idea of abandoning grades and providing quality feedback in it’s place, but somewhere along the line you’ll have to provide a grade for reports. Unless, of course, you can change that requirement. That might be a worthwhile course top investigate – ask your boss if you can pilot a “gradeless” report to parents. Good luck with your quest 🙂

    1. Leaving a comment as ‘Dad’ will get tongues wagging if you aren’t careful! Thanks for your comments.

      As I said in reply to Peter’s comment, I have been thinking quite a bit about fairness and equity in assessment and I’ve come to think that a method that, a) doesn’t provide judgement or comparison; and b) allows students to receive timely feedback that they are able to act on as part of a conversation in learning sounds more equitable and fair than having all the students assessed at the same time using the same method. We all know that some students perform well in some types of assessments and others struggle. I’ve had students verbally answer tests and demonstrated significantly higher results in a test than when they’ve complete similar tests by hand. When this is the case, why do we continue to use the methods we do? Because it’s historically what we do? Because it’s the easiest way of summarising learning to write a report?

      Are they valid reasons for continuing with the same system we’ve always had?

      It’s worth noting that I’ve never had a student ask for more time to complete a task because they feel they want to do keep going and want to do more, but could that be a product of the system we have produced? One of my colleagues shared a story with me recently about a student who came to him in class and showed him his work and asked something along the lines of “is this good enough yet?”. Good enough for what? To stop and move on to the next thing?

      We do need to report twice per year with a 5 point scale but the way that this is generated isn’t prescribed. The board of studies gives two methods on how you can award a grade for Year 10 RoSA. Method 1 says that “This method will be useful where it is not considered desirable to aggregate the information to produce a single numerical mark.” This method gives you the scope to award grades, using the course performance descriptors without ever giving a numerical grade.
      For Year 7-9 there are no guidelines, but you can infer from the RoSA recommendations that you could be even more flexible. (You can see both methods for the RoSA here

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