Angela Freese is an author and speaker with expertise in assessment, leadership, system improvement, and strategic planning. Most recently, Angela served as a director of research, assessment, and accountability, as well as a director of learning analytics and systems improvements for school districts in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Seeing the Light: Opening Dialogue for Stronger Grading Practice

It’s 5:00 p.m. on a Friday night, and my phone rings. It’s a close colleague, Bryan, who is a middle school assistant principal. Uh-oh, I think. Given the time of day, I don’t anticipate this to be good news. He starts in, “Ang, I’ve got a good one for ya…” And so the story begins.

Over the past year, Bryan and I had been engaged in some productive dialogue around current grading practices at his site. He was new to his school—just in his second year—and hadn’t been too comfortable with some of his observations of teacher practice. Coupled with complaints from students and parents, he had been trying to determine the reasons for the dissonance between the school’s grading policy—as it lives on paper—and what was actually practiced in classrooms.

The particular event that had Bryan so worked up was regarding a student who was receiving special education services. This student had become a “favorite” (even though we aren’t supposed to have those!), and Bryan had invested heavily in supporting this student, both academically and socially. As such, he was very surprised to learn at the student’s IEP meeting that the student failed his journalism course first semester. The case manager was explaining that the student had not completed his final project and hence received a zero. This one mark in the gradebook was heavily weighted, so it immediately negated this student’s previous scores in class and, as a senior, put him on a dangerous trajectory to not meet graduation requirements.

Bryan was frustrated. He didn’t understand how a teacher could knowingly let a student fail, let alone a student who had specific goals in his IEP relative to organization and progress monitoring to promote timely completion of assignments. He asked me to send him the research—anything and everything I had—that he could give this teacher to help her understand the implications of her grading decisions.

Through further conversation with Bryan, we realized that the research wasn’t necessarily going to “convince” this teacher that her grading practices needed to change. We first needed more information regarding her mindset. Bryan and I brainstormed ways in which we could dialogue with this teacher to get at the heart of her belief system. We wanted to find out if her behaviors were reflective of beliefs that promoted responsibility through punitive measures, encouraged compliance rather than commitment to learning, or whether she thought that all students could actually learn at high levels in the first place. We strategized ways to keep the conversation open, in order to seek understanding and clarity throughout the dialogue.

The following week, Bryan found the journalism teacher during passing time and inquired about this student and the final grade. The teacher stated, “Well, all the students knew what the assignment was and when it was due. He failed to turn something in, and I can’t very well give him a grade in the absence of any work, now can I?” Bryan invited the teacher to stop down during her prep so they could have a chance to talk through the situation a bit more, without the bustling of students coming in and out of the classroom. The teacher accepted the invitation and honored that she brought an open mind to the conversation and would be reflective about the situation. This was a great (and unexpected) first step!

Bryan worked with the teacher to seek answers to questions such as, “Do you feel that giving 0% as a final summative grade is conducive to knowing what the student can do and produce based on the things you’ve been teaching him?” and “How have you encouraged the student to connect with you when he has questions about his work?” and “How could your feedback to students increase motivation and awareness of where they are in their learning?”

Much to Bryan’s surprise, the teacher’s reaction indicated that this had been the conversation she’d been waiting for. It came to light that although she wasn’t too comfortable with her grading practices, a combination of pressure from her colleagues and a lack of accountability to the grading policy from administration allowed such behavior to continue. Even though it was not supporting the school’s vision to ensure learning and provide accurate representation of and evidence that demonstrates learning has occurred, these grading practices had slowly become the norm.

In his book, Grading from the Inside Out: Building Accuracy to Student Assessment through a Standards-Based Mindset, Tom Schimmer (2016) lists the perils of punitive grading as follows (94–97):

The Perils of Punitive Grading

  • Punitive grading is inaccurate. Students should receive full credit for what they know. Penalizing late work or giving zeros suggest a focus on accountability and compliance, rather than an accurate measure of learning.
  • Punitive grading is misplaced. Students need to be explicitly taught how to be responsible. Schimmer reverses the example (p. 95), and suggests it makes little sense to impose a suspension on a student for an “academic misstep,” such as not being able factor polynomials or identify the main idea of a text. While there is an apparent connection between learning and effort, we want to instill grading practices that separate acknowledgment of academic achievement from the exhibition of learning behaviors.
  • Punitive grading and cheating. The choice to cheat may very well be grounded in a number of causes. The student may not want to do the work in the first place, he or she may not know how to do the work or may feel so incredibly lost at school that cheating is perceived as a way to save face and stay “safe” by simply making sure that something gets handed in. A compassionate educator will interrupt dishonest behavior far more effectively than the application of an academic penalty.
  • Punitive grading holds students less accountable. Schimmer asserts, “Real accountability means we expect students to complete all required assignments” (p. 97). If we don’t get a project done on time, it’s unlikely that our supervisor will say, “You know, that’s fine. The school board presentation I asked you to prepare was just optional. Since you didn’t turn it in on time, you don’t have to do it now.” As adults, we have accountability to our work because there are firm expectations that we will get our work done. For students, we similarly must hold them accountable to demonstrate evidence of learning. Not doing the work is simply not an option.

Bryan is fortunate to report that, as a result of engaging in a potentially difficult dialogue, the journalism teacher was inspired to make some changes that would better support student learning. The teacher realized that this student needed to provide evidence that would determine to what level the student had mastered the required application of content taught in her course. She worked directly with this student, as well as his case manager and counselor, to develop a plan for this student to work the required end of coursework. She also realized the skills and concepts being taught in her course were having an impact on students’ preparedness for future courses and even expected characteristics for performance in college or career. Given those implications of impact outside of the classroom, it mattered whether or not students invested in the work. In the following semester, the teacher opened up regular office hours and scheduled opportunities to provide feedback to students on their work throughout the course of the semester, to ensure that they had the skills they needed to successfully complete the final project.

As you prepare for the upcoming school year, consider how you might approach such conversations with staff members in your organization. How might you be able to shine a light on current practice in order to brighten opportunities for each of your students?



Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Building accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


  1. Ken O'Connor

    An interesting story with valuable insights. I’m confused by you identifying the assistant principal in a middle school and the student as a senior.


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