Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment, grading, leadership, and behavioral support. He is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher.

Are You a Tough Grader or a ‘Tough Grader?’

The caricature of the tough grader is familiar to most; the teacher who only doles out As or top marks to the truly elite performances. They often begin grading a stack of papers with the idea of holding back the As early on, in case someone deeper in the stack produced a truly exceptional paper.  

Often, this caricature has a sense of pride about the competitive nature of grades, whether that competitive culture was inadvertently or intentionally created. We often envision them crowing in faulty lounge about how too many As is a sign of weakness in one’s vision of excellence and represents a kind of dumbing down of education. “There can’t be that many truly elite students in one class; if they’re all elite, then none of them are,” they might add.  

They’ll make claims about how motivated the students are to work since there is a scarcity of top marks, knowing full well that the students’ motivation is fear of missing out on what will be the primary reason they will eventually be admitted to the college of their choice.  

This fear, however, doesn’t begin in their senior year of high school. “If I’m not getting As in eighth grade,” we can suspect some students might say to themselves, “what chance do I have when it really counts toward my college application?” I could go on.

What should a tough grader be like?

This romanticized view of the tough grader is tired, has no place in a 21st century classroom, and needs to be replaced with a more authentic vision for what being a tough grader is all about:   Being a tough grader should mean expecting excellence and creating rigorous criteria that is equal to the cognitive complexity of the standards or the learning goals being taught.

It should not mean making the top level of performance opaque, artificially more difficult to achieve, or only accessible to a select few.  

Let’s address the latter half of the description above first by examining more closely these misguided paradigms of being a tough grader. From this point forward, the caricature version will be referred to as the “TOUGH grader” (emphasis obviously on the “TOUGH”), while the new vision will be referenced as the tough grader, as more a reference to high expectations related to cognitive complexity.  

(Also, as a disclaimer, the references to A-quality work are just an efficient way to communicate the message of high quality. The As referenced are not meant to be associated with any predetermined percentage bands calculated under the traditional algorithms; the A references in this post could seamlessly be replaced by the word exemplary, or the number 4 as part of the most common standards-based scales.)  

Opaque performance criteria for the top level

Performance criteria needs to be transparent and is a basic principle of sound assessment. An assessment system is fair only when those being assessed have a clear vision of what success looks like. The TOUGH grader is likely to believe that to earn top marks, it is up to the students to “wow” them with a level of performance elite on a truly global scale.  

While that might be a slight exaggeration, what is not an exaggeration is the establishment of criteria that expects students to perform above the expectations of the standards and/or the grade level. What’s also not out of character for the TOUGH grader is leaving the top level undefined. “I’ll know it when I see it,” they declare, even though there might be some irony to the notion of knowing it but not being able to define it—how will they actually know if they’re seeing it?  

Making the top-level artificially more difficult to achieve

One of the benefits of the standards movement has been the specificity with which the expected learning outcomes have been defined. The standards, as written, articulate a cognitive complexity that can be identified by using Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Framework, Bloom’s original or revised taxonomy, or any other taxonomies that are useful in determining how complex the students’ demonstrations of learning are intended to be. In layman’s terms, that means there should be no such thing as having high standards or low standards, because we have the standards.

The TOUGH grader, under the auspice of having high standards, might well establish the top-tier as above and beyond, which makes the top-tier artificially more difficult some to achieve and impossible for others; it’s artificial since the criteria to reach the top-level is no longer connected to the cognitive complexity of the standards. At best, this is unfair; at worst, it is assessment as trickery. No adult working in any profession would accept this from their employer, as it’s the ones doing the assessing who are responsible for clearly articulating the criteria if, indeed, fairness, honesty, and transparency in assessment matters.  

Only accessible to the select few

Restricting access to the top tier of performance is akin to moving the goalposts. If, for example, the teacher uses the most sophisticated performance by a student as the bar, what happens if or when that student moves? What happens if a higher-performing student suddenly moves into the classroom? While the frequency of this occurring is rather small, frequency is not the issue; the issue is the movement of the criteria at all.  

One could also imagine the impact this might have on motivation. Yes, some students who regularly perform near the top might get their motivation from possibly cracking into the top tier; however, one might also imagine a significant number of students who from the outset have an “A isn’t possible for me” mindset. The TOUGH grader believes this is rigor; the rest of us know it’s not.  

Being a tough grader should mean expecting excellence and creating rigorous criteria that is equal to the cognitive complexity of the standards or the learning goals being taught.  

An expectation of excellence

The tough grader begins with the belief that all students can learn and an expectation of excellence. It’s not a hollow demand that leaves students on their own to survive but rather an intentionally orchestrated experience that sets a rigorous expectation as the instructional target and surrounds students with the necessary guidance and support to get there.  

Some students might need more support and multiple opportunities to demonstrate excellence than others; this is irrelevant to the tough grader, as the focus is squarely on excellence for all.  

By setting rigorous criteria, teaching to that criteria, and surrounding students with the necessary support and interventions to get there, teachers send the message that they believe in the potential of each and every one of their students. It is still primarily up to the student to fully invest in their learning and rise to the level of excellence established.  

Clearly, students on IEPs or those who might have other identified acute learning challenges will need reasonable expectations of excellence if those challenges obviously interfere with their ability to reach the top-level of performance; that doesn’t mean they can’t eventually get there, but this needs to be considered on a student-by-student basis.  

The trend, as standards and instructional programs evolve, is an increase in sophistication since knowledge and information has never been more readily available. As the standards increase in rigor, so does the vision of excellence.  

More than ever, students are expected to be critical thinkers, creators, and collaborators in ways that align with a 21st century society. Teachers need to set rigorous expectations and be tough graders, but in a way that is fair, honest, reasonable, and compassionate—in a way that says “I believe in all you, and together we’re going to get there!”  

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