Empowered Learner ISTE Standards for Students

Getting over Grading

High school teachers need to define their grading criteria before the course starts. Grading is explained in the syllabus, presented to students, and shared with parents in the first week of classes. Determining what and how learning will be assessed are the first steps in the backwards design process described in Understanding by Design (2005). They include “-What evidence can show that students have achieved the desired results (Stage 1)?  -What assessment tasks and other evidence will anchor our curricular units and thus guide our instruction?” (Stage 2) (Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J., p. 146). Teachers cannot plan or teach without first determining their assessment and grading protocol. Regardless of whether teachers grade using the traditional point system, standards-based, or assessment-based grading, they all end up being translated into the letter grades and Grade Point Averages (GPA) that permeate the public school system.

ISTE standards are intended to improve education by considering the skills students need in the 21st century, yet the research on the effect of grades on these skills has not been extensive. As I dive deeper into ISTE Standard for Students 1a “Students articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process itself to improve learning outcomes.” I ponder on the following question:  What should be graded?    

The article Do Grades do any good? from (2009) includes an interview with Alfie Kohn, where he explains several negative effects that grades have on students regarding motivation and learning outcomes. He presents three main negative outcomes that result from grades: 1) student interest in learning is weakened, 2) easier tasks become favored, and 3) learning becomes shallow. Kohn asserts “As far as I can tell, there are absolutely no benefits of giving grades to balance against these three powerful negative consequences” (2009). It is his suggestion to eliminate grades. Kohn is one amongst many experts in the education field that shed light on the negative effects of grades.

The study The role of grades in motivating students to learn (2012) by Emily Stan analyzes the relationship between grades and motivation. The study consisted of the use of a questionnaire that analyzed teacher’s perception towards the effectiveness of grades in motivating students. The study “reveals a significant relation between grades and short-term learning, as well as between grades and external motivation.” Another interesting discovery determined by this study was the correlation between the focus on grades and the motivation students have to please their parents. Often parents are influencing their kids to focus on grades. If all parents receive are letter grades from schools, it is reasonable to assume they would expect their children to focus on getting good grades. Even if a teacher makes significant efforts to direct students’ attention to learning, grades continue to grasp the focus and motivation of students and their parents. To change this focus on grades, teachers need to provide feedback on learning to students and to their parents.

In the article An A for Effort? Grading Grades in the 21st Century, Joe Brooks boldly presents an argument for changing the current grading system. Brooks starts by discussing the goals of education and argues how grades have unintentionally become the goal. Besides the fact that grades are far from being objective and fair, they do not provide the information students need. Brooks explains how life skills such as responsibility, decision making, perseverance, cooperation, independence, sense of self, and positive image are fundamentally important. Grades, as they exist now in K-12 education, hinder such skills, and according to Brooks, “often do more harm than good” (p. 5). The article explains the difference in the role that grades play in a vocational school or university, and how they compare at the K-12 level where there is a significant range of student abilities. Brooks also offers suggestions on how to move beyond grades. He proposes re-evaluating educational goals, differentiated assessment that goes hand-in-hand with differentiated instruction, combining and comparing teacher evaluations with student self-evaluations, and providing useful feedback to students that is completely personalized.

Based on all the research and recommendations from many experts in the field of education, it is reasonable to conclude that grades should not be used in any learning activities or formative assessments. As teachers and administrators begin the integration of 21st century skills and implementation of digital tools to support learning, it is important to consider the negative effects that grades have on learning, because they can deter from the main objectives. Instead of grades, teachers can leverage digital tools to provide valuable personalized feedback. When students articulate and set learning goals, they should be based on specific learning targets rather than grades. When students use technology to achieve their goals, the technology should not provide grades, but rather feedback that is directly related to their goals. When students reflect upon their learning, they should be reflecting not on grades but on what they have learned, the process by which they have learned, and how much they have advanced towards their learning goals.


Brooks, J. (Jan 14, 2019). An A for Effort? Grading grades in the 21st century. Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators. (Mar 12, 2009). Do Grades Do Any Good? 

Image retrieved January 24, 2021 from

Image retrieved January 24, 2021 from

ISTE Standards for Students. Retrieved from: 

Stan, E. (2012). The role of grades in motivating students to learn. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69, 1998-2003. 

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, Jay. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

7 replies on “Getting over Grading”

What a compelling topic to investigate and explore especially as society evolves and the definition of “success” is becoming less tied to academics.

The findings from ” The role of grades in motivating students to learn” really resonated with me especially the insight about “the correlation between the focus on grades and the motivation students have to please their parents”. This is a stark reminder that if we want wider acceptance on changing the way grades are being conferred, a larger scale mindset shift needs to happen – at the parental level and societal level.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comment that students should be reflecting on what they have learned instead of just on grades. It does appear that in our quest and pursuit of “good grades”, we seem to have missed the point in true learning.

Yes, grades appear to be a motivating factor for completing assignments, especially in high school. I taught at a Co-op for homeschooling students, and at a public Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) school where no grades were given. The motivation on learning contrasted from the traditional public schools where I have worked. Just like 21st century strategies and standards are reshaping education, I hope that practices on assessment and grading also undergo a transformation.

I found myself nodding in agreement at every point in this post. You explain clearly how valuable it is for us to rethink an emphasis on individualized growth as a learner rather than our traditional emphasis on grades.

There was so much in here that provided opportunity for reflection and further careful examination of our individual practices that it is difficult to choose one or two things to emphasize. But this statement was particularly important for me to consider as a classroom teacher: “When students articulate and set learning goals, they should be based on specific learning targets rather than grades.” I feel like that many of our students have grown so used to being motivated by grades rather than the achievement that the grades are supposed to represent, that this can be a difficult transition.

This seems like an especially important transition for educators to make given another excellent point you make in the post about how grades in our current system prevent the development of: “life skills such as responsibility, decision making, perseverance, cooperation, independence, sense of self, and positive image.”

Great collection of resources here, Yanira. As I’ve widened my professional learning network (PLN) to include more higher ed resources I’ve seen this movement grow in volume if not acceptance.

One related thing I also see articles on fairly often is “grade inflation” – the general rising of letter graders and GPAs. After reading your piece I’m now wondering whether some professors don’t assign higher grades because they’re less interested in “the grind” and more interested in helping students learn. (That’s one explanation, I’m sure there are others.)

What would you say to concerned parents thinking, “No grades sounds awesome, but how do I make sure my kid gets into a good school?”

Yes, grade inflation appears to be common. I was surprised when I learned that in some schools students can earn higher than 4.0. Great question! Because I teach High School, and the system has not yet been modernized to 21st century learning, I do have to assign grades. However, I do not have to grade everything. The school where I last worked had an assessment based grading system. Learning activities were not graded but intended to help students learn the content. 80% of the final grade was based on the mastery that students showed in the summative assessment taken near the end of the semester. The other 20% was for formative assessments that they could learn from and retake for a higher grade. Students would ask, is this activity required? How many points is it? Do I get penalized if I turn it late? I informed them that the activities are optional but that they would greatly help increase their learning. If students chose not to do an activity (which was rare), it was marked as a missing assignment, but it did not affect their grade. Students quickly saw the direct relationship that attending class and completing the assignments had on their overall learning and success on their final summative assessment. Their summative assessment was no secret. It consisted on the learning targets.

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