ERIC Identifier: ED481815
Publication Date: 2003-06-00
Author: Boston, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation
High School Report Cards. ERIC Digest.
One of the things that hasn't changed much about schooling over the
years is the ritual of assigning grades to student report cards. Grades
serve many functions: they are a way to communicate with students and their
parents about achievement and effort; they are sometimes used to select
and sort students for various programs; and they can serve as an incentive
for students to learn and behave in certain ways. High school grades are
of particular interest to many parents and students because they are an
important factor in college admission decisions. This Digest summarizes
trends in grading practices and introduces issues related to standards-based
HOW ARE GRADES ASSIGNED?
According to a 1997 College Board survey of 3,000 high schools, a large
majority of schools use a traditional grading system involving A-F or numeric
grades (91 percent), report grade point averages (90.1 percent), and calculate
high school class rank (81.3 percent). Further, many teachers have a great
deal of autonomy in making decisions about grades. Nearly 85 percent of
high schools surveyed reported that teachers "may award any distribution
of grades they desire depending on student performance (e.g., mostly A
or mostly C)." A much smaller percentage required teachers to follow general
guidelines (6.6 percent) or strict guidelines (3.5 percent) regarding grade
While measurement experts urge that grades be focused on current levels
achievement, teachers typically consider a variety of other factors
grades, including effort, progress, participation, behavior, and attitude.
students alike tend to find these grading practices reasonable (Brookhart,
1994; Cross and Frary, 1999). By the high school years, teachers, parents,
and students tend to agree that communicating with parents is a less important
purpose of grading, and providing students with feedback is a more important
purpose. Parents appear less clear than their high school children about
what grading elements are important. In one survey, they rated major exams
and compositions, class attendance, punctuality of assignments, class behavior,
and progress as more important in determining grades than the teachers
and students did (Guskey, 2002).
CAN GRADES BE COMPARED?
Given the considerable latitude that teachers have in developing grading
differences in curriculum across schools, districts, and states, it
is not surprising that
there may be disconnects between students' grades and student achievement
measured by test performance. For example, the U.S. Department of Education
did a study that examined students' reports of their grades in English
and mathematics and their scores on two short tests given as part of the
National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. Students in high-poverty
schools (schools where more than 75 percent of students received free or
reduced-price lunches) who received mostly A's in English got about the
same reading scores as the "C" and "D" students in the most affluent schools.
The students who received A's in math in the high-poverty schools scored
about the same on the math test as the "D" students in the most affluent
schools did (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Significant grading variations
among schools were also noted in a more recent study drawing on the National
Education Longitudinal Study database (Willingham, Pollack, and Lewis,
How can we find out if an A earned in a subject in one school represents
the same level of achievement as an A earned in that subject in another
school? One way is to
compare student performance on end-of-course examinations. End-of-course
exams are developed by school districts or states and administered to all
students when they complete a course such as algebra or biology. Examining
how students' test results compare to the course grades they've earned
can be a good check on the rigor of an academic program. Fifteen states
now include, or will soon add, end-of-course exams as part of their high
school assessment systems (Somerville, Levitt, and Yi, 2002).
STANDARDS-BASED GRADING PRACTICES
Most states have embraced standards-based education, a process that
requires them to identify what specific knowledge and skills students are
expected to master at each grade level and then align curriculum, teaching,
and testing with those standards. Some schools are now experimenting with
changes in their report cards to better reflect student progress toward
achieving the standards.
Rather than the familiar A through F in each subject, standards-based
might feature numbers or phrases that represent whether students have
exceeded, or not yet met various specific performance expectations.
As an example, a third-grade mathematics grade might include a number or
phrase that would denote whether students exceed, meet, approach, or begin
to achieve standards in comparing, adding, and subtracting fractions and
identifying place values. Such a report card actually provides more detailed,
specific information than a traditional grade, though parents and students
may find the change disconcerting, and concerns have been expressed about
how colleges might evaluate report cards that don't show traditional grade
point averages (Manzo, 2001).
Report cards that combine traditional grades and information about progress
standards are also an option. Wiggins (1994) advocates a performance-based
report card that plots overall student achievement against norms and standards,
identifies strengths and weaknesses in specific areas, and also includes
teacher judgments about students' academic progress, growth, intellectual
character, and work habits. Marzano (1998) shows an example report card
that includes a transcript indicating how many times each standard has
been assessed, the average score obtained, as well as the highest, lowest,
and most recent scores.
Marzano further recommends that teachers reorganize their grade books
standards by allocating columns to standards rather than to assignments
Such a change can prompt major changes in teacher thinking: "Teachers
adopted this approach report that it moves them to plan their assessments
early and in detail, rather than simply assigning chapter questions at
the end of a reading passage or constructing a quiz consisting entirely
of forced-choice items.Instead, the teacher must constantly ask which standards
[s]he means to address, what assessment data [s]he will gather, and how
[s]he will gather it" (p. 60).
Some classroom grading practices are thought to be detrimental to the
standards-based education-namely, that clear information should be
how far along each child is in mastering specific knowledge and skills
that all are
expected to learn. These practices include grading on a curve and using
including zeros, as a form of punishment for students capable of doing
(Guskey, 2000). Deciding grade distributions after seeing how students
do relative to each other tends to put more emphasis on competition than
on learning. Giving low grades for poor work or zeros for missing work
to students who have the capacity to complete the assignments may let students
off the hook for not learning. An alternative approach would be to require
students to resubmit work until it meets standards, with remediation provided
as necessary, perhaps through after-school or Saturday learning sessions.
In all cases, it is important that teachers provide a written grading policy
that explains what contributes to grades, and how much each factor is weighted.
Brookhart, S. M. (1994). Teachers' grading: Practice and theory. Applied
Measurement in Education 7( 4): 279-301
College Entrance Examination Board (1998). Research Notes: High School
Cross, L.H., and Frary, R. B. (1999). Hodgepodge grading: Endorsed by
students and teachers alike. Applied Measurement in Education, 12(1): 53-72.
Guskey, T. R. (2000, December). Grading policies that work against standards
and how to fix them. National Association of Secondary School Principals
Bulletin, 84 (620).
Guskey, T. R. (2002). Perspectives on grading and reporting:Differences
teachers, students, and parents. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting
American Educational Research Association. ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 464 113.
Manzo, K. M. (2001). Districts tinker with report cards to make better
standards. Education Week, September 26, 2001.
Marzano, R. J. (1998) Models of standards implementation:Implications
classroom. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
Available online: http://www.mcrel.org/PDF/Standards/5982TG_ModelsStandardsImplementat
Somerville, J., Levitt, L., and Yi, Y. (2002). State Policy Review of
High School End of Course Assessment Programs. Prepared for the U.S. Department
of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Available
U.S. Department of Education (1994). Research Report: What Do Student
Mean? Differences Across Schools. Office of Research.
Wiggins, G. (1994). Toward better report cards. Educational Leadership,
Available online at: http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/edlead/9410/wiggins.html
Willingham, W. W., Pollack, J. M., and Lewis, C. (2002). Grades and
Accounting for observed differences. Journal of Educational Measurement,
39 (1): 1-37.