Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Grades, What are They Good For?

During remote learning, lots of schools began to question the role of grades. One school district in California decided to do something about it
Now What? Grading

Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools recognized the struggles their students were facing, many hit pause on traditional grading. In doing so, it gave some districts a chance to rethink grading altogether.   

Research has long shown that the traditional points system is riddled with problems, from unfairly factoring in non-academic considerations like turning in an assignment late, to lacking consistency based on the whims of some teachers, to actually diminishing student motivation. 

For the nearly 106,000 students who attend the San Diego Unified School District, those elements will no longer be a factor in how they are graded thanks to the adoption of a new standards-based learning system. 

“It’s the removal of non-academic factors in grading,” says San Diego Unified instructional support officer Nicole DeWitt. The elementary schools in the district have been using the system for a decade, but now the secondary schools will be providing students opportunities for revision and reassessment and shifting factors like classroom behavior and punctuality towards a student citizenship grade.  

The goal is to improve learning for students and make grading more equitable. Here are some of the ways San Diego’s new grading system plans on doing that:  

1. It will tackle inequity.   
It wasn’t a health epidemic that initially moved the district to rethink its grading policy but rather a societal one. In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the outcry for social justice in July 2020, the district evaluated its institutional practices and determined its grading practices were having a negative impact on students of color. 

“Seeing that there was a large discrepancy of D’s and F’s for students of color, students with disabilities, and ESL students, led to a change to make grading more equitable,” says DeWitt. In the first semester of school prior to the pandemic, that included nearly 30% of all D and F grades going to English language learners, while Hispanic students received 23% of failing grades and Black students 20%. Only 7% of failing grades went to white students. 

DeWitt and the district believe that by removing non-academic factors from grades and shifting the focus to mastery as opposed to a yearly average will give all students a more equitable chance of success.   

2. It will make mastery the goal.
While the school will continue to use a letter grade for college transcripts, teachers take a harder look at the criteria that makes up those grades and ensure that students are evaluated based on mastery as opposed to just earning points. 

“When a student gets an assignment back with points earned, it doesn’t give you much,” says DeWitt.

In the new grading system, students will have a clearer picture of where they stand in their academic progress thanks to standards-based rubrics and feedback. They will also have additional opportunities to show mastery as opposed to one make-or-break test, including student projects and presentations. The goal is to improve learning, but also relieve pressure and decrease stress for students. 

3. Faculty and families are involved.
Communication has been key for the district in getting all stakeholders on board with the new system. That has included rethinking communicating with parents about standards. Revising grading comments and feedback will be part of the next phase of implementation. 

The district also worked with experts in the field, including Joe Feldman, Ed.M.’93, an education consultant and author of the new book Grading for Equity, to give teachers in various academic departments a chance to ask questions about different ways to implement changes and brainstorm ideas for starting points. 

4. Schools won’t forget who this is all for.
Already other districts have reached out to San Diego Unified to learn more about their new grading system, and DeWitt says they are also in talks with the Hewlett Foundation about a partnership to do research on the impact of the grading policy on students so other schools can learn from it. But there’s one piece of advice she already has for school leaders thinking about implementing a grading change: remember your audience.  

“A lot of us in education tend to forget we have this ‘edu-speak’ that we put into policy that isn’t necessarily parent or student friendly. It’s crucial to talk with students, teachers, administration, counselors, and parents so everyone can look at the policy, review the language, and ask questions before it goes to the board.”   

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles