Grading What a Student Knows Instead of What They Do

For the past decade when educators compare grading systems, they are often referring to grading to state standards versus traditional grading. Presently, grading is contractually under the purview of the instructor; teachers have the final say in a student’s grade. Any changes to the system are ultimately up to teachers, but students, parents, and administrators have agency in the process. Before judging any changes to grading, a review of why grades were created in the first place, how they are calculated, and what students get “graded” on is important to compare the two systems.

According to Joe Feldman in Grading for Equity, from the 1930s through the 1950s grading became a codified sorting device for future employers. Employers interpreted students’ grades in order to sort graduates into manufacturing and future management positions. Traditional grading methodology mixed academic knowledge with soft skills of organization, punctuality, and personality traits for mainly employers’ considerations. Learning abilities were static; job options were determined by culturally defined gender roles and newly formulated IQ and personality tests that identified and controlled peoples’ higher learning and career opportunities.

In essence, traditional grading hasn’t changed since the 1970s, but public education has shifted both its mission and process. Today, public education’s goal is to create multiple higher education and career opportunities for all children irrelevant of learning challenges, economic, racial, cultural, or language issues. Educators work diligently to prepare children as lifelong learners with flexible 21st Century skills to tackle multiple career shifts, social and economic changes, and practice resiliency during every upheaval. There is a new acknowledgement of students’ social and emotional needs and greater funding for mental health support. Grading needs to catch up.

As Dr. Sonje Berg, Principal of Buena Park High School, told me, “Grading to the standards has teachers grading students on what they know, not on what they do.” He said he supports his teachers to embrace this grading system while respecting their ownership of their grading process. Grading to the standards is a four-pronged approach that offers teachers flexibility, lightens classroom management issues, and sets up solid data-backed grades. As Doug Reeves, author of Elements of Grading said during a recent webinar, “Grading is feedback to improve teaching and learning.” It should be fair, accurate, timely, and specific. (Edsource Webinar, “The Future of Grading.”) Grading to the standards includes shifting the scale, grading on what a student knows, not what they do, mandates retakes for all test grades of ‘C’ or lower, and includes standard based rubrics for each unit tested. (Feldman,

In traditional grading, a student who receives 60% or less fails. A student receiving one failing project or test grade, and it is averaged, finds it almost impossible to get close to a passing grade in a class. Many students give up and wait for the next class, semester, or year and miss out on valuable learning time. When a teacher shifts the grading scale to equalize the importance of each level along with the other three criteria stated below, it gives students a path to keep learning and stay engaged. Everybody stops wasting time comparing students and can focus on what students are actually learning.

Grading students on what they know and not what they do means only grading on content acquisition through final unit projects or tests. Teachers no longer grade students’ homework, attendance, class participation, or any other soft skills. With a lower number of individual grades recorded, it simplifies the grading calculations and reflects a student’s mastery of the teacher-identified state standard. Students learn in many different ways and grading them on their performance of a singular learning process disadvantages children who function poorly in more historic educational settings. Dr. Berg said that many teachers using this type of grading are finding that students quickly figure out that homework supports their learning of the material, and attending class is not as onerous since they are not taken to task if they do not have their homework to turn in, so teachers are experiencing less student cheating and absences.

Integrated retesting is mandatory when students fail to show subject proficiency. A student receiving a ‘C’ or below should expect to retake tests covering the areas of misunderstanding, accompanied by tutoring and additional practice. Once teachers reorganize their tests to align with their rubrics (see below) pinpointing areas where a student needs additional support becomes well-defined. Making retakes available to all students alleviates the pressure to perfect a standard the first time and removes another incentive to cheat. By grouping questions by standards, test results become less shrouded in mystery and students can focus on material the school’s teachers determine as the most important. All teachers of a subject work together to reach consensus concerning necessary components creating rubrics for each standard unit.

Rubrics identify specific skills or knowledge that determines student mastery of a standard into equal grading levels. Administrators can support transparent and schoolwide consistent rubrics by setting time for teachers to work together to create rubrics. Rubrics are shared with students and parents so that everyone has a clear pathway for student success. Communicating with rubrics to higher education entities sets clear expectations of student knowledge at every grade level. Rubrics remove student and parent grade negotiations since each mastery level is clearly defined while also answering the perennial teacher question, “What did these kids learn last year?” Rubrics are organic documents that teachers and sometimes students reassess yearly to make what is learned relevant for students to achieve success.

Many teachers recognize that traditional grading does not always reflect student achievement, but little concrete data show teachers where specific issues exist. The teachers compensate with extra credit, moving the curve, and other tricks to come up with a grade that reflects the knowledge their students show in class, or leaves some students hopelessly underserved by traditional grading with a high potential for failure. In a world of uncertainty, changing career and education opportunities that require flexibility and creativity, a system based on comparison, averages, and fundamental failure seems to be failing our students and our teachers. As a parent, you can start conversations by asking your child’s teacher, “What did my child know about this subject and what did they fail to show you that they know?” As a community member, the next time grading comes up you can start the discussion by asking if they mean a system where students are graded by what they know or by what they do. Grading students by what they know in a safe environment may end up facilitating the most resilient and flexible generation of lifelong learners yet.


• Interview: Dr. Sonje Berg, Principal Buena Park High School, FJUHSD, 28 February 2022.

• Feldman, Joe, Grading for Equity,

• The Future of Grading When Failure is Not an Option, EdSource Roundtable Webinar,  8 December 2021

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2 replies »

  1. Reading and writing are so subjective. And math! Don’t get me started.