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December 1, 1997

Can Grades Be Helpful and Fair?

While the practice of making exceptions or substitutions for grading criteria is relatively common, many teachers and students believe it can be unfair. How can we recognize learning differences and make grading adaptations more equitable?
Joshua is a 6th grader with a learning disability in reading. At the beginning of the last grading period, Joshua was transferred into several general content classes, including geography and science. His special and general education teachers worked cooperatively to adapt his lessons so that Joshua could finish on time and understand the material. Inclusion was proving to be a positive experience for him. He was excited about receiving his first report card since the change, but as he scanned the column of C minuses and D pluses, his spirits fell. Why did his teachers tell him he was doing well when he obviously wasn't?
Could, or should, Joshua's teachers have done something to prevent his disappointment?
Research suggests that situations like Joshua's are common: 60 to 70 percent of included students with disabilities receive below-average grades in their general education classes (Donohue and Zigmond 1990). In fact, more than half of all students with disabilities have grade-point averages below 2.24, with 35 percent below 1.75 (Valdes et al. 1990).
Unfortunately for included students, standard letter grades are still the most popular way of indicating student performance. This situation probably reflects a lack of familiarity with alternative grading systems. For example, researchers who conducted a nationwide study of 225 schools found that 68 percent had a grading policy, while just 39 percent of the school districts had policies that stipulated grading adaptations (Polloway et al. 1994).
Figure 1 provides an overview of the common grading adaptations. Although researchers have yet to look at their relative merits, educators might want to experiment with the options presented here (see Munk and Bursuck in press).

Figure 1—Common Grading Adaptations

Can Grades Be Helpful and Fair? - table

Teacher Practices and Perceptions

The practice of adapting individualized grading criteria is not unusual. As many as 50 percent of general education teachers use grading adaptations for students who do not have disabilities (Bursuck et al. 1996). The most common of these include basing grades on improvement, giving multiple grades (for example, grades for tests and grades for effort), and weighting grades for specific assignments. The most helpful adaptations, according to the teachers, include grading on improvement, basing a grade on meeting the objectives of an individualized education plan (IEP), and assigning separate grades for process and for product (Bursuck et al. 1996).
Consider the case of Joshua, for whom adaptations could have resulted in grades that better reflected how his inclusive placement was working. Joshua's teachers could have varied the weight of individual assignments to reward Joshua's effort and minimize the effects of his reading disability. In Joshua's case, his performance on study guides and group projects could have been weighted greater than the pencil-and-paper tests on which he performed poorly, even when allotted more time. Or, Joshua could have received two grades: one for his effort and one for the quality of his work products. Either of these adaptations could have resulted in a report card grade more representative of Joshua's experience in general education classes.
Teachers are unlikely to use these alternatives, however, if they do not deem them acceptable. For example, when we surveyed 338 general education teachers, 73 percent of them said they believed limiting grading adaptations to students with disabilities was unfair (Bursuck et al. 1996). They felt that such limitations discriminated against students who didn't meet qualifications for special education. Further, they said, such limitations did not address the fact that extenuating circumstances such as relocation can affect any student's grade, and they ignored individual differences among all students.
Teachers who perceive grading adaptations for students with disabilities as unfair are not only less likely to use them, but they are also probably less likely to present a positive rationale for adaptations to their students. In the words of one teacher, "All students learn differently and deserve to be treated as individuals."
On the other hand, teachers who support grading adaptations for students with disabilities cite their desire to not punish students for their disabilities, to promote student learning, and to recognize effort. Even teachers who support the use of adaptations, however, believe that passing a student regardless of his or her performance is unfair.

What Do Students Think?

Teachers should anticipate that some students will think grading adaptations give the students to whom they are applied an undeserved or unfair break. Indeed, in a survey of 275 secondary students, we found that most believed the grading system should be the same for everyone (Bursuck et al. 1997). The students said that giving passing grades no matter what, grading some students on a different scale, and giving pass-fail grades were most unfair. They said that giving separate grades for achievement and for effort was most fair, but 64 percent of the students still disapproved of this adaptation. One student responded, "Why should good students keep trying if they won't get higher grades?"
General education students from four achievement levels (low through above-average) were in agreement, except that low-achieving students approved of pass-fail grades. As would be expected, students with disabilities held different views. They said grading based on improvement, varying the weight of certain products, and use of a different scale were most fair.
A different pattern of responses emerged regarding methods for calculating GPAs. Average and low-achieving general education students and special education students were more likely to say that all classes should count the same toward the GPA, while high-achieving students thought it more fair to have difficult classes count more. The most common reasons for viewing adaptations as unfair were that they created a disincentive for taking harder classes and they provided the students who received them with an unfair advantage. Like their teachers, students who favored adaptations cited a need to reward effort and to recognize learning differences. Also like their teachers, students said that no one should ever be passed "no matter what."

Mixed Messages

  • Included students with disabilities may not experience success when teachers use traditional grading systems, and these students perceive the use of adaptations for some, but not all, students to be fair.
  • As many as 50 percent of general education teachers already use informal grading adaptations, but only a quarter of these teachers perceive the use of adaptations for some, but not all, students to be fair.
  • Only about a third of all school districts have a policy to guide the use of grading adaptations.
  • General education students from all achievement levels perceive the use of adaptations for some, but not all, students to be unfair.
  • Teachers and students consider some adaptations (for example, assigning separate grades for effort and product) to be helpful.

Recommendations

Our current knowledge suggests the following recommendations for developing, communicating, and implementing grading adaptation policies.
  • Consider input from teachers, students in both general and special education classes, and parents. When people help formulate a policy, they are more likely to perceive it as fair.
  • Include selection guidelines (for example, a menu of acceptable adaptations), and a specific process for documenting the use of adaptations (for example, the adaptation should be described in a student's IEP) in the policy. Discourage informal or inconsistent uses of adaptations.
  • Delineate any adaptations that should never be used (for example, passing a student no matter what).
  • In the school handbook, clearly describe the policy for using adaptations, the menu of acceptable adaptations, and the process for selecting and documenting adaptations.
  • Explain the policy to teachers formally (inservice training sessions) and informally (individual meetings). Explain the policy to students when you discuss schoolwide grading procedures.
  • Document the use of grading adaptations in a student's IEP.
  • Monitor student grades to determine whether the chosen adaptation is effective.
  • Keep information about specific students who receive adaptations confidential.
  • Expect that other students will notice when you use adaptations. Be prepared to explain your rationale to them.
Although we continue to learn about grading adaptations as a way to meet the needs of special and general education students in inclusive classrooms, questions do remain. For example, selecting the most appropriate adaptations would be easier if we knew that certain ones were clearly superior. And, if teachers and students perceive them to be fair, adaptations would be even more attractive.
References

Bursuck, W.D., D. Munk, and M. Olson. (1997). "The Fairness of Report Card Grading Adaptations: What Do Students With and Without Disabilities Think?" Manuscript submitted for publication.

Bursuck, W.D., E.A. Polloway, L. Plante, M.H. Epstein, M. Jayanthi, and J. McConeghy. (1996). "Report Card Grading Adaptations: A National Survey of Classroom Practices." Exceptional Children 62, 4: 301-318.

Donohue, K. and N. Zigmond. (1990). "Academic Grades of Ninth-Grade Urban Learning Disabled Students and Low Achieving Peers." Exceptionality 1: 17-27.

Munk, D., and W.D. Bursuck. (in press). "Report Card Grading Adaptations for Students with Disabilities: Types and Acceptability." Intervention in School and Clinic.

Polloway, E., M.H. Epstein, W.D. Bursuck, T.W. Roderique, J.L. McConeghy, and M. Jayanthi. (1994). "Classroom Grading: A National Survey of Policies." Remedial and Special Education 15, 3: 162-170.

Valdes, K.A., C.L. Williamson, and M.M. Wagner. (1990). The National Transition Study of Special Education Students (Vol. 1). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED324 893.) Menlo Park, California.: SRI International.

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