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September 24, 2020

Growing Beyond Grading


Is the purpose of K–12 education to help all students learn, or to sort, rank, and label them?

Assessment expert Richard Stiggins reminds us that a generation ago, schools were "assigned the social mission of channeling graduates into the various segments of our social and economic system," and "evaluated in terms of their ability to sort [students] into a dependable rank order by graduation." He goes on to declare that "[o]ur entire classroom assessment and grading legacy was built around this mission" (Stiggins, 2005, p. 15).

Rethinking grading practices is an opportunity to choose whether we will continue to live within this legacy, or grow beyond it.

Sorting, Ranking, and Labelling Students

Last year, a high school in our area hosted a highly publicized "College Night." The keynote speaker, a college admissions consultant who helps students gain acceptance into their top-choice schools, emphasized grades, grade point average (GPA), and class rank as the key admission criteria. The high school's lead counselor advised students to plan their high school course of study with an eye toward making themselves attractive to their preferred colleges.

The message delivered? High school is a sorting process where students compete for scarce opportunities.

The concerted effort to differentiate students by GPA further demonstrates this sorting priority. Middle schools and high schools establish an Honor Roll each semester. Honor societies accept new members who have achieved a minimum GPA. High schools celebrate their "Top 10" seniors. Graduation features valedictorians and distinguished scholars with colorful cords and sashes.

Common attitudes toward rigor and grade inflation reflect how the sorting and ranking mentality pervades our thinking. Some teachers defend their course's rigor by pointing to the relative scarcity of A's. Others complain about grade inflation based upon "too many" A's. Both operate from the view that the purpose of an 'A' is to separate the elite from the average.

Similarly, when a colleague discovered students had cheated on a physics exam, his concern was that these students had gained an unfair advantage, and thus, an unearned ranking. He assigned zeros and doubled the value of the test, effectively preserving the school's "integrity" as a sorting and ranking institution but doing little to help students internalize proper ethics or learn physics. In the end, he reinforced the same perspective that motivated the cheating in the first place—the idea that it is the grade (and the sorting), not the learning, that matters.

The Cost of Grading

Distracted and Stressed

A well-known study by Ruth Butler reveals what experience confirms: Grades recast students' focus from learning to ego. Students become most concerned with proving themselves and maintaining their sense of worth—by comparing themselves to their classmates—and less engaged in mastering the task (Butler, 1987). High levels of stress accompany this competition. According to a 2019 study, 96 percent of teens view anxiety and depression among their peers as a problem (Horowitz &Graf). The top stressor, more than double any other cause, is the pressure to get good grades.

Teacher as Gatekeeper

Grades fundamentally shift the teacher's role from supporter of growth to gatekeeper for society's social and economic hierarchy.

Despite the popular lore that education is the great equalizer, sorting, ranking, and labeling students tends to reinforce rather than break down existing class structures and economic inequalities. When upper- and middle-class students achieve and are honored, and when lower class students struggle, it is partially a reflection of the resources, time, and support they can access. However, students and their teachers generally attribute student success, or lack of it, to the student's merit.

Stuck in a Fixed Mindset

A culture that sorts, ranks, and labels promotes what Carol Dweck has identified as a fixed mindset—the belief that one's abilities, including intelligence, are innate and unalterable (2006). It is common to hear teachers, students, and parents alike refer to 'A' students and 'B' students, as if a student's academic performance represents a defining essence. As one student stated, "the grade is what you are in that subject." This mindset is crippling. A fixed mindset makes mistakes devastating, as they suggest a lack of ability; and critical feedback is threatening and therefore ignored or discounted.

Even when students are labelled "smart," they avoid challenges, ignore feedback, and are reluctant to put forth great effort, as their focus is on maintaining the label rather than learning.

The Personal Toll

We spoke with a parent who shared the effect the sorting and ranking culture has had on her daughter. After an 8th grade year marked by struggles with focus and attention, her daughter's resolve to do better in high school was producing results. She authored a short story in Language Arts and introduced social studies topics at dinner. She received 4 B's, two C's, and one A. All was well until her daughter opened her online gradebook to discover not only her first cumulative GPA but her class rank in the bottom quarter. Her mother watched her daughter's shoulders drop and later found her declaring her perpetual ineptitude. Meanwhile, her friends received congratulatory letters naming them to the Honor Roll.

Engagement, growth, and emerging optimism are sacrificed to a system concerned more with differentiating between students than nurturing them.

Leading with Learning

To aspire to make grades more effective is the wrong focus. If we wish to support learning, we should guide a student toward improving work instead of ranking it. Rather than improve grading, we need to focus on feedback.

Effective feedback begins with the assumption that all kids can grow, and building on that assumption helps students know three things:

  1. Where they are now

  2. Where they need to be

  3. How to get there (Boaler, 2018, p. 1)

Effective feedback keeps the focus on the task, which minimizes any threat to the ego (Butler, 1987). It is formative, occurring early in the learning cycle so that students have multiple chances to master understanding. Also, it involves students in the process, as they understand the target and self-assess.

In co-author Kimberly Race's high school math classroom, she shifted from grading to formative feedback. As students problem-solve daily learning tasks and collaborate, they receive constant feedback and close monitoring. As students progress toward proficiency, more formal learning checks document growth and expose gaps in understanding. Student work receives written comments that highlight strengths and next steps toward mastery instead of a grade. Comments also go in an online "gradebook" and note whether the work exceeds, meets, or needs growth.

Most significantly, students revise their work. These revisions are used to update progress and guide further growth. Because the system still expects a letter grade, only one grade in the gradebook reflects overall progress for the semester, but it is adjusted regularly to reflect students' current level of understanding. Providing written feedback rather than a grade is time intensive, but the information is especially useful in supporting growth.

Promoting a Growth Mindset

When we operate from the assumption that all students can learn and offer feedback that supports that learning, students begin to embrace this more hopeful view. They enter a classroom where challenge is an opportunity, effort is worthwhile, and mistakes are part of the learning process. They leave behind—at least for a moment—a world obsessed with labelling learners, where abilities are fixed and the key is to look smart. Focusing on formative feedback shifts the students' attention from protecting their ego to mastering the task. Assessments become a check on learning progress rather than a measure of merit.

"Taking some of the pressure off being "wrong" helped me to grow," said one of Kim's students. "I felt like I was not competing with my classmates for the highest grade in the class, as we were all working together to better understand the material."

Taking this approach to learning during a pandemic begins with an awareness that the concepts of "remote" and "learning" are largely incompatible.  A student who is distant and disconnected is not likely learning. When students are not in the building, teachers must maintain an expectation for growth, facilitate connection, and provide formative feedback.

When Kim began teaching in the hybrid model, connections and the feedback became more valuable than ever to ensure students are not just at home "doing" math in isolation. A letter sent to parents explained the concept of growth mindset and asked them to support students in embracing the struggle of deep learning. Student collaborative groups meet virtually, and students upload pictures of their work to get personalized feedback guiding next steps.

Changing the Culture

If we choose to create an environment that prioritizes all students' learning, then we must rethink many practices. For example, we might replace College Night with a "Multiple Paths to Purpose" evening. Rather than a keynote address spotlighting GPA and class rank, schools could feature an "expert panel" representing multiple paths to success, with an entrepreneur who founded a small business after attending a small local college, an electrician with vocational training, a community college graduate running for local government, and a graduate of a highly selective university running a non-profit. These experts could communicate that, rather than one competitive race to the top, there are multiple paths to living with purpose and passion.

We also must replace honor societies with opportunities that encourage all students to gain experience serving and leading their community. Rather than honor rolls, valedictorians, and honor cords, we can honor powerful short stories, enlightening essays, and sophisticated science projects. Next to the athletic trophy case, we can create a learning showcase spotlighting art or passion projects that exemplify engaged students solving problems, speaking their voice, or sharing their talents.

Change is happening. Powell Middle School in Colorado (near where both authors teach and lead) initiated a new celebration honoring students who exemplify the school's core values of service, responsibility, and eagerness to learn. In the same area, Hopkins Elementary School implemented "Build-A-Brain" awards to emphasize the brain's neuroplasticity and celebrate growth and "Bucket Filler" awards chosen by peers to honor students' acts of kindness. The possibilities for re-imagining what and how we celebrate are endless.

An exploration of grading practices is an invitation to clarify our purpose. Do we wish to serve as gatekeepers, sorting and ranking students as they compete for status and resources? Or do we wish to help all students grow to be healthy and happy humans, self-sufficient and creative workers, collaborative problem solvers, and engaged citizens?


Boaler, J., Dance, K., &Woodbury, E. (2018). From performance to learning: assessing to encourage growth mindsets. youcubed. Stanford University, retrieved March 20, 2020 from, p. 1.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), pp 474-482.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books/Random House, Inc.

Horowitz, J. &Graf, N., (2019). Most U.S. teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers: for boys and girls, day-to-day experiences and future aspirations vary in key ways. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Stiggins, R. (2005). Student-involved assessment for learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice-Hall.

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