Unhelpful Grading Practices (Part 1 of ??)

By | July 26, 2010

Part of my motivation to embrace standards-based grading is a result of my frustration with the disconnect between letter grade and student understanding in my classroom. As a self-reflection, I’m examining some of my own grading practices that are not only unhelpful to students, but also allow students to earn grades that are not representative of their learning.

1. Dropping lowest ______ grade

This post is certainly prompted by Shawn Cornally’s post “To Drop or Not to Drop?” As someone who took the “shortcut” into the teaching profession, I tended to follow the grading practices associated with my most successful courses as a student. Dropping the lowest ___ grade is one of those. Many of the courses I took as a student from high school on had a similar policy. Even a quick Google search shows that many courses at prestigious colleges offer to drop the lowest (homework/quiz/test/lab/paper) grade.

  • Why I did it: Students have bad days. As I teach at a school where it isn’t a matter of whether you go to college, but whether you get into an Ivy, it prevents one bad grade that may not be representative of a student’s understanding from affecting the overall grade.
  • Why I’m dumping it: Standards-based grading addresses this concern. Since my focus is now explicitly on mastery of learning goals, rather than accumulation of points, students will always have an opportunity to demonstrate mastery at a later date.

2. Retake penalty (known alias: “Learn it fast” bonus)

Generally, I’ve always allowed test corrections or (formal) lab report rewrites. Particularly with lab reports, I give extensive feedback, and want the students to be able to communicate their work effectively. Generally, any retake or rewrite had penalty (could only earn half of missed points back).

  • Why I did it: From an over-stressed, or procrastinating student’s perspective, no penalty would lead to “abuse;” (students would turn in crappy work, knowing they could effectively get an extension by redoing it for full credit later)
  • Why I’m dumping it: So what? The point penalty was purely punitive. My test correction system is flawed to begin with; most often, students who did poorly simply consulted students who did well to get the correct answers. The way it was set up did not encourage improved learning, but improved correct answers. In-person “corrections” would allow me to better judge whether a student has improved their understanding of the material. As for lab rewrites, I am incorporating more self-assessment and evaluation before a report is submitted, so that the need for rewrites will be minimal.

3. Grading homework

As a student, homework took several roles. In high school, it was in many cases either busy work or work to cover what the teacher hadn’t in class (and wouldn’t cover the next day). In college, it was necessary to be prepared for the next day’s class discussions. In grad school, it was to force you to seek out help from your professor. In my own classes, we did problems extensively in class, and homework served as extra practice or an opportunity to apply skills to an unfamiliar problem.

I’ve taught biology, AP biology, forensics, environmental science, chemistry and AP chemistry, and my homework grading policy has varied from course to course. In all, homework was graded, and was 2-15% of the course grade.

  • Why I did it: If students don’t get points for it, homework would certainly fall down their priority list. I obviously place some value in the act of doing homework, otherwise I wouldn’t bother assigning it. Points give it legitimacy. 
  • Why I’m dumping it: As I encourage (or don’t discourage) working together on homework, assigning a point value to it muddies how representative of a student’s understanding it truly is. If it makes up a large-ish part of the course grade, students have no reason (aside from academic honesty) to not simply copy someone else’s work (or pay a tutor to do it). Going forward, homework should be practice, and improved feedback would be far more useful to the student’s learning than points.


Shawn Cornally on July 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm.

I absolutely love your blog and writing. You are very clear, and, unlike myself, you are concise.

And, again, you’ve completely said everything I wanted to say, but with about 1/3 the words, I was writing a response post for tomorrow, but I think I’m going to scrap most of it and just link to you, if that’s ok?

Consider yourself RSS aggregated, and please keep blogging about how SBG works out in your classroom. There are as many flavors as there are those of us implementing.


Ms. Bethea on July 26, 2010 at 4:08 pm.

Does that mean I won the bacon??? YAY!!

Of course you can link to my post. Seeing so many approaches to SBG is both encouraging and scary, but I feel that I am learning a lot regardless.


Matt Guthrie on July 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm.

When I taught high school, I never graded homework. This fall, I am going to do the unthinkable. I am NOT going to grade homework for a middle school math class. I can hear all the arguments – “they’ll never do it unless you grade it” “MS students aren’t ready for that type of responsibility” and so on. All are flawed arguments if we are talking about genuine assessment. I’m really stepping off into the deep end with what I have decided to do. I wrote about it on Jason Bedell’s blog here http://jasontbedell.com/real-assessment-for-a-change

I look forward to reading your future posts on this matter. So far, we’re in 100% agreement.


Alex Rosenwald (@arosey) on July 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm.

I was talking about all three of these things with my parents today when I was trying to explain how I was planning on implementing a standards-based assessment reporting approach in my classroom for the upcoming year. My mom was sold on it, my dad…well…he’s an engineer, so he likes his end result. We won’t hold it against him.

I love this post, and am looking forward to learning more going forward on how you are implementing your grading strategies in your class. Hopefully, I’ll be teaching a few sections of chemistry and we can collaborate more on this.


gasstationwithoutpumps on August 7, 2010 at 11:52 pm.

One of the pedagogical goals of middle school and high school classes is for students to learn to manage their time and meet deadlines. The SBG way to handle this goal is to make it an explicit, assessable goal and grade it separately from the other goals. That is, there is a timeliness grade that is separate from the various content-standard grades.


Kelly on August 9, 2010 at 12:54 pm.

I just started reading your blog, and it is great! I feel like you are in my head! Sorry if that sounds creepy.


Nathan Crawford (@doc_crawford) on October 21, 2010 at 11:04 am.

Great posts and I always enjoy your perspectives on twitter….

I agree with your approach to question all of the grading policies that you either experienced as a student or were informally indoctrinated into as a budding educator. I, too, have begun to question all of the artificial “standards” of grading introduced during my student years.

I will, however, defend the application of the drop grade (although its usage should be reserved for only college-level courses, in my opinion). I teach at a rural community college where the preparation from the K-12 system is often very inconsistent. The students enter my general chemistry courses with very unrealistic ideas about the effort required at the college level. This often results in very poor grades at the start of the semester that only serve to undermine their self-esteem, confidence, and motivation to learn the subject. In addition the compressed time frame of the college semester means their early errors leave little chance for them to recover. I have found that giving them a drop grade often serves to relieve some of the stress students feel about making poor grades at the start of the semester and improves retention through the end of the semester. I realize, in the end, that the drop grade does not help all of my students, but it has meant the difference for some of my borderline students that passed only because of this practice, some of whom went on to perform very well in the rest of the general chemistry sequence.


Scott Hutchison on April 16, 2011 at 2:57 am.

I’ve just bounced in to your blog… great work here! Have you read or heard of Ken O’Conner’s work? ‘How to Grade for Learning’ or his latest, ‘A Repair Kit for Grading – 15 Fixes for Broken Grades’… if you are ever wondering or looking for reinforcement as to your ideas and actions towards grading, then these will definitely compliment your work.

I look forward to your future posts:)


Ms. Bethea on April 16, 2011 at 8:11 am.

I’ve heard of Ken O’Connor, and though I haven’t read his work yet, I’ve read other people’s summaries and reflections from it via blogs. I will probably add it to my summer reading list.


Barb (@barbbesal) on June 13, 2011 at 5:41 pm.

“In-person “corrections” would allow me to better judge whether a student has improved their understanding of the material.”

HUGE thumbs up here! I just came to this realization the other day, proposed it to my kids this year as a change for next year, and they thought it was a great idea. I’m so looking forward to see how it goes!

Question RE: homework. Do you assign it at all? My policy has been a basic completion grade for HW — 10 points per assignment. I know the kids like that extra grade because it’s easy, but since I’m new to SBG, I’m just curious how it works. Seems things are turning on their heads!


Ms. Bethea on June 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm.


I do assign homework problems, mainly to help students keep pace and for extra practice. I provided answers or full solutions for every problem set on my course website for students to check. I rarely collected it, and never graded it.

My students always completed the work even though there was no grade. They often asked for more problems!

I’m trying to figure out how I’ll handle homework next year.


Kaitlynn Arnholt on November 19, 2014 at 10:52 pm.

What an interesting post!

I am a current masters student in an education program and completing my student teaching. I will be certified to teach both chemistry and math, and am student teaching in a chemistry classroom that has sections of general, honors, and AP chemistry. My mentor teacher also does not grade homework and when I first learned that he didn’t I was SO CONFUSED. All of my previous experiences in the classroom, from elementary school through college and then through my second grad school program, all included GRADED homework assignments. It felt so wrong to me. It was definitely something that I had to adjust to as a new teacher. I have realized that some of our students are not practicing as frequently or as thoroughly as they should be. How did you create a classroom culture where students are engaged in their practice problems without the promise of points?

In my placement we do only allow students to earn back so many points on exam retakes. However in order to retake students must complete online study problems and meet with an instructor to go through the material covered in the assessment. Overall this process takes a few days to complete and I honestly think that students should be able to earn back more if not all of the points that they missed.

In our classroom we do not drop the lowest score however if a student scores below a 40% it is not entered into the system. The lowest score a student can receive is a 40% as my mentor teacher thinks that anything lower will make it impossible for a student bring up their grades. What do you think of this policy?

Your posts have been so interesting to follow! I’ll definitely be back to read more!


Brandon McDole on December 13, 2015 at 5:23 pm.

Hey I’m a beginning student teacher! Was wondering if you do some form of ‘work check’ that is not full on grading? For instance, do you check homework/classwork for completion or do some form of formative assessments like exit tickets?

(If you talk about this in one of your posts that I haven’t read yet I apologize! Please direct me there.)



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