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Douglas Reeves Takes On Five Myths About Grading

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Busting Myths About Grading” by Douglas Reeves in All Things PLC, Spring 2017,; Reeves can be reached at
In this article in All Things PLC, consultant/author Douglas Reeves confronts these widely espoused misconceptions about grading:
• Myth #1: Grades motivate students. Grades may have motivated teachers and administrators when they were young, but that’s not the case with many of their students today. The evidence is right in front of our noses, says Reeves: We’ve just conducted a decades-long experiment on the efficacy of grades as motivators; if grades were effective motivators, homework completion, classroom engagement, and overall diligence would be sky-high. Not so!
• Myth #2: Grading homework and practice improves achievement. There are three problems here, says Reeves. First, for practice to be an effective tool for improvement, students need to be pushing the limits of current performance and getting continuous feedback – very difficult to orchestrate for 30 students working in their bedrooms. Second, as soon as teachers give grades for practice work, the incentive is for students to play it safe and not push into challenging or unknown territory. “No one gets feedback that is meaningful,” says Reeves, “because the only feedback that matters is that the work was finished on time and correctly. No one gets feedback to improve specific skills because everyone is doing the same dreary and unchallenging work.” And third, it’s unfair and demotivating for students to have their final grade pulled down for practice work.
• Myth #3: Grades drive future performance. True, there’s a correlation between good grades and college success, and between poor grades and dropping out of school, but Reeves questions whether grades cause success and failure. He cites “the ‘good girl effect’ in which female students are disproportionately rewarded for quiet compliance, behavior that may lead to good grades but does not necessarily correlate to success after secondary school… While it is possible that intelligence and work ethic forge the path from kindergarten to Ivy League and Wall Street, it is also possible that zip code, tutors, and connections – all artifacts of family socioeconomic status – are the underlying causes.”
• Myth #4: Punishment deters unwanted behavior. This is no more true than the persistent belief that corporal punishment improves behavior (research has shown it actually breeds aggression and antisocial behavior). Teachers giving zeros for missed assignments and refusing to accept late work lets students off the hook – and starts a spiral of doom with their final grades. Averaging grades through a semester punishes students for early failures versus rewarding them for using early problems to improve final performance. “Rather than using the last two months of the semester to build momentum and finish strong,” says Reeves, “because of a punitive grading system, they are doomed to failure well before the semester is over. There is nothing left for them to do except cut class, be disruptive, or ultimately, quit school.”
• Myth #5: It’s okay for teachers to have their own grading systems. Reeves has conducted the following experiment with gatherings of educators: A student receives these grades (in this sequence) over a semester: C, C, missed, D, C, B, missed, missed, B, and A. What final grade should the student receive? Audience members come up with final grades ranging from A to F, depending on whether they average grades, count missed assignments as zeros, or consider the last grade as the ultimate attainment and therefore more important than the preceding grades. Is it okay, Reeves asks, for the same student producing the same work to have this range of outcomes depending on which teacher he or she happens to have? Obviously not. Worse still, he says, “grading policies are matters of equity, with disparate impacts on students, particularly based on ethnicity and gender. Boys and minority males receive lower grades just as they are more likely to be more severely disciplined for an infraction. Girls receive higher grades for the same level of proficiency. If racial and gender disparities of this sort took place in any other area of public life, the consequences would be swift and sure.”
What is to be done about these pernicious and persistent misconceptions? Trying to convince educators with reasoned arguments and book study groups won’t work, says Reeves. The myths are too deeply embedded. Instead, he suggests replacing each statement of fact – Punishment deters unwanted behavior – with a testable hypothesis – If I penalize students for late, incomplete, and absent homework, then student achievement will improve – and conducting real-time experiments within the school. “We can then compare two classes with students of similar backgrounds,” he says, “one of which has punitive policies and the other of which engages in in-class gold standard practice and assess the degree of student success at the end of each semester.”
Reeves has found that the outcomes of such experiments clearly demonstrate the problems with grading myths and can embolden school leaders to implement more-effective practices. “When we explode grading myths and establish constructive policies,” he concludes, “the results are immediate. Reduction in failures, improvements in discipline, high levels of student engagement, and dramatic gains in teacher morale can be observed in months, not years.”

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