Reflection: Grading as an Ethical Dilemma

Balance scale

Flickr CC: Balance Scales (Ethics), (c) Chris Potter (2012) Title: Scales of Justice

Do teachers use grades as punishment? Many educators would probably respond to this with a definitive “no.” Grades are simply reflections of what students have learned; they are “earned” not “given,” and thus cannot be considered disciplinary.

However, it is difficult to conclude that grading systems that include “0’s” for missed work or deducted points for late assignments are benign — or even ethical — when considering scenarios like the following:

  • Student A is a brilliant writer and critical thinker who makes insights about texts and who has demonstrated the ability to write “A” level essays. However, Student A rarely does homework, and failed to submit the last essay that was due. This zero decimated Student A’s essay average. As a result, Student A has a “C” in the course.
  • Student B writes coherent essays that contain precise claims, but that tend to rehash ideas that were discussed in class. Student B hands in all assignments that are due and even worked to do extra credit. Thus, student B and has earned a “B” in the course.

In the above situation, the most important factor in determining the student’s grade was the ability to turn in work, or the ability to conform to teacher expectations. The “B” and “C” grades did not reflect what the students know; in instances like this, students who received mediocre grades got the message that they’re not college material. Later when the students apply to colleges, college admissions officers may also get this message.

When I first started teaching, I was the teacher who insisted on requisite “0s” for missed work, and who believe in holding students accountable (see: point deductions) for handing in assignments late. I was one of those teachers who used terms like “responsibility” and “justice” when discussions about grading emerge. “We have to teach them responsibility,” as the common refrain goes; “we need to be fair to the students who submitted the assignment on time.”

In the past year, I started reconsidering this idea however, and have been asking myself questions like: What are the implications of various grading policies? How critical are we/should we be of our own grading practices? What is the difference between “assessment” and “grading”? I saw that my grading practices weren’t working to foster a love for school work; students also weren’t learning to be more responsible.

The following sources have been crucial in helping me re-think grading, and in helping me recognize ethical dilemmas associated with grading:

  • Guskey, Thomas R. “0 Alternatives.” Principal Leadership: High School Edition 5.2 (2004): 49.Supplemental Index. Web. 9 July 2014.
  • Jensen, Eric. Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009. Print.
  • Reeves, Douglas. “Leading to Change/Effective Grading Practices.” ASCD, 65.5 (2008): 85-87.
  • Wormeli, R. (2006). Accountability: Teaching Through Assessment and Feedback, not Grading. American Secondary Education, 34(3): 14-27.

Here are a few of the changes that I’ve made with grading — and a few potential challenges that teachers may face:


  • I provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate the same skill & improvement is rewarded. If we have two short writing assignments that assess the same skill, I’ll only count the highest score.
  • I accept late assignments, and enter a separate grade for “timeliness.”
  • All major writing assignments are done in class. A student’s essay grade will not be influenced by his/her ability to set aside time to write.
  • I rarely allow extra credit: Students who coordinated a teaching project with other peers got extra credit for a “speaking and listening” grade because they demonstrated superb collaboration skills. I’m confident that no grades are “padded” by extra credit — or homework.
  • I’m working to eliminate high-stakes assignments (see: that one big assignment that counts for half of your grade)
  • I allow revisions (this is not new; I’ve always allowed this)

Potential challenges

  • Students may not take opportunities to revise or make up missed work.
  • Students still need to be taught organizational skills.
  • Teachers who accept late work may be seen as lax by colleagues; teachers may have different ideas of what it means to “hold students accountable.”
  • If students don’t see “0s” in the grade book for missed work in one class, they may prioritize “0s” that they see in the grade book for other classes.

I’m still uncomfortable accepting late assignments, but I’m even more denying students the chance to earn a high grade for high quality work. I don’t believe that I’ve found a silver bullet with my revised grading system, but I’m interested in continuing my research and reflection so that I can refine my evaluation practices.

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