Grades: what does research say?

Earlier posts in this series:
     Legitimate Uses of Assessment
     Problematic Uses of Assessment
     The Meaning of Grades
     De-emphasizing Grades

The Assessment Trap, Part 5: What Does Research Say About Grades?

This is a guest post by Sarah Clowes, a science teacher at the Urban School of San Francisco, where I used to work. Her research-based comments support some of the points I made in my previous posts.


(To be continued! Part 6: The Perils of Backward Design)

I did some work on assessment while I was in graduate school, so that is what informs a lot of my thinking outlined below.

•    Inevitably assessment is an imperfect process of reasoning from evidence to make judgments about what students know and can do (there is an excellent paper on assessment by Pellegrino et al. . . . Pellegrino, J.W., Chudowsky, N. & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing What Students Know: the science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press). Grades are arbitrary and should therefore carry as little meaning as possible.

•    Grading is not essential to the instructional process – the primary purpose of grading is not facilitation of teaching or learning. Grades are the response to compulsory education mandated in the 1800s . . . as schools grew larger, there was a need to rank and categorize students. Teachers do not need grades (just formative assessments) to teach well (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Pellegrino et al., 2001).

•    Letter grades offer parents and others a brief description of students’ achievement. But letter grades reduce of a lot of information into a single “bucket” or symbol. In addition, the distinction between grades are always arbitrary and difficult to justify (even when they are standards based) because they always rely on a teacher’s judgment. Letter grades lack the richness of more detailed reporting methods, such as narrative reports.

•    Narrative evaluations offer specific information that is useful in documenting student achievement and provide more valuable and nuanced feedback to students. But good narratives take time to prepare and are often difficult for parents to understand. Parents often wonder if their child’s achievement is comparable with that of other students (even when grades are standards based).

•    Because no single grading method adequately serves all purposes, schools must identify their purpose for grading and develop an approach that matches the school’s mission and values.

•    Grades do not provide comprehensive assessment, nor do they promote thorough self-evaluation. Unfortunately, educational research shows that the impact and meaning of narrative evaluations accompanied by grades are diminished (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Butler and Nisan, 1986; Salili et al., 1976). Students and parents attend to the details of a narrative evaluation considerably less when there is a grade to refer to. Research shows that students and parents approach narrative evaluations with grades in the same way, but we have the opposite goal as educators – it is essential that students receive and attend to nuanced feedback about their learning.

•    In addition, research shows that grades alter student motivation – there is considerable research in the field of motivational psychology to support this claim (Beck et al., 1991; all the Butler articles listed below; Salili et al., 1976). In addition, there is evidence that grades reduce students’ willingness to try challenging tasks (Harter, 1978; Hughes et al., 1985). There is also growing evidence that relying less on grades and more on intrinsic motivation better serves students of diverse backgrounds (Wlodkowski et al., 1995).

•    Self-regulated learning promotes cognitive strategies, meta-cognition, motivation, task engagement, and social support (Paris & Paris, 2001). Self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, possess a repertoire of cognitive strategies that they utilize appropriately, set challenging but achievable goals, and are capable of assessing and overseeing implementation of those strategies as they work to achieve their goals (Alexander, 2006; Zimmerman, 2000).

— Sarah Clowes


Alexander, P.A. (2006). Psychology in Learning and Instruction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Beck, H. P., S. Rorrer-Woody, and L. G. Pierce.  “The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientations to Academic Performance.”  Teaching of Psychology 18 (1991): 35-37.

Black, P., and Wiliam, D. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan, October 1998:  139-148.

Butler, R., and M. Nisan.  “Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance.”  Journal of Educational Psychology 78 (1986): 210-16.

Butler, R.  “Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Properties of Evaluation: Effects of Different Feedback Conditions on Motivational Perceptions, Interest, and Performance.”  Journal of Educational Psychology 79 (1987): 474-82.

Butler, R.  “Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance.”  British Journal of Educational Psychology 58 (1988): 1-14.

Cameron, Judy, and Pierce, W. David. 1994.”Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis.”Review of Educational Re-search 64 (3):363 – 423.

Cameron, Judy, and Pierce, W. David. 1996. “The Debate about Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Protests and Accusations Do Not Alterthe Results.” Review of Educational Research 66 (1):39 – 51.

Harter, S.  “Pleasure Derived from Challenge and the Effects of Receiving Grades on Children’s Difficulty Level Choices.”  Child Development 49 (1978): 788-99.

Hughes, B., H. J. Sullivan, and M. L. Mosley.  “External Evaluation, Task Difficulty, and Continuing Motivation.”  Journal of Educational Research 78 (1985): 210-15.

Koretz, D. (2008). Measuring Up. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Krumboltz, J. D., and C. J. Yeh.  “Competitive Grading Sabotages Good Teaching.”  Phi Delta Kappan, December 1996:  324-26.

Moeller, A. J., and C. Reschke.  “A Second Look at Grading and Classroom Performance:  Report of a Research Study.”  Modern Language Journal 77 (1993): 163-69.

National Research Council.  (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Paris S., & Paris, A.(2001). Classroom applications of research on self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist, 36, 89 –101.

Pellegrino, J.W., Chudowsky, N. & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing What Students Know: the science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Salili, F., M. L. Maehr, R. L. Sorensen, and L. J. Fyans, Jr.  “A Further Consideration of the Effects of Evaluation on Motivation.”  American Educational Research Journal 13 (1976): 85-102.

Wlodkowski, R. J., Ginsberg, M. B. “A framework for culturally responsive teaching ” Educational Leadership. Alexandria: Sep 1995. Vol. 53, Iss. 1.

Zimmerman, B.J. (2000).Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P.R. Pintrich & M Zeidner, (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (p 13-39). San Diego,CA: Academic Press.

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