One common summative purpose of assessment facing most teachers is the need to communicate information on student progress and achievement to parents, school board officials, members of the community, college admissions officers. In addition to scores from externally mandated tests, teacher-assigned grades traditionally serve this purpose.

A discussion in Chapter 2 defends the use of descriptive, criterion-based feedback as opposed to numerical scoring (8/10) or grades (B). A study cited (Butler, 1987) showed that the students who demonstrated the greatest improvement were the ones who received detailed comments (only) on their returned pieces of work. However, grading and similar practices are the reality for the majority of teachers. How might grading be used to best support student learning?

Though they are the primary currency of our current summative-assessment system, grades typically carry little meaning because they reduce a great deal of information to a single letter. Furthermore, there is often little agreement between the difference between an A and a B, a B and a C, a D and an F or what is required for a particular letter grade (Loyd & Loyd, 1997).

Grades may symbolize achievement, yet they often incorporate other factors as well, such as work habits, which may or may not be related to level of achievement. They are often used to reward or motivate students to display certain behaviors (Loyd & Loyd, 1997). Without a clear understanding of the basis for the grade, a single letter often will provide little information on how work can be improved. As noted previously, grades will only be as meaningful as the underlying criteria and the quality of assessment that produced them.

A single-letter grade or the score on an end-of-unit test does not make student progress explicit, nor does either provide students and teachers with information that might further their understandings or inform their learning. A “C” on a project or on a report card indicates that a student did not do exemplary work, but beyond that, there is plenty of room for interpretation and ambiguity. Did the student show thorough content understanding but fall short in presentation? Did the student not convey clear ideas? Or did the student not provide adequate explanation of why a particular phenomenon occurred? Without any information about these other dimensions, a single-letter grade does not provide specific guidance about how work can be improved.

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