When a Grade is more than Academics









At the 2018 MACUL Conference, I joined a conversation around the topic of grading in the classroom, and one thing that popped up in the conversation was the idea of compliance-based grading. This was a topic that I have heard and dealt with before, but this renewed my interest and sent me down a path to identify and offer suggestions so that teachers do not get caught in the trap of compliance-based grading.

The Essential Question

Should we reward “good students” for being good students and jumping through the hoops of educational institutions or should we simply assess their academic mastery of the topic and material?

This is not a question that can be easily disregarded or answered in one quick response. For one reason, I know that many teachers have combined the two, if not purposely, by happenstance. In fact, while I was still in the classroom, I did this in my first years of teaching. And even with the amazing guidance of forward-thinking principals and a strong personal learning network, the fact remained that I was still doing this in my classroom, even if the role of non-academics had become smaller over time. As schools approach a model that starts to prepare students with the skills and knowledge that make them both career and college ready, this question is one that needs to be addressed.

What is Compliance-Based Grading?

Compliance-based grading happens when non-academic behaviors are graded as academic. In many schools that I have been in and with many of the teachers that I have spoken to, this is a continued practice. How many times in your room have you said, “If you are cheating, I will give you a zero on your test.” Or, “if this work is not in by Friday, I am taking points off.” While these are examples that I remember from my schooling, I also cringe when I remember that I was that teacher. I was not separating the student’s academics from their behavior. Did I truly believe that the student that was cheating knew absolutely nothing about the topic I was assessing?

According to Brookhart’s 2004 work (as cited in Marzano, 2010), grades serve three primary purposes: sorting students, reporting results, and displaying learning. When there happens to be a failure in separating academics from behavior, the purpose of grades becomes distorted. As Winger (2009) explains, grades for bringing back a signed class expectations sheet or coming prepared to class everyday demonstrate that compliance is a priority instead of learning. When we as teachers decide to place an emphasis on compliance, learning becomes secondary in our classrooms.

Combating a Compliance-Based Grading System?  

Now that we know about some of the styles of compliance-based grading, let’s talk about some quick and simple fixes for compliance-based grading in your classroom. As Pijanowski (2011) points out, the teacher is the professional and their gradebook is their domain. It is important to establish this understanding before progressing. One thing to consider when examining the suggestions below is to look at small changes that you can make to your grading practices moving forward. The best way to start is to examine what are the characteristics of our “good students” and how are those reflected in our gradebooks.

When Pijanowski (2011) studied the actions of Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, the teachers of Forsyth County identified assignment completion, participation, responsibility, and interpersonal skills as the four main behaviors that indicate student success in the classroom. How many times are these four behaviors marked in our gradebook? I know that when I was in the classroom, these tended to play a role in how my students were marked. When I did this, I would distort the grades away from what the students actually knew and bring in the factors of how they would behave.

One of the things that I did while still in the classroom was to create separate categories for grades, one of which was that “professionalism” score. The “professionalism” score was marked on a four-point scale, and one that did not add any weight to the gradebook. “Professionalism” incorporated the four skills that were identified, and including on-time performance. The best part is that the assessment served simply as a point of reflection and a measure of non-academic growth — it did not impact the student’s academic score at all.

Another thing to consider is the idea of zeros. Marzano (2006) holds one steadfast truth when designing assessments and grading that work, “the student should not be assigned a score of zero for not taking a test, not turning in an assignment, or turning it in late” (pg 115).  In the 2000 work of Guskey and Bailey (as cited in Reeves, 2004) illustrates, using grades as a punishment is an ineffective strategy. “The appropriate consequence is not a zero; it’s completing the work” (Reeves, 2008). Since the zero is more of a mathematical punishment as well (Reeves, 2004), Marzano (2006) argues that is skews the entire course average and takes away from a true measure of what students know. Again, we have to answer the question on whether we want grades to reflect student knowledge or student behavior.

Putting it All Together

This is not only a problem for K-12 educators. After we finished loading a bunch of rocks into a fellow educators truck at my house in mid-May, we sat in the backyard and started to have a conversation. While compliance-based grading was not a topic, one of the other educators in the backyard was discussing graduate school classes. In this educator’s graduate classes, they were required to jump through a ton of hoops in a timely manner in order to get a grade in the class. This professor did not assess what his students knew, but instead assessed the number of posts and the timestamps on them, leaving this professional highly disappointed in their effort and course. Don’t allow this to happen to your students. One way to combat is to start a discussion on what personalized learning (a whole other post) is and how you might be able to use it in your classroom (hint: it is not 30 individual lesson plans).

While this is essential work, it is not easy work. I know that it took me years to realize what I was doing, and without the assistance of amazing administrators that challenged my thinking and an awesome personalized learning network, I may not have come to these conclusions. As we start to think ahead to next year, think of ways that you can subtly change to help students have a more accurate representation of their academic knowledge, as well as their “professionalism.”


Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J. (2010). Formative assessment & standards-based grading. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

Pijanowski, L. (2011). The Case of the Illogical Grades. Educational Leadership,69(3). Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov11/vol69/num03/The-Case-of-the-Illogical-Grades.aspx

Reeves, D. B. (2004). The Case against the Zero. Phi Delta Kappan,86(4), 324-325. doi:10.1177/003172170408600418

Reeves, D. B. (2008). Effective Grading Practices. Educational Leadership,65(5), 85-87. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb08/vol65/num05/Effective-Grading-Practices.aspx

Winger, T. (2009). Grading What Matters. Educational Leadership,67(3), 73-75. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov09/vol67/num03/Grading-What-Matters.aspx

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