Grading For Learning

Guest Blogger – Ken O’Connor

CAfLN is a network that is “dedicated to nurturing and sustaining Assessment for Learning (AfL) . . . across Canada,” but given that every province and territory (unfortunately) requires % grades, at least for grades 9-12, we need not only to “assess for learning,” but we must also “grade for learning.”

Yes, Yes, Yes we can grade for learning and despite what Alfie Kohn’s says “grading for learning” is not like “bombing for peace.” (O’Connor, 2018, 304) Determining summary grades for standards or subjects doesn’t automatically promote a culture of grading as grading for learning can create a culture of learning in schools.

A grade is the symbol (number or letter) reported at the end of a period of time as a summary of student achievement.

A mark/score is the symbol (number or letter) recorded for any single student test or performance.

Traditional grading includes scores for (almost) everything students do regardless of purpose and whether students exhibit the behavior teachers like (compliance), with those scores averaged to several decimal places regardless of when the assessment or behavior took place during the school year. The result of this approach is that school becomes a game where students try to accumulate as many points as they can to obtain the highest possible grade, which may have little or no relationship to what a student actually learned.

So how the do we grade for learning? There are a number of critical aspects as follows:

  1. Clarity and transparency about the primary purpose for grades –communicating student achievement of the learning goals at a point in time in summary format;
  2. Clarity about the primary purpose of classroom assessment – gathering information that leads to actions by students – and teachers – to improve learning and teaching;
  3. Elimination of behavior/compliance/penalties/attendance from grades;
  4. Ensuring that students understand that learning is a process in which it is acceptable to lack understanding/make errors early in the learning process by eliminating evidence from formative assessments in the determination of grades and only including evidence from summative assessments i.e., the assessments that take place toward the end of learning sequences;
  5. Ensuring that students understand also that learning is a process by emphasizing more recent evidence in the determination of grades; and
  6. Involving students in the assessment process through self-assessment, reflection, and goal setting so that they can always answer the learning questions – Where am I going? Where am I now? and How can I close the gap (improve)? (Chappuis, J. 2012, 27)

These are the sine qua non of grading for learning and they require the elimination of common practices such as averaging to calculate grades and the inclusion of homework in grades. There are also other actions that schools and teachers should take that emphasize learning and provide information that supports learning such as:

  1. Collecting evidence of student achievement based on learning goals not methods of assessment;
  2. Using performance standards that clearly describe proficiency and a limited number of levels above and below proficiency; and
  3. Ensuring that every assessment meets standards of quality so that the inferences that students and teachers make as a result of the assessments are most likely to be accurate.

A case can be made that in a perfect world we wouldn’t have grades at all but in Canada they are required by provincial policies (however misguided those policies may be) so we have a responsibility to make the assessment and grading process support learning by moving away from traditional grading toward the procedures described above. If we do that our graduates will be self-directed, independent, lifelong learners who will be likely to be successful in whatever they do after their years in K-12 schools.


Chappuis, J. et al. 2012. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right, Using It Well. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ

O’Connor, K. 2018 How to Grade for Learning, Fourth Edition. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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