Typhani Harris | September 2014

How Do You Grade?

Grading philosophies vary with each teacher, each subject, each school.

We must assess our students. It’s our job… but so often, letters and numbers are confused with authentic learning. Just because students receive a C doesn’t mean they didn’t learn. In turn, just because they received an A doesn’t mean they did. So, with that in mind, how do you grade?

 Grading Just To Grade?

I feel that sometimes we “grade” for the sake of grading. I am guilty of this as well. My current school expects at least 3 grades entered in the book each week. So, I find myself putting in things like participation, or turning in a signed syllabus or grade check. None of which are a testament to student learning. Grading is truly a catch 22. Students and parents are so programmed to equate success with percentages and letters that without a “grade” they don’t take the assignment seriously, but then that throws us into the catacombs of meaningless grading, leaving no genuine way of providing evidence of actual student learning.

Grading And Grading Policies

I will never forget the one situation that changed my perspective on grading and grading policies. It was 2007 and I was teaching an Advanced Placement Language and Composition course for eleventh grade. I had just returned a writing assignment and one student approached me questioning why she got a 9 instead of 10. I explained that although her concept was great, I felt she could use a little more work on her syntax and diction.

This wasn’t a good enough reason for her, so she spent a few more minutes trying to convince me it was a perfect paper worthy of a perfect score. After a few more minutes back and forth, and out of frustration and wanting to end the conversation, I finally said “I just don’t like what you are wearing so I took a point off” I giggled to insinuate I was joking but I really wasn’t. What was it about that one point that brought her to the brink of tears and took me to nervous banter? I realized for these AP students visioning themselves in Ivy League schools, that one point could make or break their academic careers.

What Did I Do?

So, I began devising a grading scenario that would ensure that learning was at the forefront of education, and not the points or percentages. I decided from that point on, I would not grade. I would comment, offer feedback, and encourage, but I would not attach a letter or number to any assignment or assessment.  We actually share how to do this effectively in our online class, Assessment for Makers, and trust me – it makes all the difference in your assessment practice!

As you could imagine, this didn’t go over so well at first, but in the end provided an environment where learning was the most important aspect of the course, a space where risks were taken without fear of losing points, and a place where process was valued over percentages. If you think about it, the way the education system is set up, if students know how to jump through the proverbial hoops they can be “successful” (success being equated with an A).

So, I took my plan further by announcing that my AP students would show an F as a grade until the semester; a bold move almost begging for repercussions, but I realized these students have never seen an F, therefore have never felt the true joy of success. We, as a society, have deemed failure with such a negative connotation, when in reality it is our biggest failures that reap the greatest rewards.

I met with the students and their parents to discuss my new procedure explaining that I know how important the letter is for their transcripts, and if at any point I felt that the students were earning less that a B I would contact them immediately, but for the time being, everyone has an F. I shared my philosophy and encouraged them to just enjoy learning. Do the assignments because you want to learn, not because there is a number attached; take risks you would have never taken before.


The results were amazing. Students were working because they wanted to, not because they had to; they were trying things in their writing they would have never tried otherwise (I remember a student composing a piece of solely questions, and it was wonderful). At the end of the semester, their final exam was to argue their grade utilizing logical fallacies and argument techniques I had taught throughout the semester.

Ironically, students never argued for an A, they always found areas where they felt they could improve, which was true learning at the core. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy for everyone, it takes a certain type of student to follow through, and a certain type of parent to accept it, as well as an administration that encourages risk-taking, but it was by far the best experiment I ever conducted.

Now, the big question…how does that transfer into the arts? Think about how you grade your arts classes, and next week I will share the grading philosophy of my current dance classes.

Next Week: Secrets of a Dance Teacher

Grading in the Arts

When it comes to grading in the arts, I run into a similar situation. Grading artwork is so subjective. Even with all the rubrics in the world, there is still a lens by which we view art subconsciously. How do we attach an evaluative number to an artistic process?

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.