Points, points and more points: Grade inflation and deflation when homework and employability scores are incorporated

With a strong movement of schools starting to use standards-based grading practices, one of the aims of this study was to learn if traditional grading practices communicate grades that are accurate based on the students’ learning of the course objectives. The purpose of this study was to determine the extent to which employability and homework scores within a traditional points-and percentages-weighted grading model inflates or deflates grades. This study analyzed 795 students’ semester math grades at an urban high school to see if, and to what extent, students’ grades were inflated or deflated due to including homework and employability scores in the grade. Final grades, which included homework and employability points, were compared to each student’s overall summative assessment scores to determine grade inflation or deflation. The study also analyzed how changing grading practices to eliminate homework and employability points would impact the number of students that ultimately passed or failed the course. Results of this study indicated 336 (43.2%) students had their grades inflated or deflated by 5% or more and 97 (12.6%) students had their grades inflated or deflated by 10% or more, which is equivalent to moving up or down a full letter grade. School leaders should consider separately communicating academic and non-academic factors to minimize grade inflation/deflation in order to make decisions based upon grades more justifiable.

Griffin, R., & Townsley, M. (2021). Points, points and more points: Grade inflation and deflation when homework and employability scores are incorporated. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 6(1), 1-11.[Available online]

Grading in the midst of a pandemic

Waterbury, Conn., superintendent Verna Ruffin noticed early on during the pandemic that students had taken on some demanding and necessary roles outside of their academic responsibilities. They were serving as caregivers and money earners for their families.

During the economic and social upheaval brought on by the coronavirus, the 18,000-student Waterbury schools made temporary changes in their grading policies last spring because of the inequities associated with the brisk transition to online learning. Waterbury, along with other districts nationwide, quickly adopted “do no harm” grading practices such as freezing existing grades and providing students with the option of pass/fail grades.

Townsley, M. (2021). Grading in the midst of a pandemic. School Administrator, 78(5), 28-31. [Available online]

Standards-based grading empowers physical educators and enhances their teaching practices

[Note to readers: This column was recently published in Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter. My co-author was Dr. Scott McNamara, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Northern Iowa]

Too often, educators intermingle attitude, effort, and achievement in their grading practices (Brookhart et al., 2016). This can especially be true of physical educators in that they often have to consider atypical factors, compared to other educators, when determining students’ grades such as effort and dressing out (Borghouts et al., 2017). Thinking back to our own middle and high school physical education (PE) experiences, merely stretching out, running the warm-up, and participating in whatever sports unit was the flavor of the month may have earned a passing grade. Rather than viewing PE class as a rite of passage and earning an easy grade, physical educators and their school administrators should consider a different approach to assessment and grading.

Physical educators have not often been trained to grade students based upon standards and to boot, PE is the only subject area that has specific standards related to three distinct learning domains: (a) psychomotor, (b) cognitive, and (c) affective (SHAPE America, 2016). In response to a call for more meaningful grading procedures, some schools have begun transitioning to standards-based grading (SBG) practices to better align assessment, standards, and grades communicated to parents and students (Townsley, 2018). Two key SBG principles include reporting standards in the grade book rather than assessment modality and emphasizing the most recent evidence rather than averaging multiple attempts within a reporting period.  While an increasing number of Iowa secondary schools are implementing or planning to implement standards-based grading, practitioners in the field told us there was a need to better understand the SBG successes and challenges specific to PE.  

Prior to COVID-19, we worked alongside all four K-12 PE teachers and two of their three administrators in an Iowa school district as they started to implement SBG within a PE setting.  While we recently reported the formal results of this investigation in a more formal report (Townsley & McNamara, 2021), the purpose of this article is to share the results with a broader audience. The results of this study are especially important for physical educators who may feel their content area is often marginalized. In addition, school administrators should be aware of this unique journey in order to understand the need to provide additional guidance to this group of educators.

Building the plane as we fly it

These forward-thinking educators shared with us their desire to learn about SBG absent of any known and readily available PE-specific professional development opportunities. Rather, they depended upon more content-neutral resources and informal networking to support their knowledge and models for moving forward with SBG.  In addition, teachers appeared to have a surface-level understanding of the SHAPE PE standards embraced by Iowa’s Department of Education.  Utilizing and applying the standards at each grade level was perceived to be subjective without professional development to better understand the intent of the standards.  Furthermore, PE teachers expressed a strong desire to utilize exemplar rubrics developed by experts rather than creating their own.  Despite these challenges, participants strongly expressed that SBG is the right shift for them and their students.

SBG provides a roadmap to empower teachers and students 

The physical educators we interviewed conveyed that SBG is a helpful practice in their planning, teaching, and assessing.  For example, to more frequently monitor student learning of the standards, PE teachers implemented more small groups, rather than large group assessments during class, sometimes creating self-assessment opportunities for students.  Still others checked for understanding with students on an individual basis, such as asking them to do as many pull-ups or push-ups as they could at that point in time. Rather than documenting in the gradebook how many students participated as they had often done in the past, SBG was beginning to individualize the assessment experience for teachers.  

Citing factors such as increased motivation to participate in class and the stories of students practicing skills at home, teachers believed the perceptions towards the value and relevance of PE were on the rise.  One teacher told us that it was “really cool to see that the kids were actually…taking it home, working on…homework, and then coming back and being proficient.” For a course that is sometimes viewed as an “easy A” for students, standard-based grading empowered teachers and students to feel as if they were on the same level as other disciplines in the school.

Additional SBG supports are needed for physical educators

The findings from our study suggest that through applying SBG to a PE setting, physical educators are better able to teach to the standards, communicate the learning taking place, and provide more motivation to students.  While easier said than done, clear grading criteria can assist physical educators in determining more meaningful grades based upon what students can do and can communicate learning more efficiently to parents and students.  Professional organizations from around the state may help physical educators increase their understanding of the SHAPE standards.  In addition, physical educators who have successfully implemented SBG should strive to share their practices and artifacts widely in support of this promising practice.  


Borghouts, L. B., Slingerland, M., & Haerens, L. (2017). Assessment quality and practices in secondary PE in the Netherlands. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 22(5), 473-489.

Brookhart, S.M., Guskey, T.R., Bowers, A.J., McMillan, J.H., Smith, J.K., Smith, L.F., Stevens, M.T., & Welsh, M.E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848.

Townsley, M. (2018). Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools. School Administrator, 75(2), 16-21.

Townsley, M., & McNamara, S. (2021). “I thought I was supposed to get an A in PE!” Successes and challenges of teachers and administrators implementing standards-based grading in physical education. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 70.

Top 10 Grading Articles (2020)

As another year comes to a close, it is once again time to sift through the research and commentary from the past twelve months. In case you missed it, 2020 has been filled with media headlines describing flexibility in grading practices due to emergency remote learning for many K-12 schools in the spring and increasing course failure rates due to the ongoing pandemic in the fall. In response to these events, several journals and periodicals published special issues in order to support educators during such unprecedented times. Without further ado, I present to you what I believe are the top ten (10) articles from 2020 written about grading (in alphabetical order by lead author’s last name).

  1. Brookhart, S. M., Guskey, T. R., McTighe, J., & Wiliam, D. (2020). Eight essential principles for improving grading. Educational Leadership, 78(1). Online exclusive. [Available online]

    Four experts share their thoughts exploring the place of grading as an important component of comprehensive and balanced district assessment systems. The eight principles described in this article are worth considering for schools interested in changing their grading practices today, next week, next month or next year.
  2. Feldman, J. (2020). Taking the stress out of grading. Educational Leadership, 78(1), 14-20. [Available online]

    Educators everywhere could use less stress in their lives right now. Joe Feldman suggests how shifting away from these traditional and stress-inducing grading practices can bolster equity.
  3. Guskey, T. R. (2020). Breaking up the grade. Educational Leadership, 78(1), 40-46. [Available online]

    Thomas Guskey discusses the inadequacy of a single grade and the advantages of reporting multiple grades. In this article, he describes how providing multiple grades that reflect product, progress, and process criteria can be done without requiring more work.
  4. Guskey, T., Townsley, M., & Buckmiller, T. (2020). The impact of standards-based learning: Tracking high school students’ transition to the university. NASSP Bulletin, 104(4), 257-269.

    In this study, we sought to determine if the implementation of standards-based learning in high schools affects students’ transition to learning in university courses. The results revealed no detrimental effects and the most frequently mentioned transition difficulties related to social issues and time management.
  5. Jung, L. (2020). Does this count? Educational Leadership, 78(1), 34-38.

    Nearly every educator has heard the question, “Does this count?” as it relates to students’ motivation to complete assignments. Lee Ann Jung posits that educators can fix gaming-for-grades school cultures by changing our understanding of formative classroom work.
  6. Link, L. J. (2020). Effective grading practices: Creating a culture of achievement. Principal Leadership, 21(2). [Available online]

    In this article written for school leaders, Laura Link shares four enablers frequently used to implement successful grading reform. Perhaps most importantly, she argues that school leaders must make cultural changes that include effective grading practices.
  7. Schimmer, T. (2020). Quality over counting: Mindsets of grading reform. ASCD Express, 16(2). [Available online]

    I plan to share this write-up by Tom Schimmer more widely in the upcoming year. He describes mindsets such as “quality over counting” and “standards over tasks” that I believe resonate with classroom teachers who have many years of points and percentages experience.
  8. Townsley, M. (2020). Grading principles in pandemic-era learning: Recommendations and implications for secondary school leaders. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 5(S1), 8-14. [Available online]

    In this essay, I offer three grading principles schools should consider in the era of hybrid, remote, and quarantine-induced learning. I believe the current pandemic-era of learning provides school leaders with an opportunity to reclaim the purpose of grades to communicate student learning, whether the “new norm” is here to stay or schools eventually return to primarily face-to-face instruction in the years to come.
  9. Townsley, M., & Knight, M. (2020). Making change stick: A case study of one high school’s journey towards standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 6(3). [Available online]

    I almost left this article off the list, because “Townsley” has been noted a few times already! Yet, this study co-authored with Dr. Megan Knight was unique in that it explained the experiences of high school teachers and administrators in the midst of transitioning to standards-based grading practices. Using Kotter’s eight steps for leading organizational change as a framework, we recommend school leaders blow off the cobwebs and get started, understand staff needs and provide teacher support, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  10. Venables, D. R. (2020). Five inconvenient truths about how we grade. Educational Leadership, 78(1), Online exclusive. [Available online]

    Venables describes the “monsters” that often drive our grading practices such as grading everything that moves and grading what students did rather than what they learned. He argues a more formative mindset towards assessment is needed in order to slay these grading monsters.

What grading articles from 2020 would you add to this list?

Also, see my previous “top” articles lists:

How should schools grade during a pandemic?

In Spring 2020, the New York Times and Washington Post, among other newspapers, published stories about schools adapting their grading policies in lieu of a sudden shift to emergency remote learning. More close to home, the Quad City Times ran a similar story describing Bettendorf school board deliberations around third quarter grades. In response to these unprecedented times, schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing the previous grades, replacing letter grades with pass-fail and providing students’ choice among the aforementioned methods. Colleges and universities were in a similar position during the spring and continue to adapt this fall, according to one Harvard administrator who said, “This is not a normal semester.”

Fast forward to the current academic year and Iowa K-12 schools are currently implementing a variety of instructional delivery models, providing 100 percent remote options for families and quickly moving students in and out of quarantine-induced learning environments. Any sense of “normalcy” beyond our current pandemic-era of learning appears to be months or perhaps years away. For over 100 years, researchers and practitioners have documented educators’ use of grades and concluded that when a “hodgepodge” of factors go into determining a letter grade, the output, frequently in the form of a letter grade, does not adequately communicate what a student has actually learned or is able to do. Rather than serving multiple functions (i.e., points for participation, progress and proficiency), grades ought to serve a single purpose: communicating students’ current levels of learning. In this column, I offer three grading principles focused on communicating learning that school leaders should consider during pandemic-era learning.


**For the rest of this article entitled, “Perspectives: How should Iowa schools grade during a pandemic?” which was written for the University of Northern Iowa College of Education, click here.

Grading Principles in Pandemic-Era Learning: Recommendations and Implications for Secondary School Leaders

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in K-12 education, school leaders quickly pivoted from prioritizing continuous instruction and technology access to the output: grades. In response to these unprecedented times, secondary schools utilized “do no harm” grading methods, such as freezing previous grades and replacing letter grades with pass-fail. The purpose of this essay was to describe grading principles that secondary school leaders should consider during future pandemic era learning and to suggest implications based upon previous literature.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the 2020 “School Leadership During a Global Pandemic” special issue of the Journal of School Administration Research and Development.

Townsley, M. (2020). Grading principles in pandemic-era learning: Recommendations and implications for secondary school leaders. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 5(S1), 8-14. [Available online]

3 Big Shifts for Standards-Based Grades

“My students spent two weeks on this project, so it should be worth a lot of points.”

“If Sammy had to take the test a second time, he must not have studied. He does not deserve full credit on a second attempt.”

“In the real world, there are no second chances.”

“Students won’t do the homework if we don’t grade it.”

These are phrases we have likely heard—or said—when discussing student grades. Such beliefs about grades as compensation have been the unquestioned norm for students, parents, and educators for well over a century. In more recent years, educators have begun emphasizing learning over earning when grading student work. This was Megan’s experience throughout her time as a secondary special education and English/language arts teacher. In her fledgling years, she viewed grades as compensation for hard work and high achievement. However, she eventually transitioned to a standards-based grading system that better communicated student learning. Standards-based grade books encompass three big shifts.

To read the rest of this ASCD Express article I co-authored with Megan Knight, click here.

Townsley, M., & Knight, M. (2020). Three big shifts for standards-based grades. ASCD Express, 16(2). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol16/num02/3-big-shifts-for-standards-based-grades.aspx

Losing As and Fs: What works for schools implementing standards-based grading?

Learning goals such as the Common Core State Standards are helping educational leaders to better understand the critical role assessment and grading plays in the teaching and learning process. In response to the growing body of empirical research on the topic of accurate grading practices, a number of schools are moving away from letter grades and adopting standards-based grading which separately report learning goals from work habits. The purpose of this essay is to document what works when K-12 schools implement standards-based grading through a deep dive into related literature and to suggest areas for future consideration. With this improvement to educational systems on the horizon, K-12 teachers and administrators in the early stages of redesigning their grading practices will benefit from understanding the successes and struggles of early adopters in order to successfully reform grading in their own context.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Educational Considerations.

Townsley M., & Buckmiller T. (2020). Losing As and Fs: What works for schools implementing standards-based grading? Educational Considerations, 46(1). [Available online]

Rural high school principals and the challenge of standards-based grading

The purpose of this study was to better understand how principals in rural schools are thinking about assessment and grading practices and if they anticipate implementing policy changes in the near future that may require increased support. Principals of schools in rural areas often face challenges that are significantly different from those of their urban and suburban counterparts. The researchers used a mixed-method survey to better understand if progressive grading policies were a part of the vision for principals of rural high schools, if they possessed conceptual underpinnings of such practices, and if they believed they had the capacity within their districts to lead teachers toward more effective grading policies. A high frequency of high school principals in rural schools said standards-based grading (SBG) was a part of their 5-year vision. These principals also showed relatively high mean scores of standards-based assessment literacy, and moderately high percentages believed they have the resources and capacity to support SBG. The researchers thus conclude that there is a high likelihood that many rural high schools will be implementing some form of SBG within the next 5 years.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Theory and Practice in Rural Education

Buckmiller, T., Townsley, M., & Cooper, R. (2020). Rural high school principals and the challenge of standards-based grading.  Theory and Practice in Rural Education, 10(1), 92-102. [Available online]

Making change stick: A case study of one high school’s journey towards standards-based grading

The purpose of this study was to explain the experiences of high school teachers and administrators in the midst of transitioning to standards-based grading practices. The researchers used a single case study methodology to investigate how teachers and administrators described their school’s implementation successes and challenges. Data triangulation occurred through analyzing semi-structured interviews, meeting agendas, handbooks, and relevant documents provided by study participants. Using Kotter’s eight steps for leading organizational change as a framework, we recommend school leaders blow off the cobwebs and get started, understand staff needs and provide teacher support, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This peer-reviewed article was published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of Educational Leadership in Action.

Townsley, M., & Knight, M. (2020). Making change stick: A case study of one high school’s journey towards standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 6(3). [Available online]