NJSBA’s Policy Services department recently received an interesting inquiry regarding selection of a grading system.

Specifically, the member wanted to know if the board has to approve the district grading system. The member also asked if the board must approve changes to the regulation in addition to changes in the policy.

(In the case of this district, the process for determining the grading system was covered in the regulation.)

This inquiry speaks to a topic that is highly visible and of great interest to parents. It also forces a board to consider the broader issue of boundaries between the role of the board and the role of the administration.

Because there is no clear-cut boundary between policy and regulation, members frequently struggle with finding a balance between responsible board oversight through policy and over managing (or micromanaging) the superintendent.

Establishing a grading system for the district or school is a matter of local decision making. The law does not directly address grading students and does not require the board to approve the grading system. The law requires that students be evaluated for the purpose of promotion, remediation and retention (N.J.S.A. 18A:35-4.9). The law also requires the board to implement a curriculum aligned with the New Jersey Student Learning Standards and comply with the requirements of the state assessment program (N.J.A.C. 6A:8.1 et seq.).

Measuring student achievement accurately through a well thought-out grading system is a very important decision. It seems surprising and counterintuitive that the board is not required to adopt a grading system.

The Code of Ethics for School Board Members states (N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1, d, and i):

I will carry out my responsibility, not to administer the schools, but, together with my fellow board members, to see that they are well run.

I will support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.

The Code of Ethics recognizes that it is the responsibility the chief school administrator to administer the district and implement the educational program. The grading system is one of the tools used for this implementation.

The rationale for selecting a grading system must reflect the goals and objectives of the educational program. It makes sense that trained educators would be the most qualified to assess the research and data on available grading systems, weigh the strengths and limitations of the various approaches to grading, and evaluate their suitable application to the district educational program.

In the same way that doctors are trusted to have the knowledge and expertise to diagnose and treat a physical illness, teaching staff members and, in particular, the chief school administrator must be trusted to have the knowledge and expertise to make the best choices for the educational program.

However, in order to effectively oversee the operation of the district, the school board must be prepared, ask questions and know the facts. Effective communication and reporting by the superintendent facilitates the board’s responsibility to “support and protect school personnel in proper performance of their duties.”

Grading Options Have Evolved Parents and guardians, having once been students, perceive grades to measure standing and success in school. In many ways these adults naturally view grades in the same way they were applied to their own education. However, the options for grading students have evolved to accommodate nontraditional approaches to teaching that emphasize the processes of critical thinking and problem-solving over the more traditional approaches that focus on memorization of facts and content. While grading systems may have changed over the years, the care and concern that parents and guardians have regarding their child’s success in school has remained constant. Therefore, when a school district moves from a familiar and traditional grading system to a less traditional system that is unfamiliar, the chances of a community controversy increase.

When the community resists change and the board is faced with a community controversy, sharing information and being prepared with the facts to respond are essential for the successful implementation of the new plan.

Overview of Grading Options In an article Structure of the U.S. Education System: U.S. Grading Systems, the United States Network for Education Information (USNEI) describes commonly used grading systems, two of which are criteria-referenced and norm-referenced grading systems.

Perhaps the most common in our public schools are criteria-referenced systems which are based on a fixed numeric scale. There is a defined perfect score (usually 100) and points are subtracted for incorrect responses or less than perfect performance. Usually, the numeric scale is equated to a letter grade. Criteria referenced grading tells how well a student performs against an objective or standard, as opposed to against another student. For example:

  • A = Excellent = 95-100
  • B = Good = 85-95
  • C = Fair = 75-85

There are distinct disadvantages to criteria-referenced grading. It cannot convey every possible meaning of the student learning and the use of one score reveals a limited picture that does not reflect the assessment of the various skills needed to master the content.

Another familiar grading system that is frequently used is the norm-referenced grading systems. A good example of a norm-referenced test is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Norm-referenced grading systems are based on a pre-established formula regarding the percentage or ratio of students within a whole class who will be assigned each grade or mark. The students, while they may work individually, are actually in competition to achieve a standard of performance that will classify them into the desired grade range (USNEI). For example:

  • Top 10 percent of the class = A = Excellent
  • Next 20 percent of the class = B = Good
  • Next 30 percent of the class = C = Fair

One disadvantage is that norm-referenced assessments provide summative data only and the data comes at the end of the learning unit as opposed to formative evaluations, which provide ongoing information and feedback on student learning. In addition, norm-referenced assessments are unlikely to completely measure or assess the specific goals and objectives of an educational program or class.

Standards-Based Grading Criteria-referenced and norm-referenced grading systems are traditional grading systems. With the shift to “Future-Ready” approaches to teaching that seek to improve student self-sufficiency in the areas of critical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, and synthesizing information, many districts are implementing standards-based approaches to grading.

The Glossary of Education Reform includes a comprehensive definition of standards-based assessment. “Standards-based assessment is based on students demonstrating understanding or mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their educational program. In a school that uses standards-based approaches to educating students, learning standards – i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education – determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the learning expectations described in the standards… If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency or meet the learning expectations described in the standards…Grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together.”

Standards-based grading and reporting identifies the skills and steps necessary for mastery of a defined learning standard. This gives students the opportunity to take a more active role in their learning. The student’s progress is charted and the student can see what they have learned in class and what remains to be learned. The purpose of standards-based grades, indicators, marks and/or letters is to provide students and parents/guardians with information related to the student’s strengths and weaknesses, separating out non-academic factors such as behavior, homework completion and extra credit. Standards-based grading incorporates multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding based on feedback.

Standards-based grading systems can be different from school to school. Frequently, districts that move to this kind of grading system, offer a conversion formula to help parents/guardians compare their child’s report card to more traditional grading system.

The critics of standards-based grading cite that it is time consuming and teaching staff members must reteach and reassess students who fail to meet a learning standard, creating additional work for classroom teachers. In addition, teachers may be forced to redesign formative and summative assessments to build in an opportunity for students to demonstrate proficiency of content standards.

Parents and guardians express concerns that allowing students to redo work is a disincentive giving the student the idea that they don’t need to try their best the first time. In addition, parents and guardians express concerns that the elimination of competition in the classroom does not prepare their children for the “real world.”

Policy Considerations of Grading Systems NJSBA model policy 6147.1 Evaluation of Individual Performance states:

The chief school administrator, in consultation with the teaching staff, shall develop a marking system to be used uniformly in the same grade level throughout the schools. The system should be clear, easily understood by parents/guardians and pupils, and able to be applied with consistency of interpretation. Computation of gradepoint average and rank in class shall be uniform throughout the district. Evaluation and grading symbols shall be intended to appraise the pupil’s progress toward established goals, and shall be a factor in promotion/graduation decisions. (Critical Policy Reference Manual, 6147.1)

The model clearly authorizes the chief school administrator in consultation with teaching staff members to develop the grading system, provided that the grading system meets the standards set forth in the policy that speak to clarity, consistency and fairness of application. The policy does not require that the chief school administrator get board approval for the grading system or require the chief school administrator to report to the board when there are changes to the grading system. This policy approach assumes the board-administrator dynamic is healthy and productive and that the chief school administrator will keep the board informed as appropriate.

In cases where the board and the administration require more direction for communicating effectively, the board has the option to amend the policy to require that the chief school administrator report to the board or an appropriate standing committee (policy, curriculum) when changes to the grading system are being contemplated and provide information and the rationale for such changes. Standing committee meetings are typically work sessions and not public meetings. Reports to committees are less formal and promote more candid discussion where members have the opportunity to ask questions and accumulate information on behalf of the board. In addition, reporting to committees helps reduce the risk that the board members and chief school administrator will be perceived publicly to be undecided or in conflict with each other. A unified front is essential to successfully implementing large changes.

The board should be cautious in creating a policy requirement to approve changes to the grading system upon the recommendation of the chief school administrator. As stated in the Code of Ethics, it is not the role of the board to administer the schools, but to see that they are well run. While creating policy that the board approve the grading system is not a clear violation of the Code of Ethics, it may be perceived as crossing the line between oversight versus administration. When a board is divided and has difficulty achieving a consensus, requiring board approval can encumber the implementation of important changes. In addition, it can be difficult for a board to reach a consensus if the change is unpopular and vocally protested. Public outcry may reflect how the community feels but may not reflect what is best suited to your educational program.

In general the development of regulations is an administrative function unless specifically addressed in law. In the case of grading, the board is not required by law to approve changes to the regulations. The board may review a regulation regarding grading or any other regulation to evaluate if the procedures comply with and implement the policy. If the board determines that the regulation is not in compliance with or does not sufficiently promote the implementation of the policy, the board may direct the chief school administrator (or his or her designee) to update the regulation.

When a change in policy or procedure has the potential to be controversial it is always advisable to keep the community informed, providing opportunities to distribute information and solicit input before implementing a big change. Community relations programs do not always prevent a controversy but they can diminish the shock of emotion associated with an unexpected change.

There is no clear-cut boundary between policy and regulation and the words from the Code of Ethics, while inspiring, are not definite on where the line separates oversight from administration. In the absence of clear and definitive rules, the board is responsible for the creation of reasonable policy. Creating reasonable policy can only be successfully accomplished working in close consultation with the chief school administrator and other qualified staff members designated by the chief school administrator to fully inform the policy process. A unified position that has involved and considered stakeholder input and a well-researched argument supported by the facts enable board members and staff to defend their position.

NJSBA critical policy and legal reference 6147.1 Assessment of Individual Performance may be downloaded at ws.staging.njsba.org/njsba/policy/. For sample and model regulations covering grades and other related topics or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services: [email protected].