Can We Personalize our Grading System?

Chrissie Wywrot is a freelance writer and social media expert with focuses on LinkedIn profile development and blogging. She is also an advocate for The ChadTough Foundation which raises funds and awareness for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG. Learn more about Chrissie and her business at

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Grades are often assigned based upon curriculum that looks at the average knowledge of a student base. Students should know X, Y, and Z, by the time they are X-years old. If they don’t, they receive a lower grade.

That is a faulty system for a number of reasons.

1. Students Aren’t Average

gradesTodd Rose, who dropped out of high school with D- grades but now teachers neuroscience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes a look at this in his book, “The End of Average.” Rose argues against evaluating students using grades as a proper law of average. No one, he argues, is average.

“Then you think of things like the lockstep, grade-based organization of kids, and you end up sitting in a class for a fixed amount of time and get a one-dimensional rating in the form of a grade, and a one-dimensional standardized assessment,” said Rose to NPR.

Treating each student as an individual along his or her own learning path would change the grades each student receives because he or she would receive a grade based upon an individualized standard instead of a (faulty) average one.

“I think when you look at the idea of pace, we are so convinced that slow means dumb and fast means smart,” says Rose. “We feel justified in pegging the time to how fast the average person takes to finish. But this is where, with a better understanding of this and realizing, ‘Oh, pace really has nothing to do with ability, people are fast at some things and slow with others,’ you would build a very different system than the one we have.”

2. Grades Aren’t Inspiring

There is undoubtedly a segment of students who fail to achieve high grades due to lack of motivation. When grades are reflective of meeting a teacher’s predetermined standard instead of solving a real-world problem, mustering up the desire to complete an assignment can be difficult.

A friend I went to high school with held a C/D average because he didn’t like homework and chose not to do it. This friend, now a computer programmer, was uninspired by a system in which he was working just to please a teacher to earn a letter grade. He went on to do well in college because he was genuinely interested in the material and, therefore, did well on tests.

Perhaps if he had attended high school under a personalized learning model, his grades would have been different. With the freedom to design his own learning structure, he more than likely would have tapped into intrinsic motivation and been a more active participant in his schooling process.

3. Schools Are Still Evolving

Personalized learning is making its way through our school systems, showing educators just how effective individualizing curriculum can be. Aveson Charter Schools’ personalized mastery program is an example of educators pushing students toward developing their own motivation for learning, moving away from grades as the primary focus and instead looking to develop solutions to real-world problems as a method of learning.

“We’re seeing a move away from colleges and careers that individuals just have a body of knowledge they’ve memorized,” said Sebastian Cognetta, Director of Instruction and Curriculum at Aveson. “It’s less about what you know and more about what you do with what you know.”

Aveson allows students to take control of their own learning, which includes deciding the relevance of course work and the form it takes. Instead of a letter grade being the goal, the letter grade is the measuring stick based upon the effort and learning of the student.

The primary focus of successfully completing a project is no longer about how to get an ‘A’ and is instead about solving a specific problem. Criteria becomes broad and the student has room within that criteria to customize a project to fit his or her passion.

Make Learning Personalized

Once each student has a customized learning path, grades can be relied upon much more to properly reflect progress.

“People feel like if you focus on individuality, everyone’s a snowflake, and you can’t build a science on snowflakes. But the opposite has been true,” said Rose.

“It’s not that you can’t use statistics, it’s just that you don’t use group statistics. If I want to know something about my daily spending habits, one straightforward way would be to collect records of what I spend every day. To take an average for myself would be perfectly fine.”

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