We Don’t Talk About Grading


by Dr. Laura Boyle

I started teaching high school biology midway through the 2009-2010 school year after completing the first semester of an alternative certification program for those hoping to teach in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). While this program eventually led to a master’s degree, I entered the classroom as a new teacher with no student teaching experience, and what can best be described as a crash course in education. I immediately adopted the grading policies of the teacher I replaced and continued using those policies for the next full school year. During this time I had very few conversations about grading. Nobody spoke to me about how to determine letter grades, which assignments to grade, whether or not to curve a test. I was flying solo until the building administration asked all departments to come to a consensus on grading policies. At this point, the science department decided not to accept any late work for a grade, and we justified this by saying students needed to be prepared for class, especially for lab work. If students did not complete prelabs on time, there was no point to doing the work after the lab. Looking back at this policy now, I want to cringe and shake myself.

My students at this time were freshmen, just making the transition into high school, and many of them traveled long distances to get to school. I taught at a selective enrollment high school, where all students had to pass an entrance test for admission and all classes were at the honors or AP level. Teachers in the building often justified rigid grading policies as “rigorous” and appropriate for the selective enrollment environment. However, many of us failed to consider who our students were outside of school. The high school was located on the far south side of Chicago but pulled students who qualified for a selective enrollment school from all parts of the city. CPS, however, did not provide transportation for these students. Students either needed to be driven by family, or they needed to use the CTA buses and trains to get to school on their own. It was not abnormal for student commutes to and from school to be over an hour long. Often this commute was done after students completed their after school sports, clubs, and other activities, leaving less time for students to complete school work at home. This school was a Title I school – most of the students received free or reduced lunch, and many had parents who worked multiple jobs or second- or third-shift jobs, leaving them home by themselves. And since all classes were at the honors or AP level, many teachers regularly assigned large amounts of homework, leaving students with hours of homework to complete each night.

This all started to change with a new building principal who started the 2012-13 school year by asking us what we think grades should mean and communicate to students and their families. We came to the agreement that grades should reflect what students know and can do in class. Then he asked us if that was what our grades actually showed. If a student forgets to do their prelab, but comes to my class and performs the lab activity perfectly and completes all the postlab work, should their grade reflect the missed prelab? Had I ever talked to my students about why they didn’t complete the prelab? Or why they had other missing assignments? The questions kept pouring in and I had no answers, at least no good ones.

These conversations continued all year at our building-wide meetings and the following year led to a pilot group of teachers testing out equitable grading practices that were modeled off of Standards Based Grading techniques. I have been using many of these grading policies for nearly a decade, and they have changed not only how I grade, but also how I talk to students about school, and how I talk to students about their lives. There are seven equitable grading policies that I use in my classes.

  1. Standards-based learning objectives are provided each day to inform students of the expectations for class and the criteria for success (Guskey & Jung, 2009; Shippy et al., 2013).
  2. Smaller formative assessments are given each time a standards-based objective is completed; some take a day, some take a few days to cover (Butler & Nisan, 1986).
  3. A unit tracker is provided at the end of each unit for students to record their summative assessments, their mastery score on each, and determine their retake needs (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014).
  4. I plan ahead for one retake day for each unit assessment to occur during class time after students receive their retake practice work (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014).
  5. I do not assign homework. My courses are structured so that students have time during the class period to complete the necessary work (Feldman, 2019).
  6. I provide ungraded formative assessments to students prior to summative assessments. These formative assessments are only used to provide students with feedback on their learning (Iamarino, 2014).
  7. I provide students with rubrics for all summative projects and labs (Feldman, 2019).

            These grading policies are more equitable for several reasons. First, they remove some implicit bias. I am a middle-class white woman from the suburbs of Chicago. I have never looked like the majority of my students. If I included things like effort, participation, or behavior in my grades, this could be impacted by implicit bias (DeCuir & Dixon, 2004).  Next, by not including homework as a grade, I remove bias my students might face if they don’t have the time, space, or support at home to complete the homework. Those are things outside the control of students, and when we include homework in their grade we are grading them on social and familial structures they have no control over (Feldman, 2019; Ladson-Billings, 1995). I also provide them with information on what success looks like, and how they are progressing towards that goal  (Guskey & Jung, 2009; Shippy et al., 2013). I give students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning more than once and provide additional time and opportunities for students who need them (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014). Every student can learn, but they don’t all learn the same way or at the same pace. Providing more individual support for students can help more students to achieve academic mastery (Ladson-Billings, 1995). I have found this last point to be the most important for me, especially in my current role. I teach many English Language Learners who are not only learning biology, but also how to read, write, speak, and understand a new language. If I were to simply grade a test and move on, many of my students would continue to struggle, not only in biology but also with their language learning. By incorporating practice work and test retakes, students are given the time and support to continue learning the content, but also the language objectives that are tied to the content. For example, my students are getting more practice with reading scientific texts, using data from a graph or figure to answer questions, or being able to justify a conclusion based on data. These are skills that they will use in every science class and are language-heavy. Giving them the opportunities to continue to master these skills makes them better at biology, but also more scientifically literate and better citizens.


Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210–216. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.78.3.210

Decuir, J. T., & Dixson, A. D. (2004). “So when it comes out, they aren’t that surprised that it is there”: Using critical race theory as a tool of analysis of race and racism in education. Educational Researcher,33(5), 26-31. doi:10.3102/0013189×033005026

Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(8), 52-55.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Guskey, T. R., & Jung, L. A. (2009). Grading and reporting in a standards-based environment: Implications for students with special needs. Theory Into Practice, 48(1), 53-62. doi:10.1080/00405840802577619

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-12

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312032003465

Shippy, N., Washer, B. A., & Perrin, B. (2013). Teaching with the end in mind: The role of standards-based grading. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 14-16. doi:10.14307/jfcs105.2.5

About our Author

Laura Boyle, Ed.D
Joliet Central H.S., Joliet, IL

Dr. Boyle is a recent graduate from the University of South Carolina Educational Practice and Innovation program with a STEM concentration. She has 15 years experience teaching life science courses including Biology, Environmental Science, and Anatomy. She taught for eight years in Chicago Public Schools and has spent the last seven years at Joliet Central High School. All of her experience is at Title I schools, serving students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. She has been working to implement equitable grading practices in her classroom for nearly 10 years and completed her dissertation on the impact of equitable grading practices on student outcomes and biology self-efficacy, for which she was the recipient of the 2024 Outstanding Achievement in STEM Education Doctoral Award.

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