It’s as American as apple pie. Teachers grade their students.

But what if, like the sugar in apple pie, being graded by your teachers isn’t actually good for students—or teachers and maybe even society?

There is ample evidence to suggest we ought to ask the question.

In her bestselling book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Stanford professor Carol Dweck wrote, “When teachers are judging [students], [they] will sabotage the teacher by not trying. But when students understand that school is for them—a way for them to grow their minds—they do not insist on sabotaging themselves.”

Why would students ever get the impression that their teachers are judging them? Oh right. Because their teachers are responsible for grading them—which involves judging how well they have done in a subject.

In “The Gift of Failure,” Jessica Lahey talks about how students learn more when their “families are involved in their education.” Yet, in many cases, parents and teachers have become adversaries—to the point that many teachers “cite the challenge of dealing with their students’ parents as the main reason for abandoning the classroom”. Why the tension? Grades.

As Lahey wrote, “Many of my students express tension and outright fear for weeks before report cards come out, and in the days before parent-teacher conferences, they look as if they are bound for the gallows. Even when they adore their parents and respect their teachers, loyalty to one gets in the way of the relationship with the other, sort of like negotiating divorcing parents. My students cannot possibly trust me completely when I am locked in battle with their parents.”

Why are they locked in a battle with parents? One reason is that students are stuck in a high-stakes system that parents rightly perceive as being averse to failure—which I addressed in a past piece here. But another reason is because in today’s system, teachers give out the grades.

As Diane Tavenner wrote in her recent book, “Prepared,” “Teachers then have two jobs that are in opposition to each other. On the one hand, they are responsible for students’ learning…. Their second responsibility is ensuring students’ grades show what the student has done, and that they grade their student in a fair and ethical way.”

There are other reasons to be wary of teachers grading.

Teacher grades, for example, are subject to grade inflation—one explanation for why standardized tests have stubbornly remained a part of education to serve as a check on teachers going light on students.

And teacher grades don’t always convey what we think they do, as they sometimes take into consideration behaviors, habits of success, and other such evaluations of a student apart from the subject area in which a student is being graded.

As Tavenner wrote, “The system of evaluation is so deeply flawed. Grades offer little in the way of objectivity, as two-thirds of teachers acknowledge their grading reflects progress, effort, and participation in class.”

Indeed, at one talk with a prominent teachers’ organization recently, one member confided in me that if anything this trend is increasing as teachers worry about failing students for doing little work and instead want to make sure they receive some credit for the non-academic elements that schools should help cultivate in students.

So what to do about it?

In higher education, Western Governors University has illuminated one pathway forward. As described in a piece for Education Next, the University maintains a separate staff of impartial assessment faculty whose sole job is to evaluate student work and determine whether students have mastered required competencies to graduate.

Having this group allows Western Governors to accomplish a few things for students.

First, a student can never say they got a bad grade because their teacher didn’t like them because the faculty doing the grading doesn’t know them.

Second, Western Governors can protect against grade inflation and, more generally, different grading practices among faculty members by having multiple faculty members grade a subset of work to establish inter-rater reliability. The University can also invest in training people in the science of assessment—a skill that receives short shrift for most teachers. As a result, Western Governor’s assessments are robust performance tasks rather than narrow measures that look like those that would appear on a standardized test and be the subject of educators’ scorn.

This is in opposition to today’s K-12 schools where, as Tavenner wrote, “Grades offer little consistency, as grading rigor varies from teacher to teacher and from school to school. And grades offer little in the way of specificity; most parents and some students don’t know the reasoning behind a letter grade.”

Finally, students at Western Governors don’t have an adversarial relationship with their faculty and coaches because they aren’t judging the students. The faculty and coaches are instead doing everything they can to support and advocate for the students in an effort to help them attain mastery of different concepts and skills—and make progress in life.

Implementing this in K-12 school districts would seem to be much more difficult. Some districts only have one teacher for a given subject or grade level, which means that districts would have to create or join systems and agreements with other districts around how to use other teachers to grade their students—and the districts would need some agreement on what assessments to use, the rubric through which to grade students, and what level of work constitutes what corresponding grade—or, better, yet, signal of mastery.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get creative in an effort to set up these opportunities. Organizations like Validated Learning (where I’m an advisor), the Khan Academy, and The Graide Network are establishing a variety of early experiments in this space. More will hopefully be coming.

The stakes of getting it right because of the need for objectivity in grading would only increase if school districts adopted mastery learning, and we moved to the types of accountability systems that hinged on individual student growth, as I’ve described here and here, for example.

But this is worth a serious investment in time and thought. Because it’s time to give students schools where teachers are solely their advocates and supporters, not their judge and jury.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.