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Grading Strategies That Replace Letters and Numbers

Grading Strategies That Replace Letters and Numbers

More educators, schools, and districts are rethinking how students progress through a curriculum and how to show that progress to stakeholders. It brings up the question: what is the purpose of grades anyway? Once you start asking that question, it’s easy to start considering other grading systems and methods of assessment. 

The beginning of the school year is a great time to give alternative grading systems some thought. Here are some strategies to consider and perhaps discuss with your colleagues. 

Competency-based learning 

When educators reconsider their grading systems, competency-based learning is a popular alternative. The concept is simple: the student doesn’t move forward until the skill in question is mastered. For competency-based learning to be successful, curricula need to be broken up into smaller components that offer more scaffolding and a clear roadmap to success. For that reason, moving to this kind of grading system usually requires buy-in from everyone involved.

Rubrics for everything

Rubrics can be insightful and serve as better guides to students during the learning process, yet they aren’t as efficient as simply assigning letters or numbers. Make up for that lack of efficiency by facilitating more peer-to-peer assessment and coming up with as many “universal” rubrics as you can. That way, students can memorize the grading protocol and recreate it at a moment’s notice.


In an effort to better reflect the working world, some teachers have committed themselves to a more iterative process of assessing and improving student performance. The student may receive a grade on his or her initial effort but only as a guide to show the way during the iterative process. The student then works on the product until it is excellent. This takes a little more time, and there may be fewer grades overall in the gradebook. To compensate, some teachers assess how long the iterative process took for the student and assign a number or letter based on that. 

Self-guided growth

In a more student-directed curriculum, it makes sense that the students control when they move on to the next task. When a work product is completed, the students simply ask themselves: “What’s the next logical step?” and then go there. This model obviously requires a lot of modeling and monitoring, but it is reflective of the growth mindset that we would like students to adopt.

Publish everything

This idea is more for older students, and it works particularly well when students are asked for more creative work products. Simply publish everyone’s work online, anonymously or not, and solicit feedback from anyone who has a stake in what’s going on in that classroom. The students then decide whose critiques to accept before embarking on the revision process. In a working world that is more team-based and open, the ability to stand up to scrutiny is a valuable skill in itself.

Looking for more innovative strategies to implement in your teaching? Check out these five tips for creating an inquiry-based classroom!

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Scott Sterling

Scott Sterling is a former English teacher who worked in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida who is now a freelance writer who focuses on education. He is also a stay-at-home dad to his 4-year-old daughter Lily, who will soon be starting her own educational journey.