Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/Grading/Fairness

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Grading Students of Varying Abilities & Disabilities: Can Teachers Grade Fairly?[edit | edit source]

By Jsmit219, Fall 2008

By the end of this article you should:

  • 1. Be able to differentiate between criterion-referenced and norm-referenced grading system
  • 2. Be able to list fair grading recommendations
  • 3. Be able to discuss varying uses of portfolios
  • Introduction[edit | edit source]

    With the introduction and federal legislation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), schools now are mandated and funded to educate students with varying disabilities in a least restrictive setting possible. This requires administrators and teachers to develop appropriate grading systems to monitor students' progress in the schools. Students classified with various disabilities will more likely have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with a set of goals for these students to achieve. In a particular class, can students with disabilities compete with other students who do not have such disabilities? Perhaps, if the grading system can be developed to account for differences and varying levels of abilities disabilites while promoting a set of goals which promote desired outcomes and habits.

    Grading Systems[edit | edit source]

    Svinicki (1999) discussed the two main grading systems and philosophies that are in use today. One is the norm-referenced systems in which the grades per class, for example, is distributed throughout as a bell curve with mean or average grades making up the majority of the students’ performance and few individuals performing very high or very low. In the criterion-referenced systems, there is a set amount of points or absolute quantity and the grades reflect the amount of points that students earned. The points in turn, can be translated into percentages and/or letter grades such as A for 90% or greater or F for <60%. Another form of criterion-referenced system is measured by mastery or pass/fail. In this case, a minimum standard is pre-set to measure achievement or performance. I would think some point system is still required for this type of system to calculate the performance or students' progress over time. A rubric may also be used to break down the different kinds of abilities used in the performance or activity. A rubric can be designed to work for all students of varying individual abilities.

    Recommendations for Fair and Accurate Grading[edit | edit source]

    University of Oregon's Teaching Effectiveness Program (TEP, 2006) recommend the following when grading fairly and accurately:

    • State clear grading policies in your syllabus and go over them on the first few days of class.
    • Keep accurate, numerical grades when possible.
    • Give many opportunities for assessment to allow for mistakes and discourage undue pressure or stress.
    • Inform students of their progress periodically.
    • Give choices in terms of topics or format.
    "Do not overemphasize grades. Emphasize learning over grades" (TEP, 2006).

    Portfolio Assessment[edit | edit source]

    Due to the demand for alternative assessments, educators and critics have researched the notion of using a body of student's work or portfolio to "capture a richer array of what students know and can do... current goals for students go beyond knowledge of facts and include such things as problem solving, critical thinking, ... goals also include dispositions such as persistence, flexibility, motivation, and self-confidence" (Arter & Spandel, 2008, p. 1). Assessments should then align with these goals or "what we consider to be important outcomes for students" (ibid, p. 1). A portfolio can encourage self-reflection, especially when it is discussed verbally as a form of "oral report", thus making it instructional as well (ibid, p. 2-3). A portfolio can also be a "story-telling device", communicating a larger context of the students as represented by the works in the portfolio (ibid. p. 4).

    Personal Experience and Sample Grading/Assessment[edit | edit source]

    As an art therapist, I modify the program of studies (POS) of high school art curriculum to cater to the needs of my students who receive special education services for emotional disabilities. In addition, they can also have a variety of learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, autism, Asperger's Syndrome, etc. They vary greatly in their cognitive and emotional intelligence. In their IEP's, I concentrate on their social-emotional goals such as low-frustration tolerance, minimization of impulsive behavior, appropriate language and behavior, assessment of depression, mania, etc. In any given class, I can have a mixture of students who are enrolled in Art 1, 2, 3, and Portfolio. They also vary greatly in their individual artistic abilities. My grading has to be simple yet encompass the important outcomes such as promoting a safe learning environment, creative self-expression through artmaking, mastery of techniques, risk-taking, choice-making, even house-keeping, and positive social-interactions, to name a few. Our school has a behavioral system in place called Positive Behavior System (PBS), and it emphasizes the important outcomes of respect, responsibility, and positive attitude. These outcomes emphasize the importance of characteristics like respect for self, others, and property; responsibility of their actions and ownership of their learning; and promotion of positive attitude via cooperation and positive outlook.

    For these reasons, 70% of my art students' quarterly grade is based on class-participation. Every day, students can earn up to 10 points for their class participation grade. The 10 points are based on factors such as being on time to class, setting up work in a timely manner, focus on work/task, productiveness, PBS behavior as described above, and cleaning-up after themselves. Within a quarter, there are about 23 days to earn daily class participation points.

    At interim and at end of the quarter, students and their artwork are also assessed on the following important outcomes or IIPP's worth 25 points each for a total of 100 points, x 2 (interim & end of quarter) for a total of 200 points per quarter. IIPP's account for 20% of quarter grades and stand for the following components:

    • Initiative in starting work, which can include brainstorming ideas via thumbnail sketches or listing words in their journal-sketchbook;
    • Investment or attitude and focus in their creative process;
    • Problem-Solving skills - are they willing and able to explore what they don't like about their project and work in a manner to fix the problem? Or do they give up due to their low-frustration tolerance or other reasons?;
    • Progress - were they able to complete or make sufficient progress on their work? Did they persevere despite some difficulties? What did they learn as a result of this?

    10% of their quarterly grade, then, is based on portfolio review. For my classes, portfolio review is a way to show off all their work, to talk about their work, story-telling and summarizing their creative processes or insights about their work. Are there any particular conceptual ideas that are common in their work? Did they think their rendering was successful in trying to express their ideas and subject matter? However, if they have not been successful in the IIPP's and class participation, or are stuck in their creative process, a portfolio review can be used as a formative assessment - to examine where they have been and decide where they want to go in terms of ideas and appropriate use of materials. It is also a way to assess what "important outcomes" are lacking and to set new goals to achieve. I do not grade them on their artistic ability because this is too varying and this population is too sensitive to criticism or artistic "critique". If I thought the student was mature and confident in skills and self-esteem, I will provide oral feedback or suggestions. Otherwise, they earn total amount of points for simply participating and risk-taking, which can be a huge step for some of these students.

    If attendance is an issue, including extended suspensions, they may be assigned "homework", otherwise I do not give outside assignments as this would set them up for failure. They are encouraged to do research, but this rarely happens with this group of students. This is another reason why I emphasize class participation and using studio/classtime wisely.

    It seems that the research provided here does support my grading system for students I work with who possess varying levels of disabilities and abilities. I always try to give students choices in their work, whether it is the topic (subject matter for their artmaking) and format (materials used). I keep track of grades after each period or day, giving numeric grades. It is calculated using points and for my class, weighted 70/20/10. 70% for class participation works because it does not matter if my students draw like 5-year-olds or 15-year-olds. They are given clear expectations for working safely and productively in the environment of the art studio. 20% for IIPP's work, again, because it does not discrimate their level of artistic ability, but promote "important outcomes" through the creative process of artmaking and gives them some systematic feedback of their progress as well as point out their strengths and weaknesses, and help set goals for improvement. 10% for portfolio review is used both as a formative assessment and summative assessment, and gives further opportunities for self-expression.

    Total earned points are turned into percentages, and then turned into letter grades for report cards according to my county's policies. I have had to fail one student last year enrolled in Art 2 due to the fact that he produced very little and he did not seem to have any interest or motivation in using the art materials. Though it was recommended that he does not pursue art for the second year, he re-enrolled into my class, having barely passed his first year. He was seemingly not upset about the grade, nor his mother, for that matter. But could I have a better grade system or perhaps a better structure of class for students like him to succeed in my class? Did my class provide him with too many choices and open-ended format? This year, he continues to pop into the art studio stating that he wishes to stay instead of going to his next class. He sits for a minute and verbalizes what (little) he did last year with fond memories. Perhaps for him, he was not interested in art so much as the positive environment within it. He was able to gain positive relationships with his peers and me, and perhaps that's what he needed the most, a sense of belonging.

    Review Questions[edit | edit source]

    Question #1: Which is NOT a recommendation for fair and accurate grading?

    • A. Emphasize learning over grades
    • B. Give at least 5 easy tasks to do every day
    • C. Give choices in terms of topics or format
    • D. Keep accurate, numerical grades when possible

    Question #2: Which is NOT a reason for portfolio use as described in this article?

    • A. for comparing work with others' body of work
    • B. for formative and summative assessments
    • C. to capture a richer array of what students know and can do
    • D. to set goals for future work

    Question #3: The grade system described above for an art studio is based on

    • A. assessing students for their artistic abilities
    • B. assessing students for their production abilities
    • C. a criterion-referenced grading system
    • D. a norm-referenced grading system

    Question #4: A teacher gives her class a final exam. With the results, she sets her grades according to a bell-curve. Which grading system is she using?

    • A. art studio grading system
    • B. a criterion-referenced grading system
    • C. a norm-referenced grading system
    • D. a portfolio review grading system

    References[edit | edit source]

    1. Arter, J. and Spandel, V. (1992). Using Portfolios of Student Work in Instruction and Assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, vol. 11, 36-44. Retrieved 11/1/08 from

    2. Svinicki, M (1999). Evaluating and Grading Students. Center for Teaching Effectiveness. The University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 11/1/08 from

    3. University of Oregon (2006). Teaching Effectiveness Program. How do I grade fairly and accurately? Retrieved 11/1/2008 from

    Answers[edit | edit source]


    1. B

    2. A

    3. C

    4. C

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