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Report Card Grades and Educational Outcomes

Bowers, Alex J.

Over the last 100 years, researchers have criticized teacher-assigned grades as subjective and unreliable measures of student academic achievement (Allen, 2005; Banker, 1927; Carter, 1952; Evans, 1976; Hargis, 1990; Kirschenbaum, Napier, & Simon, 1971; Quann, 1983; Simon & Bellanca, 1976), referring to them as "hodgepodge" (Brookhart, 1991) or "kitchen sink" practices (Cizek, 2000; Cizek, Fitzgerald, & Rachor, 1995–1996). When teachers are asked what they are assessing with their grades, they consistently say not only student academic knowledge and achievement but also student persistence, behavior, participation, and effort (Henke, Chen, Goldman, Rollefson, & Gruber, 1999; Randall & Engelhard, 2009, 2010).

Mixing academic and nonacademic information in one grade results in a measure that is hard to interpret. However, as Cross and Frary (1999) note, "We must ask, if hodgepodge grading is so deplorable, why haven't students, parents and administrators or the general public called for reform? It may well be that they share a common understanding that grades often do, in fact, represent a hodgepodge of attitude, effort, conduct, growth, and achievement and that is what they expect and endorse". (p.70)

Despite 100 years of research on the subjective nature of grades, mixed grading practices continue unabated alongside the rise of standardized testing responsibilities (Busick, 2000; Farr, 2000; Trumbull, 2000). The research shows that grades can be useful indicators of a host of factors besides academic progress (Bisesi, Farr, Greene, & Haydel, 2000; Folzer-Napier, 1976; Linn, 1982); as Swineford (1947) noted in a study on middle and high school grading practices, "the data clearly show that marks assigned by teachers in this school are reliable measures of something but there is apparently a lack of agreement on just what that something should be" (p.47). Indeed, over the past 100 years, a strong line of research has attempted to understand the different components represented by grades as a means to inform decision making in schools and classrooms (Bowers, 2009; Parsons, 1959). Additionally, a persistent finding across this literature is that while standardized test scores have low criterion validity for overall schooling outcomes, such as graduation from high school and admission to post-secondary institutions, grades have consistently been the strongest predictors of K–12 educational persistence, completion, and transition from high school to college (Atkinson & Geiser, 2009; Bowers, Sprott, & Taff, 2013).

In this chapter, I will review the quantitative research over the past 100 years regarding what this "something" is that teacher-assigned grades represent beyond the fundamental academic skills assessed by standardized test scores. I will also examine recent research in this area over the last few decades showing that teacher-assigned grades and marks assess not just student achievement but also persistence, behavior, and substantive engagement in the schooling process. Finally, I will review the research on how grades align to educational outcomes.


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Also Published In

What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn't, and What's Next
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

More About This Work

Academic Units
Education Leadership
Published Here
September 24, 2019


- An earlier version of this manuscript appeared as a section in the journal article: Brookhart, S., Guskey, T., Bowers, A.J., McMillan, J. Smith, L. Smith, J., Welsh, M. (2016) A Century of Grading Research: Meaning and Value in the Most Common Educational Measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), p. 803-848
- This document is a pre-print of a book chapter published in 2019 in the book titled What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn't, and What's Next. Citation:
Bowers, A.J. (2019) Report Card Grades and Educational Outcomes. In Guskey, T., Brookhart, S. (Eds.) What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn't, and What's Next, (p.32-56). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.