The Grading System: A Look at the Traditional and Holistic Grading

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Morgan Ivich and Chelsea Hahn examine their experiences with traditional and holistic grading, share their opinions, and consider their future classrooms.

Part I: Traditional Grading
Traditional grading is the grading system that most students have likely encountered throughout his or her academic career. This grading system entails the teacher giving an assignment, whether it is a quiz, paper, or homework assignment, and the student receives a grade that is meant to denote how well you did on that particular assignment. Some teachers use rubrics or other various point grading techniques. Regardless of the method, the teacher uses these assignment grades, and occasionally a participation grade, and averages it all together to create a total final grade at the end of the term or semester. This letter grade, which is compiled from a set number of points, is used to tell how well the student performed in a specific class. Through traditional grading, a class average can be found because all students are completing the same assignment. In this type of grading system, it is easy to become less about showing unique student capabilities, interests, and talents and instead, and more about focusing on testing knowledge of material through the use of a uniform assignment.
Throughout my years as a student, every classroom I have been in has used a traditional grading system. The teacher would print out rubrics for our assignments, and we would receive a numerical grade upon completion, which would be factored in with other graded assignments for the quarter or semester. Letter grades have become normalized in my student experience, and I always strove for A’s because my upbringing with traditional grading has told me that that is the only way one could be successful – by getting a good grade on every assignment, leading to an A as a culminating grade. Even now, when I obtain a B on an assignment, I worry about how that will impact my final grade. Every little assignment can hold great weight.
In my education courses, I have learned that students need to be given the opportunity to show their own understanding of the material of the material in various ways. Not every student prospers within the typical grading scheme, and some students take on different avenues to acquire knowledge. Students don’t think in the same, standardized way, and some students can grasp different ideas that other classmates may not have considered. However, there are classes that I believe do work well and require simple numerical grades found in the traditional grading system because of the specific subject matter; for example, in math, there is very few ways to get around receiving a letter grade on a worksheet because you either get the answers and show your work or you don’t. In some ways science works similarly, but even in this subject, the argument could be made that students could be graded based on their findings and observations in a lab, rather than strict criteria set by a teacher. English broadens the scope of traditional grading because while a student can be given, and some would argue should be, given a rubric for what is expected of them in a writing piece, they should not necessarily be ranked on an A to F scale that leaves little room open for students to think outside the box and be creative. By not sticking as strictly to traditional grading, students could focus less on getting an A and more on their thoughts, opinions, and findings without feeling like they do match the teacher’s thoughts or teaching style.

By not sticking as strictly to traditional grading, students could focus less on getting an A and more on their thoughts, opinions, and findings without feeling like they do match the teacher’s thoughts or teaching style. . .I believe I will ultimately use traditional grading in my future classroom, but I hope to build on this model and create something more flexible and my own.

Based on my experiences throughout my academic career and beliefs of traditional grading being more useful in certain subjects, I believe I will ultimately use traditional grading in my future classroom, but I hope to build on this model and create something more flexible and my own. Students are expected to understand material and meet certain standards, but the focus needs to go from a letter grade to student creativity and taking control of their own learning in a way that is more hands on. If I was able to sit in my high school classes and not feel the pressure to say the right thing in order to receive a good grade, I believe I would have been a much more confident student that felt comfortable explaining my unique way of thinking and feeling.
By Morgan Ivich, Seton Hall University


Part II: Holistic Grading
Unlike traditional grading, holistic grading is a grading system that many students, particularly those that went to school during the height of No Child Left Behind, are likely not familiar with. The term holistic itself is concerned with the whole, so the comprehension of parts is intimately interconnected only by reference to the whole; therefore, in this system, the teacher is considering the whole students and their growth from assignment to assignment. An approach to holistic grading that I have read about is one in which the teacher does not give grades on every assignment. Rather than giving individual grades for each task, the teacher leaves feedback that is meant to help the student improve. The final grade is determined by the student’s growth from beginning to end. In this grading system, it is easier to connect with the student and get the student as a whole to grow, but some teachers may find it difficult to give a final grade, especially if they are doing holistic grading for the first time and have only ever been exposed to the traditional form of grading. However, I believe it is a grading system that could have more benefits for the overall outcome of the class.
During my high school years, I was only exposed to traditional grading, and while teachers left feedback on assignments, for many students it often revolved around the number/letter grade. While it is possible to grow and improve from seeing the grade, it is more impersonal in this traditional system. A letter grade can be useful in subjects that are considered linear, such as math, because there is a clear right and wrong answer or way to do a problem, but in subjects like English, letters grades don’t always cut it for students. Sticking with English for a moment, if students completed an essay, the letter grade is often accompanied by red marks on a page that signify grammatical errors or missing content or a rubric with circled categories. Some students can decipher these marks and circled categories and improve, but every student would benefit from more precise feedback that pertains to their specific needs.

Every student would benefit from more precise feedback that pertains to their specific needs.

​Feedback is important for the student to grow because they get tips and remarks that are specific to their work. When I was student teaching, I had to use the traditional grading system, but I emphasized the importance of feedback. Whenever my students completed a writing assignment, such as their Hero Journey narrative, I would leave comments on what they did well and what they could improve on. I would ask my students that while they were concerned with the grade, how would they know what they needed to do to improve without looking at my feedback. Some students listened to this remark, but others only cared about that overall grade. My cooperating teacher and I tried to use more feedback strategies by having conferences with students throughout the year, and she said that after I left and she continued conferences, students writing greatly improved.
As I stated, in high school and during my student teaching, the traditional grading system was what was put in place, but I have had college courses that used holistic grading, which is where I was first exposed to this system. One professor I had only used holistic grading on essays, which meant that you needed to have all qualifying characteristics for an A paper, otherwise you received a B. Personally, I felt this was an odd approach to grading and an even odder approach to incorporating holistic grading into the classroom. Many students found this as an unfair way to implement holistic grading; however, my graduate course about Victorian Literature used a more normalized version of holistic grading. The professor did not grade each paper or presentation. Instead, he gave feedback on the assignment and we were to improve on the next one. The final grade was calculated based on the work we put into the class and the assignments and how we improved. Many students in my class expressed that this took out a lot of stress because if you were trying your best and taking the professor’s advice, you could figure where you stood and always grow.
Based on my experiences throughout high school, college, and student teaching, I hope to be in a district in which I can use the holistic grading system. I will be teaching an English class, and I think classes like English in which there are various ways to express knowledge and skills could benefit greatly from a system that individualizes and focuses on growth. I believe it allows students to value feedback for improvement, ease stress, and allow them to take control of their learning. It will definitely be a system that takes practice, but I think it will help me achieve the goals I will have for student growth.
By Chelsea Hahn, The College of New Jersey


​What are your experiences with and opinions on these two grading systems?

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