Exceptional learners and the Grading System

Nicki Berger (Robl)
Kathryn Oswood
Heidi Riehl
Karen Rochon
Tyler Stevenson
Karin Stringer
Tom Sturm
The model of education from its earliest times was one
of mentorship with no grading system. They worked
on a pass/fail model. This included people like Plato,
Michelangelo, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson and Ben
Franklin (2005).
The teacher and the student had a relationship that
made it possible for the teacher to have a clear vision of
the student’s understanding (2005).
The most impressive demonstration that a person was
educated was not a GPA or the name of the institution
attended, but the name of their teacher. Students of the
great teachers of history often became famous
themselves because of the thoroughness with which
their mentors had passed on knowledge,
understanding, skill and talent (2005).
William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University in England, is given
credit for being the first teacher to establish a grading system. He came
up with a method of teaching that would allow him to process more
students in a shorter period of time and therefore make more money
In the United States, Yale University was the first to
implement a system resembling our current grading
system. Yale kept student information in what is
called a Book of Averages. It recorded the average of
each student’s marks-a procedure still used in
figuring course grades today-and mentions a 4-point
scale (2009).
It was in 1897, at Mount Holyoke College, that letter
grades, tied to a numerical or percentage scale, were
first used (2009).
In the first part of the 20th century, due to an increased
number of students in schools because of compulsory
attendance laws, the American elementary and high
school education systems began using standardized
grading systems (2009).
Before the enactment of public 94-142 (2007), the fate of
many individuals with disabilities ended up in state
institutions for persons with mental retardation or
mental illness. In 1967, for example, state institutions
were homes for almost 200,000 persons with significant
disabilities. These persons with disabilities were
merely accommodated rather than assessed, educated,
and rehabilitated (2007).
Initial Federal Response -in the 1950’s & 60’s- the Federal
Government, with strong support and advocacy of family
associations, such as The Arc, began to develop and validate
practices for children with disabilities and their families.
These practices, in turn, laid the foundation for
implementing effective programs and services of early
intervention and special education in states and localities
across the country (2007).
Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped
Children Act (Public Law 94-142), in 1975, to support
states and localities and protecting the rights of,
meeting the individual needs of, and improving the
results for students with disabilities. It is currently
called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA), (2007).
Grading systems used in general education classes are
usually ill-equipped for individualization to meet the
needs of a particular student. Research has
documented that special education students in general
education classes are at risk of receiving low or failing
grades (2003).
Under the IDEA all students with disabilities are entitled to
a written statement of present educational performance,
measurable annual goals, and special education services and
accommodations. This is known as an Individualized
Education Program (IEP), (2003).
General and special educators often fail to collaborate
effectively to coordinate the general grading system
with the accommodations and modifications required
under a student’s IEP (2003).
Legally then, we have an obligation to grade students in
accordance with their IEP goals. But grading is an
overwhelmingly arbitrary process.
50% of teachers surveyed in a study by Bursuck et. al., in
1996, used grading adaptations for students without
It is little wonder then teachers struggle with how to
grade those WITH disabilities fairly.
A consequentialist might say that adapting student grades
or standards to which they are held is okay. It helps
out the student that needs accommodation and no one
is much harmed in the process. The action of
accommodation helps more students than it hurts.
A non consequentialist might say that this process of
modification is wrong that all students should be
graded on an even plane. It is wrong to change one
student’s grade and not everyone’s grade.
C.S. Lewis might say that through our grading process
we are treating students more as a means than as a
unique, unrepeatable miracle of God.
Parker Palmer would argue that we are smarter when we
all work together and that grades create nothing but
competition and untruths.
“The deepest calling in our quest for knowledge is not to observe and
analyze and alter things. Instead it is personal participation in the
organic community of human and non human being, participation
in the network of caring and accountability called truth” (1993).
“Tommy is a fifth grader with a learning disability that
severely affects his ability to organize and write
responses to questions. He has just received his first
report card grades since be included in the general
education social studies class. Tommy’s teachers made
several instructional adaptations for him, including
providing him with study guides prior to tests. As he
glances over his grades, Tommy is crestfallen to see the
D in the social studies box. He knew he had not done
well on the longer written tests in class, but he had
worked hard to prepare, and he had regularly and
completed all of his homework and in- class projects“
Was it fair to give Tommy a “D” in Social
How should Tommy be graded?
If we assume that grades are a way to indicate a student’s
achievement then Tommy should be given a letter grade
after mutually (parents, teachers, students) agreed upon
adaptations have been made to accommodate his
Research by Bursuck et al in 1996 and Bursuck, Munk and Olson in 1999,
as cited in Munk and Bursuck, 2004 indicates:
Passing students no matter what they do is unfair and will discourage
effort by those students as well as their peers.
Teachers and students see a grading adaptation as fair when agreed
upon before hand
50% of teachers surveyed used grading adaptations for students
without disabilities. This indicates that teachers see modifying
grades as a way to make grading more accurate.
If we assume that grades indicate little about what a student
can and cannot do then Tommy (and all students) should
receive more accurate representations of their progress
rather than grades. Standards based grading should be
Jung & Guskey (2007) suggest that grades should be separated into
3 categories:
This is supported by the idea that:
It provides a more detailed description of how students are doing.
It does not require any more work for a teacher only to simply
separate grades out.
It provides a more standardized guide towards grades which are
inherently subjective.
“Daniel” is a 7th grade student with a
learning disability.
In accordance with his IEP,
classroom instruction and
assignments are modified in
order to help Daniel experience
However, because of his disability and past
experiences of failure, Daniel often feels overwhelmed
in the classroom and shuts down refusing to do his
Because Daniel sometimes refuses to
participate in portions of his class work, the
issue arises:
How do we grade Daniel in order to keep him accountable
for the work, while not holding him to standards he cannot
meet because of his disability?
If Daniel’s IEP is being served and accommodations are being
made, he should receive the grade that he has earned by
completing his assignments, whether it is passing or failing, just
like other students without IEP’s.
“There should be no informal grade modifications outside of
those established through the IEP team process…Students with
disabilities should receive grades and credit in the same manner
as other students when they complete the same courses as other
students” (2001).
“Federal law says special-education students should receive a “free
appropriate public education, “ but it doesn’t prohibit failing them”
when they do not complete the necessary and appropriately leveled
work (2007).
Instead of dwelling on what Daniel cannot do, grade him on what
he can do. Build his academic self-efficacy by using Personalized
Grading Plans (PGP), (2001).
This can be accomplished by:
 Studying the progress a student makes in regard to their IEP
 Comparing the improvement a student has made over past
performance on similar tasks.
 Prioritizing specific assignments over others.
 Taking into account a student’s behavior/effort into their final
 Modifying the weights or scales used for grading (2006).
In regard to the issue of how to grade Daniel, it was
decided that Daniel’s progress on his IEP goals would
determine his grade instead of the mastery of each
assignment given.
This was deemed the appropriate action because:
 Daniel’s disability would hinder him from reaching the same
mastery as his non-disabled peers.
 Despite not completing every assignment, Daniel would
work hard on certain assignments and this work did show
effort and growth.
 If Daniel received a failing grade while he was putting in
effort, the resulting grade could lead him to a lower selfefficacy towards his own academic abilities.
Caleb is a high school student with ADHD
Caleb’s IEP provides modifications and accommodations to
help him find success, including but not limited to:
No group seating.
Additional time to complete assignments.
Creating an environment with as little distraction as possible.
Caleb’s grade has suffered and the questions at hand are:
What is the cause of Caleb’s lack of success?
Are these problems in conflict with the IEP set up for Caleb to find
 How often is the classroom environment a problem for Caleb?
Should Caleb receive his current grade if the
classroom environment created difficulty in
learning throughout the term?
Due to the occasional inadequate learning
environment, according to Caleb’s IEP, additional
modifications/accommodations should be made.
The actions of classmates or a teacher should not be the
reason for lack of success in school. If the environment of
the classroom is regularly a distraction, then Caleb’s IEP
states that his grade should not suffer as a result.
If distractions are not at an amount that conflict the
guidelines of the IEP, and do not seem to be the cause
of lack of success, the student should receive the grade
he/she earned.
Teachers should keep the student’s IEP in mind at all
 Again, “Federal law says special-education students
should receive a ‘free appropriate public education’, but it
doesn’t prohibit failing them” (2007).
“Research suggests that grading practices vary
considerably among schools and among teachers in the
same school, despite attempts in many schools to build
in more consistency and predictability” (2008).
An accommodation is a change in the course, standard,
test preparation, location, timing, scheduling, expectation,
student response, or other attributes that provides access for
a student with a disability to participate in a course,
standard or test, and it does not fundamentally alter or
lower the standard or expectation of the course, standard or
A modification is a change in the course, standard, test
preparation, location, timing, scheduling, expectation,
student response, or other attribute that provides access for
a student with a disability to participate in a course,
standard or test, and it does fundamentally alter or lower
the standard or expectation of the course, standard or test.
“An accommodation levels the “playing field” for those
students, and that though they may feel that it is unfair to
the other students it is truly their only way to have success
in the classroom.”
Jennifer Fleming, 2008.
How can an orange be compared to an apple and graded
fairly based on color and taste?
When teachers use a “one-size-fits-all” grading system without
accommodations, students with disabilities can be left feeling
inadequate. Traditional competitive grading systems allow
students a chance to show effort and completion of assignments,
but often fail students when they take tests.
Low grades negatively affect their self-esteem, cause frustration
and a loss of motivation.
Teachers should take into consideration what success looks like
for a student with special needs. Grades should be based on that
success and performance as defined by the student working to the
best of his/her abilities. Effort and participation should also be
Accommodations and modifications are key to leveling the
assessment playing field. A grading system should be fair to each
student. A teacher can maintain fairness with grading by meeting
individual needs through teaching and assessment.
Grading modifications can be made by either changing the
methods for assessment of redefining what the “grade” means.
“Inflating grades is a bad idea...”
Mandi, 2008.
Every student should be held to the same standards regardless of
disabilities. Grading systems are in place to measure all students’
knowledge and skills. A student’s grade should not reflect that
accommodations have been made. Accommodations are to
provide students with disabilities an equitable chance to learn and
participate within general education.
Grading students only on effort and participation along with
failing grades may mislead both the student and parents. An
unrealistic view of students’ skills and future goals becomes
likely. It can also hide a student’s true ability level and their areas
of improvement.
If modifications have been made to the curriculum of any course,
it is important that a student’s grade should reflect his/her
achievement in the modified curriculum. This can only exist as
long as modified grades are made available to all.
Any modifications should be recorded in an IEP and be connected
to the disability.
Automatically giving modified grades to all special education
students would be discriminatory and potentially violate Section
504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Provides opportunities for high grades to be earned.
Provides meaningful grades that reflect experiences in the classroom.
Includes flexibility as needed to meet
individual needs.
An equitable grading system.
Maintains high student accountability even when a grading system is
Accurately matches grades to performance, even when accommodations
are implemented.
Provide accommodations for assessments routinely used for classroom instruction.
Do not give an assessment accommodation for the first time on the day of a test.
Prioritize content and related assignments for grading.
Consider student effort when calculating a grade.
Consider how well the student uses "processes" to complete his or her work.
Base part of the grade on the student's progress on IEP objectives.
Consider improvement over past performances.
Change the weight of certain types of assignments or alter the grading scale.
Collaborate with the special education teacher when assessing knowledge and skills.
Develop a policy that allows for make-up work so that students credit for turning in missing
Differentiated assessment is an opportunity for students with learning disabilities to
demonstrate their learning in other ways than a traditional test.
Provide multiple types of assignments that are designed to allow
students to demonstrate learning in different ways.
Blend extended assignments such as projects with in-class
assessments (i.e. tests).
Provide an ample number of assignments and assessments
throughout the grading period.
Modify the amount of reading that is needed to complete the
Modify the way in which the student will complete the
assignment or assessment (i.e. written, oral).
Know and understand students’ goals and accommodations on IEP’s.
Any discussion of a student with an IEP regarding his/her low or failing
grades should identify specifically the skills for which the student
receives the lowest grades. Accommodations aligned with the skill should
be evaluated for appropriateness.
Parents, teachers, and students with IEP’s should have an understanding
of what the accommodations and modifications are in regards to grading.
The use of different, individualized grading procedures, based on
modified goals or standards, is legal only when such procedures are
documented in the IEP.
Special grading procedures cannot be made for individual students
(without an IEP) unless the same procedures are made available to all
students in the class, otherwise, it becomes illegal.
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