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Fair and Equitable Grading Practices for Students With LD Who Have IEPs

Get guidance from an expert on how an individualized grading system may benefit your child.

By Dennis D. Munk, Ed.D.

Grades are important, and it can be very upsetting when your child consistently brings home low grades. Especially when your child has a learning disability, you may be concerned about the impact that low grades have on her motivation and self-esteem. Or you may feel that low grades don't reflect the huge amount of effort she puts into her school work. Although there's no magic formula for "fair" grades, there are guidelines for grading practices for learners with Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that can help you advocate for your child.

When parents, teachers, or schools raise issues of grading fairness and equity, it is often the result of confusion regarding the purposes for grades, and whether a "one-size-fits-all "grading system can work for learners with special needs, including those with learning disabilities. For a grading system to be fair and equitable, it must have as its philosophical basis a belief that fairness is defined as maintaining equity and meeting individual needs - not necessarily as "equality," which is treating all students exactly the same. According to one expert:1

A fair grading system

  • provides an opportunity for high grades to be earned
  • provides meaningful grades that reflect a student's experience in the classroom
  • includes flexibility as needed to meet individual needs of students

An equitable grading system

  • maintains high student accountability even when a grading system is individualized
  • accurately matches grades to performance, even when accommodations are implemented

This article will discuss several aspects of grading that parents should be aware of as they advocate for their children with learning disabilities, especially when low or failing grades are the concern. Next week, the second article in the series, "Individualized Grading for a Student with LD Who Has an IEP," will provide a more detailed description of the process of developing a grading system for a particular student.

The "Non-evolution" of Grading Practices

While classroom instruction and assessment have undergone decades of change, grading has remained largely the same. And, to date, no one has produced the type of research and discussion that could lead to a nationwide consensus on what is best practice in grading. Nevertheless, new models or strategies for grading have been proposed. The most current of these focus on grading systems that measure performance on assignments that correspond to a state's grade-level learning standards.

Ongoing debate regarding grading practices stems in part from the fact that legal, pedagogical, and philosophical perspectives all converge when a school or district decides how to establish a school-wide or statewide grading policy or grading system — or how to individualize a grading system for a particular student with special needs. In addition, schools and teachers may use grades for different purposes, including making decisions about who is eligible for special programs and who needs special help, or as a general indicator of how well students as a whole are performing in the curriculum.

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. Thus, teacher judgment is always a factor in grading, and parents should ask questions about the teacher's approach to grading before engaging in problem solving regarding a grading issue. Parents of students with special needs, including learning disabilities, often desire a grade to reflect how much progress or improvement their child has made during the marking period, or how much progress was made on IEP goals. The school can provide parents such information if its grading system is individualized, a topic to be discussed later in this article.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

10/31/2011:
"Question: I know a 6th grade Special needs student with Rhetts, which has recently been noted as being in the regression stage of learning, in a GA middle school received a "M" meets in an 8th grade Business Occupational class stating she has a understanding of finance and economics. This child needs to be reminded what type of coin she is putting in her piggy bank. I don't understand why they would have her attending an 8th grade class to begin with, but further are these grades going to impact benefits she should be receiving if someone evalutes her grades and sees she is "meeting" the stardard for 8th grade finance and Economics? "
01/15/2010:
"My son is an 8th grade student who has been dx with ADHD since 1st grade. He takes medication faithfully. He has failed every subject except Social Studies and PE the first two six weeks of school. I feel like someone should have caught this, but noone seems concerned. Maybe schools should inform parents about 504 when they have a dx which warrants the need. His md suggested 504 testing....imagine that. The teachers should be more concerned about their students. When they think a child is not paying attention it may be that they don't feel the need to pay attention because they don't understand. My son is very discouraged and he is not stupid, he just needs a little extra help. "
12/9/2008:
"I need help. My 14 year old daughter is a freshman in high school. She was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome in the 6th grade and has had an IEP ever since. In Middle School, all of her teachers and counselors were wonderful and went out of their way to encourage and help my daughter. Now, it is the 2nd quarter of high school and we are having trouble. She missed 5 days last month due to serious illness, which actually landed her in the emergency room. She has since been diagnosed with an ulcer, and I'm not surprised. The girl does 3 hours of Algebra homework a night, and still has a D in the class. Her Science teacher refused to communicate with me about what assignments she had missed and consequently, she received zeros. I have asked for her IEP to be amended to include that teachers communicate missed assignments to me, and that my daughter be given extra time to complete missed work without a reduction in credit. The school has resisted me on making these accomodations. I am at my wit's end. My nerves are shot and so are my daughters. Where can I find information on what she is legally entitled to in regards to this? Any help anyone here can give me would be greatly appreciated."
11/7/2008:
"I am currently a fourth grade teacher and have been for five years. In my opinion it is our job to elevate the confusion of all the IEPese, as I call it, for the parents in our IEP meetings. Your site is truly an effective source for parents to unscramble the IEP language that we use. This site allows parents the autonomy to be an advocate for their child. I also want to respond to the parent below about their child's grading dilemma. As an educator I feel that the school is not effectively grading on the objective of the assignment. They are not assessing the content of the child's progress. I often give one grade for readability but never more than a few points and that grade is not weighted. I would, if I was you, get a few books maybe from the references above and read up on current theories. Then I would take this issue to the first school official that will listen and that has the power to change. I hope you have luck in changing the current ineffective policy."
10/21/2008:
"Actually I have a question I hope that someone can answer, or perhaps point me in the direction of some information. My son's grade 6th grade teachers have come up with a new grading system that allows for one point to be taken off in any subject for incomplete sentences, misspellings, missing capital letters, and seeing as he missed two words on spelling for forming the letter k too much like an h, I'm assuming they're counting off for poor handwriting. When they introduced this at back to school night, I asked what the 'cap' on this policy was and they stated that there was not one. Basically, a child can fail any subject due to poor grammar. My son, a straight A student outside handwriting and spelling, received a 72 on his last science test due to grammar. My niece is getting a D in her favorite subject (usually an A in this area and is ADD... they are not giving any accomodations for it). Obviously my concern is that their grades are not reflecting what they've learned in the subject, and that they'll simply give up trying. My son, for example, was SO excited that handwriting would not be graded this year (short stubby fingers and very poor handwriting) because he might get straight A's if he really worked at spelling. No chance now, and now he no longer cares to try. Does anyone there have any research I could hand them on why this is not good practice? I would be VERY grateful. Thanks for any help you can give me... Liz"
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