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Individualizing a Grading System for a Student With LD and an IEP

Get expert advice on working with your child's IEP team to develop a fair and equitable approach to grading.

By Dennis D. Munk, Ed.D.

 If your child with learning disabilities (LD) consistently receives low grades, or if the classroom grading system just doesn't seem to "fit" her needs, individualizing her grading system may seem like an ideal solution.  Although individualized grading is often a response to low grades, raising grades is not an end in itself; the goal of grading strategies should be to help your child perform better in the general education curriculum.  As a member of her Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, you may want to suggest an individualized grading system to school professionals on the team. But even if the team agrees to individualized grading, you'll quickly discover that little is known about developing a grading system tailored to a child's individual strengths and needs.

This article will discuss the circumstances in which  individualized grading may make sense, and some strategies for developing a grading system that also promotes your child's achievement in the general education curriculum, progress toward her IEP goals, or both. To get an overview and background on individualized grading practices, read the first article in this series: "Fair and Equitable Grading Practices for Students with LD Who Have IEPs.

Keeping It Fair, Equitable, and Legal

While there is no single best way to individualize a grading system, there are some field-tested strategies designed to guide the process. When it's done thoughtfully and systematically, individualization leads to a grading system that is fair and equitable. This requires a system to be philosophically based in a belief that fairness means maintaining equity and meeting individual needs; it doesn't necessarily mean "equality," which is treating all students exactly the same. According to one expert: 1

A fair grading system

  • provides an opportunity for students to earn high grades
  • 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

Legal guidelines for individualizing a grading system take into account the needs and interests of students in the classroom with and without IEPs. 

  • An individualized grading system is considered a legal accommodation for students with an IEP, and documentation of a grading accommodation must appear in her IEP.
  • By law, a teacher cannot use any special grading procedures, including individualization, for a student who doesn't have an IEP, unless such procedures are available to all students in the class.

What Parents Need to Know about "Modification" of IEP Goals

Individualized grading almost always involves modification of academic goals, so parents should understand clearly when modified goals are appropriate for a child with an IEP, and possible outcomes of that option. It's also important to understand the differences between "accommodations" and "modifications" to content, instruction, or assessment in your child's IEP, as discussed in the first article in this series.  When the IEP team chooses modifications for a learner, they should agree on how a learner will be assessed and graded on individualized goals before the student actually begins her work and is assigned grades. The learner and her parents should expect the teacher to clarify, usually in writing, that report card grades are based on individualized goals. The chart below presents basic information about the "what," "why," and "how" of modifications to academic goals:

Modifications

Purpose

  • allow a student to work toward a lower learning standard or goal, appropriate to ability level
  • may involve a student working on less content, or parallel content at lower grade level

Examples

  • expected to master 3 of 10 concepts in science class
  • working on addition and subtraction while class works on multiplication and division

Effect on Grading

  • usually requires an individualized grading system, based on lower standards or goals
  • should be documented in the IEP and in the school's reports to parents  that grades are based on individualized goals and curriculum

Potential Implications for Diploma and Postsecondary Applications

  • Could affect access to certain college classes if prerequisites not met
  • Could require special/alternative diploma, which could impact postsecondary options.

Occasionally, rather than modified goals, a grading system involves changes in grading elements such as the "effort" a student puts into her work or the "weight" assigned to specific grades, approaches discussed later in this article.

How an IEP Team Makes the Decision to Individualize Grading

When individualizing a learner's grading system, the IEP team must carefully consider multiple factors. Following are suggested criteria for development of an individualized grading system, based on modified goals or "elements" (described later in the article), for a student with a disability.2

  • The learner receives a series of very low or failing grades despite appropriate use of accommodations and modifications;
  • The learner has the potential to have increased access to, and performance in, the general education curriculum; or
  • The learner has a moderate to severe disability and works in an individualized curriculum (usually doesn't apply to learners with a specific learning disability)

This article focuses on the first two scenarios above which apply most often to learners with specific learning disabilities.

When an IEP team determines how to individualize a grading system, they must take into account the following questions:

  • What are our concerns about the learner's current grades (e.g., low grades, lack of motivation)?
  • What purpose do we intend to serve with individualized grades?
  • How does the learner's disability currently affect her performance and, hence, her grades?

Options for Individualized Grading

It's important for parents and other IEP team members to understand that, although consideration of an individualized grading system is often a result of concerns over a learner's low grades, the goal should never be to simply find a way for her to get a higher grade. Rather, the goal of the team should be to choose strategies that will help her improve her performance in the general education curriculum.

The professional literature describes the following three options for individualizing a grading system:

  • assigning multiple grades, each with a different "multiplier weight"1
  • changing grading elements, 2,3 or
  • using alternatives to letter grades, such as pass-fail, or a competency checklist

Multiple Weighted Grades for an Assignment

One expert1 describes a system in which each assignment is graded for:

  • achievement (e.g., percent correct),
  • curriculum difficulty (e.g., grade level or difficulty level of work), and
  • effort

To date, research on the efficacy of this approach has not been reported. However, one potential benefit of the multiple-grade approach might be that learners will be motivated to attempt harder versus easier work because they receive credit for trying. 

Here's an example of how this might work: A fifth-grader is assigned  50 multi-step math problems worth a total of 50 points. If all the assigned math problems were from the current grade-level curriculum, the teacher would assign a "difficulty weight" of 100 to the assignment. However, some of the problems assigned to the learner are from an earlier unit or grade level (i.e., less difficult), so the teacher assigns a difficulty weight of 90. In addition, the achievement score will be counted twice, so that it "weighs" more in relation to "difficulty" and "effort" in calculating the final grade. When the teacher corrects the assignment, she finds that the learner has done 40 of the 50 problems correctly. So, the student earns:

90

for difficulty

160

for achievement (40 out of 50, or 80% correct, x 2)

80

for effort (on a 100-point scale, based on the teacher's review of how many problems the learner attempted, number of strategies she used, times she asked for help, etc.)

The student's total score for this assignment is 330 points, which the teacher divides by the number of scores, 4, to obtain an average of 82.5 for the assignment.  In this example, both the "difficulty" grade and the "effort" grade offer a student the possibility to improve the "achievement" grade, which would typically be the only grade. Issues associated with grading "effort" are discussed in more detail below.

Changing Grading "Elements"

Individualizing a grading system by changing the elements that count toward the grade for an assignment, or for a report card grade, has received research attention3. Grading elements commonly found in grading systems include: quizzes, tests, or exams; research or lab reports; projects or exhibits; portfolios; notebooks or journals; oral presentations or performances; homework; class participation; work habits or neatness; effort; and punctuality of assignments4. The following are examples of grading elements that can be added to a grading system for a student with a learning disability:

  • A measure of progress on IEP goals that are addressed within the instruction in a regular education class
  • A measure of how effectively the learner used critical skills such as learning strategies that can improve overall performance on a task

Incorporating progress on IEP goals and objectives as a grading element can be achieved by selecting classroom assignments for a student that provide her an opportunity to demonstrate the target skills. For example, if a student has an IEP goal to improve her organization of multi-step assignments, she could be graded with a rubric that gives her points for effectively organizing the task.  Using this approach, her improvement in organization is reflected in both the progress on her IEP goal, and in the grade she receives for the assignment. Incorporating progress on IEP objectives into the grading system may also serve as a reminder to monitor progress toward IEP goals on a regular basis.

Below is an example of a rubric a teacher to might use to evaluate a project in which students are required to construct a replica of a colonial village.  The added criteria for assessing a student's organization of the task are in the last row of the rubric.

Similarly, if the teacher incorporates in the grade a measure of how efficiently the learner applies learning strategies to complete a task, this may also result in the student building her skill in strategy use, producing a better overall product, and hence earning a higher grade. A related grading adaptation involves a teacher giving priority to classroom assignments that are linked to state learning standards, or assignments that are prerequisite to future assignments. Prioritization has been used successfully by teachers, but is controversial because the learner is not graded on exactly the same assignments as classmates3.

Alternatives to Letter Grades

While alternatives to letter grades may be an ideal worth discussing, few schools are prepared to implement such alternate systems for evaluating student achievement, and even fewer postsecondary programs are able to interpret alternative systems when making decisions on admissions, scholarships, and courses. Thus, the use of an alternative to letter grades must be used very cautiously until it's adopted on a larger scale by American schools.

Why Grading "Effort" Is Controversial

The most controversial grading element is "effort."  Increasing the amount of credit a learner with a learning disability earns for trying hard may seem logical given that we want to encourage consistent effort. However, effort does not always translate into mastery, and raising a grade because the learner tried hard may confuse her as the work becomes more difficult and her past good grades don't make sense to her in relation to her current learning struggles. Indeed, researchers in grading practices for regular education classrooms argue that effort should be evaluated and reported separately from the letter grade, and should never be incorporated into a grade4,5.

Research on the use of individualized grading systems for middle school students with learning disabilities found that teachers perceived grading effort as a strategy for motivating learners with a history of low or failing grades2. The key to effectively individualized grading in such cases was defining a learner's effort as behaviors that would likely lead to overall improvement of her performance, such as increasing the number of questions she asked in class, problems she attempted, or  times she requested help. This approach was considered more objective than a teacher evaluating a learner's effort, based solely on observing the student working on an assignment.  

Use Strategies with Caution

Most strategies for individualizing a grading system involve a proactive plan agreed to by the IEP team. However, two types of grading adaptations - changing the scale, and changing weights - can be implemented after scores on assignments have been collected, a more "reactive" approach. Changing the grading scale is self-explanatory; we lower the percentage needed to earn a letter grade. For example, the cutoff for a B might be lowered to 70% from 80%. Similarly, changing the weight assigned to different elements so that a learner can get a higher grade is also a reactive strategy that should be used with caution. For example, we might decide that tests will comprise only 50%, rather than 70%, of a final grade because a learner gets very low grades on tests and is frustrated over never receiving a "good" report card grade. Such an approach is questionable in that it fails to address the real issue of why testing is so difficult for the learner.

Keep in Mind

Although a child's history of low or failing grades is often the impetus to request an individualized a grading system, simply making it easier to get a higher grade is not a legitimate goal, and may lead to even more confusion about what the learner's grade means. When advocating for individualization, parents should help the IEP team focus on what types of grading adaptations will lead to a child's increased motivation and improve her performance in the general education curriculum.

Parents should expect their child's general and special education teachers to have little familiarity, and perhaps no experience, with formally individualizing a grading system for an individual student. So be prepared to work with the IEP team to bring these options - and the educational rationale for the options - to teachers' awareness.

References

  1. Salend, S.J. "Report card models that support communication and differentiation of instruction." Teaching Exceptional Children, 37, (4).
  2. Munk, D.D., & Bursuck, W.D. "Personalized grading plans: A systematic approach to making the grades of included students more accurate and meaningful."  Focus on Exceptional Children, 36, (9).
  3. Munk, D.D. Solving the grading puzzle for students with disabilities.Whitefish Bay, WI: Knowledge by Design, 2005.
  4. Guskey, T.R., & Bailey, J.M. Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001.
  5. Wormeli, R. Fair isn't always equal: Assessing & grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2006.

Reviewed February 2010


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