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.

Anatomy of a Grade

Classroom grading systems are typically designed so that learners receive points or individual grades in multiple areas of assessment, called “elements.” The following is a list of elements commonly found in grading systems:

  • Quizzes, tests or exams
  • Research or laboratory reports
  • Projects or exhibits
  • Portfolio
  • Notebook or journal
  • Oral presentation or performance
  • Homework
  • Class participation
  • Work habits and neatness
  • Effort
  • Punctuality of assignments

Adapted from Guskey, T.R., & Bailey, J.M. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning.

For a student with learning disabilities, it is often the case that certain grading elements are more affected by her disability than others, resulting in lower grades even when she gives her best effort. The first question a parent or teacher should ask in analyzing the case of a low report card grade is: Which grading elements are resulting in the student’s lowest grades? When certain types of assignments are more affected by a student’s learning disability and produce low grades, a parent can work with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to determine whether an accommodation (e.g., the opportunity to respond orally to questions to which other students are writing responses) might be provided to minimize the impact of the student’s disability on meeting the demands of a particular type of assignment. When a child has an IEP, discussions regarding low or failing grades should always pinpoint the elements for which the student receives her lowest grades, and whether the accommodations provided in her IEP are appropriate and adequate.

Accommodations, Modifications, and Grading

When parents, teachers, and students discuss concerns about grading, everyone involved must have a clear understanding of what “accommodations” and “modifications” are. Accommodations and modifications can be made to:

  • the content of the instruction,
  • the way in which content is taught, or
  • the way the student’s learning is assessed

The following table highlights differences between these two types of supports for learners receiving special education services.

Accommodations Modifications
  • Reduce or minimize the interaction of a learner’s disability with classroom demands
  • Allow valid assessment of content learned that is not affected by disability
  • Working toward a lower learning standard or goal, appropriate to ability level
  • May involve working on less content, or parallel content at lower grade level
  • Extra time to complete tests
  • Speech-to-text software for writing assignments
  • Audio-taped texts to supplement print texts
  • Able to respond orally for some written assignments
  • 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
  • Should not result in reduced expectations
  • Should not require a different grading system or method (In general, IEP teams should strive to implement appropriate accommodations within instruction and assessment before considering a grading accommodation.)
  • Usually requires an individualized grading system, based on lower standards or goals
  • Should be documented in the IEP or in the school’s reports to parents that grades are based on individualized goals and curriculum
Potential implications for diploma and post-secondary applications
  • Should not impact points or credits toward diploma
  • Should not influence application to post- secondary institutions
  • Could affect access to certain college classes if prerequisites not met
  • Could require special/alternative diploma, which could impact post- secondary options.

Individualized Grading, Based on Modified Goals or Curriculum

When an IEP team decides to implement modifications for learners with learning disabilities, they should do so only when the student needs more individualized instruction to match her ability level. For some learners, including those with specific learning disabilities, modified learning goals – often in a specific content area – may be required, in addition to goals they share with the rest of the class in other content areas. In this way, they can receive instruction on content from an earlier grade that, if mastered, will allow them to perform better in the regular curriculum. The following are suggested criteria for development of an individualized grading system for a student with a disability.2

  • 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);
  • The learner receives a series of very low or failing grades despite appropriate use of accommodations and modifications; or
  • The learner has the potential to have increased access to and performance in the regular curriculum.

The last criterion above is the most complex, and requires careful consideration of options for individualizing a grading system. This author’s research has involved learners for whom an individualized grading system led to increased satisfaction with classroom learning and a higher grade. A process for individualizing a grading system for an individual student will be discussed in the second article of this series.

Keeping It Legal

  • If your child has an IEP, the use of different, individualized grading procedures, based on modified goals or standards, is legal only when such procedures are documented in the IEP.
  • Despite the fact that some learners who are not eligible for special education services would benefit from individualized grading, such practice is not legal. 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.

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. Most school districts attempt to convey this information in a discreet way so that if learners compare report cards with their friends, peers are not immediately aware that their classmate’s grades are based on different criteria from their own. Again, parents should be aware, especially when their children enter high school, that modified curriculum may have an impact on the type of diploma the learner receives and the range of post-secondary options open to her.

Parents should be aware that terminology used in documents and discussion about individualized grading procedures is sometimes confusing because:

  • An IEP form may include a checklist that mixes accommodations and modifications together.
  • An IEP form may include grading procedures under either accommodations or modifications.

Make sure to ask the team for clarification if you’re unsure about whether a practice is an accommodation or modification.

Class-wide Grading Practices that Benefit All Students

Some grading practices that may benefit your child will also benefit other learners in the classroom. Typical classroom grading systems are often not fair or equitable for all learners — with or without an identified learning disability. Although there’s a common belief that low, unfair, or inaccurate grades are never a result of the classroom grading system, this is not the case. The following grading practices are recommended for all classrooms:

Avoiding Giving Zeroes for Missing Work

Missing or incomplete work is a common issue in all classrooms, but may be even more of a problem for learners with challenges in organizational skills, memory, self-management skills, or those who simply work more slowly. Assigning a student a zero (0) for missing assignments can drag down her overall grade, and can thwart her motivation to keep trying hard. Even more importantly from a pedagogical standpoint, a zero does not accurately reflect the amount of actual learning that has occurred.

A better approach is to develop a policy that allows for make-up work so that learners receive all or partial credit for turning in missing work later. Another approach is to give some points (e.g., 59 on a 100-point scale) for missing work so that one missing assignment does not count so heavily toward a final grade.2,3 When school teams-whether pre-referral, IEP, or Response-to-Intervention — meet to discuss a learner’s low or failing grades, one of the first questions they should address is whether the student has received zeroes for missing work.

Using Different Types of Assessments

Fortunately for all learners, the potential benefits of “differentiated assessment” have been widely discussed in books and journal articles by researchers and practitioners, and more teachers are aware that allowing students to demonstrate their learning in different ways can foster a student’s motivation, and provide a more accurate picture of what she has learned.3 For a student with learning disabilities, the opportunity to demonstrate learning in ways other than traditional written tests may minimize or prevent the impact of her disability on the task demand.

In some cases, it’s debatable whether an alternative form of assessment (e.g., videotaped presentation of a student reporting on a science topic) represents an “accommodation” for a student with a learning disability. For example, if a classroom teacher allows all students in the class to choose among a menu of assessment activities, then a videotaped presentation might not viewed as an accommodation for an individual student. But for a teacher who relies solely on traditional paper and pencil tests for assessment, allowing a student to make a videotaped presentation would likely be considered an accommodation requiring documentation in the student’s IEP. So possible “gray areas” in defining an accommodation should be taken into account when a parent advocates for more flexibility in assessments as a means to address a problem of low grades.

Keep in Mind

It is important for parents to recognize that individualizing a grading system will require additional time for a classroom teacher, and that the teacher may not be able to offer these individualized options to the rest of the class. Many regular education teachers will not have had experience with special grading procedures, so getting support from the rest of the IEP team when you make a request for individualized grading is recommended!


  1. Welch, A.B. “Responding to student concerns about fairness,” Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, 2.
  2. Munk, D.D. Solving the grading puzzle for students with disabilities. Whitefish Bay, WI: Knowledge by Design, 2003.
  3. Wormeli, R. Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing & grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2006.

Reviewed January 2010