Scholars in the field of measurement have developed sophisticated procedures for competency and standards-based grading with a variety of recommendations that converge into a theme: grades should be an accurate reflection of what students know and can do; these grades should indicate what students know and can do at the present time; students’ behavior should not be included as an indicator of academic achievement; and feedback must accompany the grade if it is to support the purpose of improving instruction so students show growth. Although there has been much research on classroom assessment and grading, little attention has been given to how to apply these procedures to students who are behind grade level. This is unfortunate given that arguably the students in our schools who need the best information on how they are performing and what to do next are the students who are behind grade level! Indeed, grading students who have disabilities or are behind grade level pose the greatest challenge in all of grading.
There have been many studies on measuring the progress of students with disabilities on IEP goals. In fact, some of the most sophisticated work on measurement of learning and behavior has come from the field of special education! But the connections between using these practices to measure progress on goals and grading are thin. Because of the sparseness of suggestions from the field, most teachers have made informal adaptations to the grading process for students with IEPs (Gottlieb, 2006; Polloway et al., 1994; Silva, Munk, & Bursuck, 2005). Developing more precise procedures for grading and providing feedback to students who have learning differences and disabilities is an area of urgent need and a discussion that should be happening in every school. Important decisions on instruction and intervention hinge upon our having accurate, meaningful, and timely information about the performance of this group of students. Furthermore, the 2017 US Supreme Court decision, Endrew versus Douglas County School District (2017) compels us to improve the quality of progress monitoring and reporting for this population.
Recommendations for Grading Students with Learning Differences
The research on grading and special education began in 1983 (Carpenter, Grantham, & Hardister, 1983) with beginning research questions on the issues in grading students who have disabilities. This beginning research led to an initial position statement on grading exceptional learners (Carpenter, 1985) and procedural recommendations (Bradley & Calvin, 1998). Soon after this research began, a number of studies began examining how teachers were approaching the grading process for this population, finding that teachers were informally adapting the grades for students with disabilities (Bursuck et al., 1996; Polloway et al., 1994). Almost every teacher was making adaptations, and these adaptations included changes like adding points for behavior, changing the grading scale, grading solely on progress, and weighting easier assignments more heavily.
Next, the research turned to examining the fairness of these procedures for modifying grades for students with disabilities, and the findings were clear: parents, students, and teachers found that the grading adaptations that teachers were using were fraught with problems a seen by most as not fair (Bursuck, Munk, & Olson, 1999; Engelberg, & Evans, 1986; Michael & Trippi, 1987; Pollard, Rojewski, & Pollard, 1993; Rojewski, Pollard, & Meers, 1991). This led researchers and thought leaders to recommend different variations of grading adaptations, including personalized grading plans (Silva, Munk, & Bursuck, 2005; Munk & Bursuck, 2001). Through an iterative process of working with teachers in schools on issues of both practicality and fairness, an examination of the requirements of IDEA, and in response to the movement toward criterion referenced, or standards-based grades, I developed the Inclusive Grading Model in 2007 (Jung, 2009) as a recommendation for assigning grades to any student who is behind grade level. This model hinged upon educators’ understanding clearly the distinction between accommodations and modifications and how they affect our measurement of learning (Jung, 2017). Tom Guskey and I combined the existing work on standards-based grading with this new model on grading exceptional learners to make comprehensive recommendations for teachers, leaders, and school policy makers (e.g., Jung & Guskey, 2007; Jung & Guskey, 2012).
A Differentiated Assessment and Grading Model (DiAGraM)
The 4-step Differentiated Assessment and Grading Model (DiAGraM) below is an adaptation of the earlier Inclusive Grading Model. The model includes attention to identifying the precise measurement used for modified expectations (Jung, 2018). In order to comply with legal requirements for reporting, and best practice, the model should be followed for all students who need support on a skill, not only those for IEPs.
Step 1: Determine the type of support that is needed.
In order to implement the Differentiated Assessment and Grading Model, we first must determine the type of support that is needed. Does the student need an accommodation or modification for this skill? Read this blog entry for more information on the difference between the two. It is an important distinction to make when reporting learning.
Step 2: Determine the appropriate expectation.
For skills that require accommodation, we apply the accommodation and hold the student to the grade-level expectation. For skills that require modification, we determine a comparably-rigorous expectation. We have to be careful as we do this to make sure that we don’t unnecessarily lower expectations for students. We want to aim high and expect students to get there with our good teaching.
Step 3: Use the appropriate assessment strategy.
For skills that require only accommodations, this step is simple. We apply the accommodation and score the student’s performance in the usual way. For skills that require modifications, though, we determine the specific scale we will use to measure performance. See this blog post on how goal attainment scaling can help. Once the scale is determined, we measure the student’s performance on the modified expectation, not the grade-level expectation.
Step 4. Report accurately.
For skills requiring only accommodation, no change to the reporting is needed. However the student performed with accommodation is reported as the accurate score or grade. For skills that required modification, though, we must report that the modification was made. Otherwise, the score or grade implies the student’s performance was measured against grade-level criteria.
The table below provides an examples of the process of using the Differentiated Assessment and Grading Model:
Bradley, D. F., & Calvin, M. B. (1998). Grading Modified Assignments. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(2), 24.
Bursuck, W., Polloway, E. A., Plante, L., Epstein, M. H., Jayanthi, M., & McConeghy, J. (1996). Report card grading and adaptations: A national survey of classroom practices. Exceptional Children, 62(4), 301-318.
Bursuck, W. D., Munk, D. D., & Olson, M. M. (1999). The fairness of report card grading adaptations: What do students with and without learning disabilities think? Remedial and Special Education, 20(2), 84-92. doi: 10.1177/074193259902000205
Carpenter, D. (1985). Grading handicapped pupils: Review and position statement. RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 6(4), 54-59. doi: 10.1177/074193258500600409
Carpenter, D., Grantham, L. B., & Hardister, M. P. (1983). Grading mainstreamed handicapped pupils: What are the issues? The Journal of Special Education, 17(2), 183-188. doi: 10.1177/002246698301700209
Christiansen, J., & Vogel, J. R. (1998). A Decision Model for Grading Students with Disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(2), 30.
Donahue, K., & Zigmond, N. (1990). Academic grades of ninth-grade urban learning disabled students and low-achieving peers. Exceptionality, 1(1), 17-27.
Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, P. L. 94-142, United States Code, 20, sections 1401 et seq.
Endrew v. Douglas County School District, 580 U. S. 2017. h ps://www. supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15- 827_0pm1.pdf.
Engelberg, R. A., & Evans, E. D. (1986). Perceptions and attitudes about school grading practices among intellectually gifted, learning-disabled, and normal elementary school pupils. The Journal of Special Education, 20(1), 91-101. doi: 10.1177/002246698602000110
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, PL 108-446, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq.
Jung, L. A. (2018). Supporting and measuring growth for students with learning differences. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Jung, L. A. (2015). A practical guide to planning interventions and monitoring progress. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Jung, L. A. & Guskey, T. R. (2012). Grading exceptional and struggling learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Jung, L. A. (2009). The challenges of grading and reporting in special education: An inclusive grading model. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.). Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading, (pp. 27-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Jung, L. A. & Guskey, T. R. (2007). Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), 48-53.
Michael, R. J., & Trippi, J. A. (1987). Educators’ views of procedures for grading mainstreamed handicapped children. Education, 107(3), 276.
Munk, D. D., & Bursuck, W. D. (2001). Preliminary findings on personalized grading plans for middle school students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 211-234.
Pollard, R., Rojewski, J., & Pollard, C. (1993). An examination of problems associated with grading students with special needs. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 20(2), 154-161.
Polloway, E. A., Epstein, M. H., Bursuck, W. D., Roderique, T. W., McConeghy, J. L., & Jayanthi, M. (1994). Classroom grading: A national survey of policies. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 162–170.
Rojewski, J. W., Pollard, R. R., & Meers, G. D. (1991). Grading mainstreamed special needs students: Determining practices and attitudes of secondary vocational educators using a qualitative approach. RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 12(1), 7-15. doi: 10.1177/074193259101200105
Silva, M., Munk, D. D., & Bursuck, W. D. (2005). Grading Adaptations for Students With Disabilities. Intervention in School & Clinic, 41(2), 87-98.