Grades and report cards can often be a source of great stress for students, parents and teachers alike. Grading systems are present in all levels of education with goals of determining whether a student is meeting learning goals and whether instruction is effective. Additionally, promotion in younger grades and placement in electives in older grades rely on grading systems.

Norm-Referenced Grading Systems

One method of grading compares student achievement to that of her peers, a system called norm-referenced grading. In this grading format, the number of students who can earn a particular grade is predetermined by the instructor or departmental rules. For example, a department may decide for purposes of placement into advanced courses that only 15 percent of a class may earn the highest grade possible. A norm-referenced grading system relies partially on student performance and partially on the performance of his classmates.

Criterion-Referenced Grading Systems

Unlike the norm-referenced system of grading, a criterion-referenced system focuses on specific information that students attain through the learning process. In this system, the instructor determines which skills are necessary for students to learn, what tasks students must perform to to learn those tasks, and a system for assessing student learning. This type of grading system commonly matches a percentage of points earned with a letter grade. In some schools, for example, 70 to 79 percent of points earned would give a student a letter grade of "C."

Other Methods

While both norm-referenced and criterion-referenced grading systems assign letter grades or percentages to a student's performance, alternate systems determine solely whether a student passes or fails a course. Two common designations are "pass" or "fail" and "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory." These methods can be either point-based requiring a minimum number of points earned or subjective evaluation from the instructor. Similar to these grading scales are the systems used in elementary levels, particularly in preschool and kindergarten, where scales that include terms like "excellent," "satisfactory" and "needs improvement" communicate student learning.

Grading System Considerations

Choosing a grading system for a class, school or district should take into account the ultimate learning goals of the institution. The University of Minnesota's Center for Teaching and Learning identifies five components of a strong grading system. In addition to grades matching course objectives, they should also have meaning for the learners and teachers. Grading systems should also have clear and fair standards that all students are held to equally and should be based on data. Finally, the mathematics criteria for earning a grade (e.g., tests are worth 10 percent) should be clear and accurately calculated.