Tough Love Grading Practices Produce Results

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter Features


Teachers themselves determine how students are graded, creating a spectrum of severity as complex and varied as the teachers themselves. This spectrum may lead to long-term consequences.

A study published by the Fordham Institute in February, 2020, found that the way teachers grade students dramatically affects the students’ long term academic success.

Students in classes with higher grading standards had substantially higher scores on the standardized final exams– a 16.9 percent increase. These students continued to exhibit an edge over their laxly graded peers even after the class, scoring almost nine percent higher in final exams two years later.

ACA students reacted to the study’s findings with surprise, skepticism– even a tinge of hostility. Some took issue with the idea of encouraging teachers to grade more stringently. Chloe Lute, The Charter’s Media Editor, wondered: “Why on earth would you print that?” 

“It’s hard to accept, sometimes, that which one doesn’t want to be true,” said Michael Lancaster, The Charter’s advisor and instructor. 

The design of the research, however, leaves little open to question. According to the report accompanying the study, “Students of teachers with higher grading standards are being compared to their peers who have teachers with lower grading standards but still take the same course [Algebra I] in the same school, in the same grade, and in the same year.”

In almost identical circumstances, teacher practices are affecting students by almost 20 percent. That’s the difference between an A and a C. 

The results don’t surprise ACA’s Lead Teacher and Associate Director Julie Swanson. “You don’t make growth through an A,” she noted. “There’s power in not doing as well… that’s a learning situation.”

“I started [teaching] in the middle of the trophy generation, where, if you show up, you get a trophy… and if you don’t get a trophy, that’s going to be bad,” said Swanson, “I feel like we’ve had a swing to some extent in our culture, where we’re looking more at this concept of a growth mindset. Meaning, it’s not about getting the trophy. It’s about understanding that when you fail it’s not the worst thing in the world, when you fail it’s a chance to try a little harder, think about where you need to refine.”

Sarah Head, ES and teacher, agreed, but noted, “rigorous fair grading is really beneficial for students.” 

Drew Holland, teacher and ES, rated himself as a more lenient teacher. “I’m very open to amending my late policy if a student is struggling. When I became an ES, I became more aware of many of the personal issues that can affect our students — many of which are out of their control… Does this [grading flexibility] ultimately help or hurt them with their future academic success, I don’t know, but it most certainly can ease their burden of stress.”

Swanson echoed Head’s statement, saying: “I think useful rigor is the magic mixture of rigor, high expectations, and relationship. That relationship piece comes after the growth mindset. So you can have high expectations, but someone’s going to fail, so if you don’t have that growth mindset to support them, then [maintaining high expectations and rigor] is going to be really difficult.”

Enforcing these standards is, teachers agreed, much harder than setting them. 

“I start off intending to be firm,” Lancaster noted, “once I am confronted with students offering the myriad of explanations that inevitably get in the way of meeting the deadlines, I tend to feel it’s better late than never, and my once-firm policies get watered down, overlooked, or otherwise undermined.”

Students often give feedback, requesting firmer grading standards. However, Lancaster notes, “usually students are careful to point that out once they’re in the clear. They seem to know it’s in their long-term best interests, but they don’t want the penalties falling on them in the near-term.”

While the Fordham Institute presents clear findings, applying research to education is, teachers agree, a complex task. Grading policies for teachers, particularly at ACA, continue to vary by teacher, and by class. 


Common Core State Standards Initiative. “Read the Standards.” 2020. Accessed 22 Feb 2020.

Getherson, Seth. “Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute. 4 Feb. 2020. Accessed 27 Feb. 2020.

Getherson, Seth. “End the ‘Easy A’.” Education Next. Vol. 20. 2020. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

Head, Sarah. Personal interview. Mar. 2, 2020.

Holland, Drew. “Re: Question for The Charter.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur. Mar. 7, 2020. 

Lucas, Maurice; Figlio, David. “The Gentleman’s A.” Education Next. Vol. 4, 2004. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.

Shpancer, Noam. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” Psychology today. 21 Aug. 2010. Accessed 5 Mar. 2020.

Swanson, Julie. Personal interview. Mar. 4, 2020.

West, Adam. “In Fight Against Grade Inflation, Those Rare Tough Teachers Are Champions.” Education Next. Vol. 20. 2020. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.