Why Tough Grading Teachers Produce Better Learners in the End

This may not surprise you, but a new study found that students perform better on standardized tests each year when their teachers are tough graders—and argues that when students have the mindset that says “everybody gets a gold star,” it does “more damage than good.”

The report, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found this effect holds true for students across ethnic groups, gender, socioeconomic makeup or prior academic background. What’s more, the study also found evidence of long-term learning gains for students.

Truth be told, however, most students don’t love that demanding teacher or the one that grades tough on papers or exams. In fact, they push back.

Because of this, many teachers cave to students’ and parents’ pressure to ease up a little. According to one report, “Fordham staff interviewed middle and high school teachers across the country about their views on grading and found that many teachers said they felt pressure from administrators, parents, or the students themselves to award higher grades. In the short run, that makes people’s lives easier,” the authors said. “In the long run, that really hurts students. It gives them a false sense of security; it sets them up for failure or at least lower performance down the road.”

But Doesn’t Tough Grading Hurt Students Emotionally?

Many parents today might argue that their kids are already stressed out enough with A.P. classes, college applications and peer pressure to perform academically. They fear a tough grader just makes things worse. Yet, the data shows that’s just not true.

Professor Seth Gershenson, from American University, said “his study found ‘zero evidence’ that high grading standards hurt students. There is no effect on high school graduation, although this might be because students who are taking Algebra 1 in 8th or 9th grade are already unlikely to drop out. The study also found some evidence that having a teacher with higher grading standards can slightly increase students’ intent to attend a four-year college or university,” according to EdWeek.

That contradicts the concern that kids are going to get discouraged by having a realistic grade,” Gershenson said.

The fact is, teachers with the highest grading standards increase their students’ end-of-course scores on standardized tests by 16.9 percent over teachers with a softer grading standard.

So, how can teachers and parents capitalize on this?

The Key: Be a Surgeon Not a Vampire

One of our Habitudes for Life-Giving Leaders might inform how this works for students. I believe we can offer grades and provide feedback in one of two ways:

  1. A Vampire—sneaks up on unsuspecting people, bites them and they never recover. The vampire acts out of his own selfish appetite.
  2. A Surgeon—prepares well for the surgery, lets patients know what’s coming, operates in a well-lit room and only takes out the tumor, instead of operating on everything.

Both of these people draw blood—but it leads to very different outcomes. The vampire operates out of RELIEF, desiring to relieve or satisfy his own appetite. It’s about him and his needs. The surgeon operates out of BELIEF, wanting the very best for his or her patients. Even though there’s a knife involved, the surgery is done with a positive, constructive intent.

My Favorite Surgeon

My teacher in fourth grade was Mrs. Mayo. She was a tough teacher. Early on each semester, she’d review how we would interact with each other and the level of respect we would show to each other and to her; we learned how to ask questions and how to let her know we hadn’t heard her correctly (she didn’t let us say: Huh?). As we learned about math, reading, and science, we also learned how to conduct ourselves in society. I didn’t realize what amazing training I was getting at nine years old.

Because her son, Jody, was my friend, Mrs. Mayo had me over to her home for dinner and fun. Jody and I would play games together, and I was able to watch Mrs. Mayo demonstrate social and emotional learning (SEL) skills off-campus. She managed her home the same as her classroom. She got to know us; she told us she loved us, and she graded tough, but always explained it was because she believed in us and knew when we performed up to our potential. This made me want to please her.

That year, I disobeyed the rules on the playground one day. I joined with some friends in bullying a classmate. Like many 10-year-olds, appearing “cool” to my peers was important to me, so I treated a fellow student cruelly. It happened during recess, but it didn’t take long for Mrs. Mayo to find out about it.

Uh oh.

I discovered quickly I had disappointed her. I was crushed. I felt ashamed. She knew, however, just how to handle the situation. She didn’t want me to wallow in my shame, so she said to me: “Timothy. This was not like you. I know you’re better than what happened on that playground. Am I wrong? Do you think what you did fits who you are?”

“No,” I whispered quietly.

Then, she turned the whole episode on its ear. She said something like:

We’ve learned too much about how to conduct ourselves for this day to ruin it. I know the real you. And I need you to use your influence in this classroom well. Other people look to you; do you realize that? I expect more of you, and I know you can meet those expectations.

Enough said. What a tough but wonderful surgeon.

Why Tough Grading Teachers Produce Better Learners in the End