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November 2015

To Grade or Not to Grade

Vicki Bentley, HSLDA Toddlers to Tweens Consultant


Vicki Bentley Vicki Bentley

Why Grade Before High School?

At the elementary and junior high levels, grades are a progress report of sorts, a mechanism for a teacher in a conventional setting to let parents know how a child is doing. The report card qualifies and quantifies how the child is doing in school—in other words, what subjects he has covered and how well he has learned them. Grades typically also go into the child’s cumulative academic file, in case he transfers to a different school or his progress needs to be reviewed.

As a homeschool parent, you observe your child on a daily basis and can probably determine pretty accurately in which areas he is strong and in which areas he could use some additional help and maturity. His verbal interaction with you, his hands–on activities, his written work, his periodic subject–matter tests (if you use them), and the achievement of goals you have set for him are all informal indicators of his progress and can help you evaluate and tweak your homeschooling plan. Thus, you may not feel any need for grades or report cards in the earlier years.

Some parents find that grades or report cards motivate their children to make progress, especially as their students approach the junior high years. Local businesses may offer rewards to children, such as free ice cream or games of bowling, based on report card grades. And a few states require homeschool parents to provide periodic grades or annual progress reports by law. (If in doubt about state requirements, members should contact HSLDA’s legal staff for specific guidance.)

So … whether it’s to comply with a state requirement or simply for your own records, how do you grade your children’s work?

Making the Grade

Many parents find it reassuring to have some sort of guidelines for academic milestones. HSLDA’s newsletter, “What Should I Be Teaching?” suggests various tools such as checklists for evaluating progress in language arts, math, science, and social studies (K–8th), and character development. A scope–and–sequence guideline can help you determine age–appropriate and developmentally appropriate content.

It is generally sufficient to mark a child’s work as passing versus failing, or satisfactory versus unsatisfactory, especially in the earlier grades. Even in states that require report cards or some other type of evaluation of the child’s progress, the parents can generally control how they grade the child. (Again, when in doubt, members should contact the HSLDA legal staff.)

If you choose to use actual letter grades, first define your grading scale—or which number scores will be awarded which letter grades (such as A, B, C). Some parents find it helpful to contact the local public school to ask if they use, say, a seven–point or a 10–point scale (the latter meaning that 91–100 would be an A, 81–90 a B, and so on). While this is usually only an issue for high school transcripts, it could also become relevant if your state requires grades, because your child’s seven–point–scale B could be the equivalent of the local school’s 10–point–scale A, and the superintendent could misinterpret your homeschooler’s progress. So be sure your report card includes a notation of the grading scale used.

The actual issuing of grades can depend somewhat on how you “school.” If your children use textbooks, grading can be as simple as keeping track of daily work, quizzes, and test scores. Less conventional approaches, such as unit studies or Charlotte Mason or “living” books, can be a bit more challenging. Here are just a few options:

  • Assign a point value to each task, based roughly on the time and effort estimated to complete the work. At the end of the unit or grading period, add up the points earned and divide by possible number of points. This will give you a percentage score, which can then be translated into a letter grade, based on whatever grading scale you choose. For example, if your assignments added up to a possible 363 points and the student earned 332 points, you would divide 332 (earned) by 363 (possible) to get a score of 93—an A on either standard grading scale.
  • Base the letter grade on achievement plus effort: C = average work (covered just the basics); B = above–average work (covered the basics but read a bit more or discussed the material or worked hard to present the material in a creative way); A = excellent work (covered the basics plus read extra, wrote on the topic above basic requirements, delved into the subject in more detail, and so on).
  • Assign work on a contract basis (more appropriate for middle schoolers than for most elementary students). For example: Make a list of the assignments that must be completed satisfactorily to earn a C (this is the lowest contract grade we offered in our homeschool, as it was average work); this would be the minimum required in order to adequately cover the topic, usually including reading, reporting (written or oral), and vocabulary. To earn a B, the student must satisfactorily complete all the C work, plus an additional assignment (or two, or three). To earn an A, the student would add to those assignments some additional work, usually a writing assignment, significant reading assignment or project.

Then there is the question of how to actually evaluate the work. The good news is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—there are many rubrics, or guides. A rubric defines the criteria for assessment (in our case, grading)—specific expectations, what will be counted, and other considerations. Teresa Moon’s book Evaluating for Excellence (formerly titled How Do You Know They Know What They Know) is out of print but is a good resource if you can find or borrow a copy. Evaluating Writing (Dave Marks) or Evaluate Writing the Easy Way (Janice Campbell) can give you confidence in guiding your young writer’s revisions.

What do these rubrics look like in practice? Well, in one family, students submitting their unit study notebooks knew in advance that their work would be evaluated on the following criteria:

  • Promptness (25 points)
  • Neatness (10)
  • Content (200)
  • Expression (vocabulary usage, descriptions, etc.) (25)
  • Mechanics (punctuation, grammar, spelling) (25)
  • Graphics (cover, charts, illustrations) (15)
  • Extra credit work

The student knew the best possible score was 300, but he could do extra work to assure a higher grade.

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (or: Remember Why You Are Homeschooling)

There is not a right or wrong answer to the grading dilemma in the elementary and junior high level (unless you are in a mandated–by–law state, of course). As a parent, you get to decide: In this season of learning, will a report card encourage or discourage your child?

If grades will help motivate your child to better himself or to stay on track, by all means consider grading. And if your state requires grading, even more impetus! However, the focus in the elementary years should generally be on creating an intellectually stimulating environment, rather than an intellectually demanding environment, according to Renee and Mike Mosiman, authors of The Smarter Preschooler. (Yes, it’s a book for preschool parents, but the concept applies throughout the early years.)

So while we want to encourage academic diligence and excellence, we must remember that grades provide just one “snapshot” of who our children are.

Academic giftedness is not the only measure of intelligence—it’s just the most easily discernible in a typical school setting. (For more on multiple intelligences, read our past newsletter, “Finding the Gift in Your Child”.) As parents, we recognize that some of our children may exhibit great talent in some areas, while other children excel in other areas. In addition to teaching our children the basic skills and content areas, we can encourage our children to delve more deeply and excel in their own areas of interest or talent.

A Few Resources

Weaver Skills Evaluation (K–6th)

End–of–Year Assessments” newsletter

Making the Grade: A Practical Guide for Grading and Evaluating Homeschooled Children” by Lesha Myers

What Records Should I Keep?” This article includes templates for report cards and other grading tools as well as guiding you through the grading process.

This writing rubric by Suzanne Scott is especially helpful for middle school/junior high students.

Report card templates


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