Grading is a complex topic that involves philosophical, pedagogical, and pragmatic issues for all students, and especially for those with disabilities. We all have our own ideas of how grades should be assigned, and what they should tell us about the student's performance. Our perceptions of grading practices are influenced largely by our own experiences with grades, and as might be expected our general level of satisfaction with the grading system in our local school is higher if our own children have received high grades and is likely to be lower if our child has received lower grades (Bursuck, Munk, & Olson, 1999). But regardless of our own potential satisfaction with grading systems, research on grades for students with disabilities provides compelling evidence that intervention is needed in that (a) included students are at increased risk for low or failing grades (Donahue & Zigmond, 1990); (b) teachers report feeling pressured or obligated to give students a higher grade than they had earned to allow the student to pass or because it seems fair (Calhoun, 1986, Munk & Bursuck, 2001; and (c) teachers may respond to the needs of individual students by making informal grading adaptations that are not implemented systematically (Polloway, Epstein, Bursuck, Rodrique, McConeghy, & Jayanthi,1994).

From the special educator's perspective grading students with disabilities can be particularly challenging because it may involve (a) attempting to apply the same grading system used for general education students to students with disabilities, (b) developing a grading system for a special class, or (c) individualizing an existing grading system to meet the needs of a particular student. As increasing numbers of students with disabilities are included in general education classes, the need for special educators to be aware of general education grading practices is magnified. Furthermore, most general educators have received minimal formal training on developing a grading system (Guskey & Bailey, 2001), and are often seeking guidance from their special education colleagues on how to grade students with disabilities accurately and fairly. Thus, special educators must have a broad perspective on grading that includes knowledge of the purposes for grades, the best practices for general education grading systems, and specialized grading systems for students with disabilities.

Purposes for Grades

The purpose for grades may also be thought of as what the grading system is designed to measure and report, or what the grade "means" to a student, parent, teacher, counselor, or employer. Establishing what purpose(s) a grade will serve and implementing a grading system that is perceived to meet that purpose can lead to increased student, parent and teacher satisfaction (Munk & Bursuck, 2004).

Several purposes for grades have been described in the professional literature, with no research describing which purpose best suits the needs of students with disabilities (Munk, 2003). Grading systems may be designed to measure and/or communicate:

  • How much effort was put forth when completing assignments;
  • How much progress has been made on the general curriculum;
  • How independently the work was completed;
  • How much improvement was made since the last marking period;
  • How performance compares to that of other students;
  • How much progress was made on individual IEP goals;
  • How well the student worked with classmates;
  • What classes the student should take in the future.

The author's experience suggests that surveying perceived purposes is helpful for teachers considering what to include in their grading systems, and is important when problem-solving for students receiving a low or failing grade. Researchers have argued that grading systems for general education classrooms should serve one primary purpose- to measure and report progress on the general education curriculum (Guskey & Bailey, 2001). However, research also suggests that teachers often include other factors (e.g., effort) in their grading systems in response to the needs of their students. Munk (2003) has suggested a compromise approach in which additional factors are included in a grading system only if those factors are likely to be associated with improved access to and performance on the general curriculum, and if such grading adaptations are used and monitored systematically. For example, including progress on IEP objectives in the grading system for a student should be considered only if the student's progress on the objectives can potentially improve performance on the general curriculum, and after discussion and planning by the team of student, parent, special educator, and general educator.

General Recommendations for Grading Systems

Several features of grading systems for all students have particular implications for students with disabilities who may be at risk for low or failing grades. Guskey and Bailey (2001) recommend (a) giving more weight to recent scores when averaging several scores over an extended period so that low scores early in the marking period don't discourage the student or allow performance on formative assessments to overshadow those on more summative assessments; (b) being flexible with due dates and avoiding assigning of 0s (zeroes) for incomplete work; (c) avoiding grade penalties because of problem classroom behavior. The above strategies improve the likelihood that a student will not be penalized for performance problems related to his or her disability, and may increase motivation and use of available supports.

Students with and without disabilities benefit from a grading system that includes multiple types of assignments, preferably designed to allow the students to demonstrate learning in different ways. General strategies include (a) blending extended assignments such as projects with in-class, time-limited assessments such as tests, (b) providing formative (e.g., quizzes, laboratories) as well as summative (e.g., tests) assessments, and (c) providing an ample number of assessments throughout the marking period. Additional strategies involve controlling or modifying the amount of reading that is needed to complete the assessment, or the output mode (e.g., written, oral) the student will use to complete the assessment. Again, substantial research has been conducted regarding classroom assessments (e.g., Thompson, Quenemoen, Thurlow, & Ysseldyke, 2001), and both general and special educators may benefit from consulting current sources. Note that although use of multiple forms of assessment may be beneficial to students with disabilities, doing so does not negate the need to provide appropriate instructional and testing accommodations as described in the student's IEP.

Strategies for Students with Disabilities

As the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms became an increasingly common practice in the 1990's, debate continued on how to assess the success or appropriateness of inclusive settings. Interest in specialized grading strategies or systems for students with disabilities was initially fueled by research focusing on outcomes for included students (e.g., Donohoe & Zigmond, 1990), and on general educators' perceptions toward and preparation for implementing curricular and instructional adaptations and accommodations (e.g., Bursuck, Polloway, Plante, Epstein, Jayanthi, & McConeghy, 1996). Results for studies addressing grading practices indicated the need for additional research on how best to design grading systems for included students, and a variety of alternate systems (e.g., checklist) and "grading adaptations" were recommended (Friend & Bursuck, 2002). The remainder of this section will focus on grading adaptations, which have been implemented successfully by teams consisting of the student, parents, special educator, and general educator (Munk, 2003; Munk & Bursuck, 2004, 2001).

Types of Grading Adaptations

The most commonly cited types of grading adaptations are those that involve: (a) prioritizing of content and related assignments for grading; (b) considering student effort when calculating a grade; (c) considering how well the student uses "processes" to complete his or her work; (d) basing part of the grade on the student's progress on IEP objectives; (e) considering improvement over past performances, and (f) changing the weights that certain types of assignments count toward the grade or altering the grading scale used to assign letter grades (Munk, 2003). Each type of grading adaptation, with advantages and cautions will be described.


Developed by: Dennis Munk, Ph.D., Northern Illinois University