Is a "Satisfactory" Grade Satisfactory?
©2000 Theresa A. Garvin
The purpose of this paper is to examine the process of assigning grades, to reflect on who has the moral responsibility to challenge or uphold a grade, and finally to postulate what authority determines the grade.
To do this, one must first consider what the grade represents to each constituency, namely the teacher, student, school and principal, parents, local community, and institutions of higher learning. Second, the assignment of a grade may be a purely arbitrary affair; what is the basis for the grade given student X by teacher Y vs. the grade given by teacher Z? Differentiation between grading and assessment is important here, as well as delineating some of the other factors incorporated in a given grade.
Historical and philosophical perspectives are also call upon to shed some light on the hard choices that accompany the assignment of grades, from A to F. Who qualifies as gifted? Should educators teach to the middle? Which is the greater evil, retention or social promotion?
The case study "A Problem of Grades" from The Ethics of School Administration by Strike, Haller, and Soltis (p. 89, 90) will be the catalyst for this investigation.
Case Study.The case study "A Problem of Grades" concerns parents' complaints to principal Janet McDonald about the grading practices of Mrs. Milner, a young and inexperienced teacher, in a high-track junior English class. The belief on the part of the parents is that Mrs. Milner mistakes toughness and vicious grading for maintaining high educational standards. The average grade in her class is lower than the average in other similarly derived classes. This is seen as detrimental to students who will be engaged in a highly competitive selection process by colleges. Parents maintain that within the class there is a variation due to a "fudge factor" called "class participation", roughly equivalent to bootlicking. That another portion of the grade accounted for discipline also bothered parents, who felt such things were unrelated to student performance. Finally, Mrs. Miller's grading of essays seemed highly subjective, even capricious. In some cases, it was unclear what was being asked.
Ms. McDonald is faced with a serious dilemma. While she may agree with many of the parent concerns, she still has an obligation to support her teacher. Further, she has no firsthand evidence of some of the parent claims. Ms. McDonald is reluctant to confront Mrs. Milner over the matter since there is no grading policy at the school. At the same time, she is uncomfortable with establishing a school wide policy on grading because such policies are often vague and their implementation unenforceable. Still, she feels an obligation to the students presently in this English class. What should be done?
Strike raises additional concerns with respect to this case. He maintains that standards for judging individuals or their work should have "a rational connection to a legitimate purpose". With this in mind, he questions whether using grades as disciplinary tools, namely raising or lowering a student's grade because of classroom behavior, is a legitimate act, and again, is it or is it not inherently a violation of due process. He asks whether it is so different to consider raising a student's grade from failure to passing based on effort, another behavior. Finally, Strike asks what purposes do grades serve?
Another set of questions might also be raised. Does the principal, Ms. McDonald, have any culpability in this matter? Knowing that she was dealing with a new teacher, should there have been some interim assessment of the teacher's instructional style and grading rubric? Might such intervention have averted the controversy now facing Ms. McDonald? Second, an assumption is made that Ms. McDonald cannot confront Mrs. Milner over the grading issue. Clabaugh and Rozycki in Analyzing Controversy: An Introductory Guide (1997) state: "A dispute is fundamental to the extent that is unavoidably based on either-or thinking. If you can work it out so that both parties can be satisfied, the dispute need not continue. It is not fundamental."(p.4). Is it possible that Ms. McDonald could invite Mrs. Milner to review together her grading rubric and perhaps renegotiate the existing grades based on a shared understanding of the connection between the grades and legitimate purposes served in this community of learners? In this case, Ms. McDonald would be using an 'appeal to moderation', encouraging Ms. Milner to be "tolerant, reasonable, and accommodating"(Clabaugh and Rozycki, p.65), by replacing the emotionally charged confrontation with invitation. Hopefully, the new teacher will see these actions as a means to support rather than undermine her position. Basis for Grades.
The basis for determining grades is usually a combination of assessment, class participation, and attendance. The weight given to each is usually a matter of teacher discretion, with specific behaviors affecting the grade positively, negatively, or not at all, again as the teacher sees fit. The author categorizes the following behaviors decorum, academic honesty, homework, effort or perseverance, and attendance as components of class participation. Others might separate some of these behaviors out and consider each an independent aspect in determining a student's grade. Others may hold the view of the parents in Strike's controversy "A Problem of Grades" and suggest that incorporating behavior in the grade is not appropriate. In practice, however, the expectation is that only favor, not penalty apply. Students should be rewarded for homework and effort, but not penalized for cheating or cutting class. Both factual matters and feelings enter into the ethical argument of whether it is fair, right, or just for behavior to be reflected in a grade. In Strike's treatment of objective moral reasoning, he speaks to settling ethical arguments and suggests: "Perhaps some will change their minds when they see what else they must agree to if they are to hold consistently to their current positions". (p.103). This author feels that behavior the good and the bad either counts in its entirety or not at all in evaluating performance and assigning a grade for the course.
It is important to note here that the parents of Strike's case were objecting not to the influence of educational behaviors as described above, but to nuisance issues entering into the grading process. They also took offense to "bootlicking" as a means to enhance one's grade. From Clabaugh's point of view, this activity would more closely resemble an "appeal to reciprocity"(p. 65).
This behavior component encourages contribution to a class objective of fomenting understanding and skill in a subject area and discourages disruption of the same. Customarily, teachers in the United States promote individual learning in a class setting. Individuals' behaviors have an effect on others to promote or interfere with learning and, as such, they are part of the classroom dynamic. If each student were guaranteed individual instruction without outside influences, then behavior might be irrelevant to an evaluation of the student that resulted in a grade. Performance and competence do not occur in a vacuum, and a student should be held accountable for all that he or she brings to the educational experience, in this author's view. In the end, behavior accounts for only a portion of "class participation", which in turn will carry only as much weight as the teacher assigns. Hopefully, the predominant value of the grade assigned rests with assessment against pre-determined objectives and instructional goals.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of grading is assessment. According to the National Science Education Standards, "... assessment and learning are two sides of the same coin. Assessments provide an operational definition of standards, in that they define in measurable terms what teachers should teach and students should learn. When students engage in assessments, they should learn from those assessments." (p. 5).
Assessments take many forms. Reliance solely on multiple-choice tests reflects a narrow focus on limited instructional objectives and a decreased effort to teach the skills necessary to develop higher cognitive skills. Higher-order skills include understanding, reasoning, inquiry, and reflection. In the development of problem solving skills, the student must be involved in: "identifying a worthwhile and researchable question, planning the investigation, executing the research plan, and drafting the research report". (National Science Education Standards, p. 22). Appropriate scoring rubrics need to accompany such open-ended tasks. Some of the tools of assessment include conventional tests, projects, labs, research reports, interviews, visual presentations, panel assessments, and portfolios. While portfolios are subject to a wide variety of descriptions, Diane Coates in "Alternative Assessments to Reflect a Changing Mathematics Curriculum" provides a useful definition: "A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student's efforts, progress and achievements ... used as an intersection of instruction and assessment." (p. 2). The appeal of portfolios is their relation to the affective side of education promoting improved self-confidence and pride.
What is crucial is that "assessments must be consistent with the decisions they are designed to inform". (NSES, p. 4). Criteria for such consistency are spelled out by the National Science Education Standards (See Appendix A for further detail.):
If one of the most significant aspects of grading is "assessment", then "class participation" follows as highly relevant. Class participation includes contribution to the discussions and processes of class in the form of questioning and responding, and in the demonstration of skills such as lab performance, blackboard work, cooperative group interaction, use of technology, and so on. Under many of the assessment models currently used in instruction, classroom interaction more often than not places the teacher in the role of facilitator and students in the role of participant. The object, according to Tej Pandey in "Authentic Mathematics Assessment", is to present "rich situational problems that actively engage the students. The situational lessons or real-life problems attempt to include four dimensions:
Behavior is a second component of class participation, whether consciously or unconsciously applied by the teacher. Explicit attention has been accorded historically to the development of "proper" behaviors through schooling. In the mid 1800's, William T. Harris taught "The school had four cardinal duties to young children: to train them in the habits of regularity, punctuality, silence, and industry." (Perkinson, p.122). With successive generations, they have been replaced by or renamed to other "cardinal duties". Clearly, schools address any number of behaviors, but whether they are reflected in a student's grade depends first upon their relevance to the learning experiences conducted through the classroom, and second upon whether there exists any other mechanism in the school to deal with student behavior. These are a variety of such mechanisms ranging from an affective side of an elementary report card reporting on conduct, effort, etc., to a disciplinary board convened at the university level.
An interactive classroom is influenced by behaviors such as decorum, academic honesty, homework, effort, and attendance. Positive and negative scores might correlate to positive or negative demonstrations of these behaviors. Matters of decorum are easily recognized. For example, the student who asks meaningful questions or demonstrates an unconventional approach to a problem might be rewarded, while the student who is conversing with a buddy or jabbing his fellow classmate with a compass might be penalized. Both are participating in the activity of the classroom. Whether such activity serves to enhance or impede learning opportunities for all members of the class deserves evaluation.
Academic honesty addresses the integrity of the work produced by the student. If plagiarism or cheating is discovered, there is likely to be an effect on the grade. Some institutions have policies prohibiting translating this effect into disciplinary action, as in the case of the University of Pennsylvania. The following is excerpted from the policy "Faculty Authority to Assign Grades and Academic Integrity":
"The Disciplinary Charter rests on the principle that faculty members have wide authority to judge the academic work of students and have a general responsibility for the academic progress of students, so much as it lies within the power of the faculty.
"The distinction between academic evaluation and disciplinary action is also important. Faculty members have the authority to make academic judgments in relation to their students and to make decisions in the interests of furthering their students' education. Only the institution, acting through its formal processes, may discipline a student. Grades are not sanctions, even if they arise from a judgment that a student has violated a norm of academic integrity. In such cases, the grade may reflect the faculty member's view that a piece of work was done inappropriately, but it represents a judgment of the quality of the work, not a record of discipline for the behavior."
According to Clabaugh and Rozycki in Preventing Plagiarism and Cheating: An Instructors Guide, "Academic dishonesty threatens the very foundation of education. Despite the threat posed by cheating, instructors often take inadequate precautions ... in a desire to avoid an adversarial relationship." (p. 1). They go on to caution that students may take this seeming indifference as an indication that the teacher does not care, thus defeating an atmosphere of trust. If a teacher chooses to deal with an occurrence of cheating, sanctions could include a warning, lowered grade, or failure. School policy and teacher policy should be reviewed with students before counting academic honesty for or against them with respect to class participation.
Similar imposition of sanctions may occur with attendance. Students who cut class with impunity may be subject to disciplinary action by the school. The teacher must deal with the infraction in some way, or again the other students may decide that the teacher does not care and trust is thereby compromised. Here a student may be scored to reflect the lack of material learned during the unexcused absence. In the extreme, a teacher might refuse to allow a student to make up a missed test or assignment, which could clearly have an adverse effect on the overall grade, since this enters into the assessment component. Clear statements of expectations and consequences often translate to a pre-emptive strike against truancy.
Homework is another academic behavior. Whether or not it should be scored depends on the purpose of the homework. If the point of a mathematics assignment is to rehearse the skills taught in the lesson, in an attempt to clarify material and elicit questions, then incorrect answers should not be penalized; the act of completing the assignment to the best of one's ability would be rewarded. If the purpose of an assignment in a science class was to synthesize material presented in class and through reading, then scoring is correlated to quality of presentation. Students need to be aware of the function of homework for the class, and the value ascribed to it, in the context of class participation. If the potential for copying homework without detection is great (e.g. solutions of math problems are more consistent than styles of phrasing in essays) it might not be heavily weighted. Late homework might be viewed as a matter of academic honesty.
Objective assessment of effort is difficult because "effort" is subject to many interpretations. How are "studying hard" or "really trying" quantified? Students can describe the study methods they use and learn to make adjustments. They might take full advantage of after-school help or tutoring. Attention in class, and ability to remain on task are also key. Do they do extra problems or supplement with outside readings? These considerations can help a student gain clarity when the plea is made: "Do I get any points for trying?" Maybe he will, maybe he won't. But fair treatment is more likely to be accorded when students and teachers share a common understanding of goals and objectives.
This might be said of all the behaviors considered here. That behaviors enter into class participation is a given. That their negative and positive aspects ought to be reflected in a grade is open to debate. However, the author maintains that behavior is generally reflected in grades whether consciously or unconsciously. To put it on the table is more honest for all concerned.
The final component of a student's grade is attendance, that is the student's availability to the discussions and interactions of class. Even if a student succeeds in all assessment measures, something is lost in the overall content of the course if the student is not present to the insights offered by instructor and classmates. In addition, he has failed to make any contribution to the classroom dynamic on those occasions. Whether this component is applied to the grade requires some sensitivity on the part of the teacher, however. The student who travels during the school year and the student who frequently is granted "mental health" days by a lenient parent represent different situations than the student who has faced illness, death in the family, etc. Teachers are faced with the decision to evaluate situations on an individual basis or to make no decision at all regarding attendance. Of course, rewarding students with excellent attendance patterns is another alternative.
The author has identified the important aspects to a student grade: assessment, class participation, and attendance. How much weight to give each aspect ultimately ought to be subject to teacher discretion, even if a school policy is in effect. Attention to the details given above may be helpful in promoting fairness and equal educational opportunity.
Interpretation of Grades.
Regardless of how grades are determined by the individual teacher, the value of the grade is subject to interpretation by a variety of constituents including: teacher, student, school and principal, parents, local community, and institutions of higher learning. How the grade reflects on student performance, as well as teacher competence, will likely be considered. The quality of a school and its administration will be judged by grades earned (or given). Other measures of student performance (i.e. standardized tests) will be used to validate grades. Decisions will be made on "retention, promotion, and placement in special programs (as well as) participation in extracurricular activities." (Seeley). Finally, the recognition accorded schools by institutes of higher education will be an important concern. These issues will be addressed in what follows.
From a teacher's point of view a grade should represent an evaluation of a student's competence in a subject area, with due consideration of a variety of meaningful assessments and observed participatory skills. Incorporating varied assessments and multiple sources of information in a letter grade is problematic. "Once teachers develop a personal grading scheme, they still face the dilemma of how different audiences will interpret the grades." (Seeley). The relative weight given to certain types of evaluation will differ between districts and perhaps even within the same school. According to Andrea Chipego, "the complexity of assignment of grades and the variability that individual teachers bring to the equation, makes it less clear what a particular grade means. Somehow, the assignment of one number or letter to reflect a student's competence given all that a grade can or cannot reflect, is unsettling." (p. 5). Still, if grades provide feedback on student performance to affirm competence or identify weakness, and assist teachers in planning for improved instruction, then there is value in assigning grades.
If the student shares the goals and objectives set forth by the teacher, he or she is likely to view the evaluation in much the same way. "Most students view high grades as positive recognition of their success, and some work hard to avoid the consequences of low grades. Low grades usually cause students to withdraw from learning. To protect their self image, many students regard the low grade as irrelevant and meaningless." (Guskey, p. 3) Gustafson relates a common tale that sheds some light on the student's perception of grading. Stacey, a student in his class, complains, "I don't understand how I got this grade". He realizes that identifying deficits in the student's work would not be nearly as helpful as quantifying expectations for an assignment at the outset. When he allows students to become involved in designing a grading standard for each new project, Gustafson finds the students to be more successful. Higher standards and better projects resulted because the students did not have to guess the requirements for a high grade. Danielson shares this outlook. "It has long been recognized that articulating clear standards for student learning, illustrated by examples of exemplary student work, enhances the quality of that work and students' sense of purpose. Furthermore, students who might have believed that high grades were beyond their reach now see clearly how to achieve the grades." (p. 9). When this is not the case, then the students might interpret the grade along the lines of "I earned an A" versus "He gave me a D." Alfie Kohn makes a more interesting point. "Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and, ironically, the less well they do." (p. 3). Fear of failure undermines creativity, persistence and challenge.
Esteem is associated with grades, for teachers and students alike. A grade profile for any given class may either advance or impede a teacher's progress on a tenure track, just as a student's transcript opens or closes the ranges of colleges available for successful admission.
The extent to which grades are consistent between similar classes in a school and are consistent with external measures of performance determines their validity. Here is where schools derive their reputation for strength or weakness or conflict. Colleges develop a perception of the school and the relative value of its grades. Often specialized programs and/or funding may be at stake. For schools that proved "disadvantaged", Perkinson in The Imperfect Panacea lists any number of federally funded compensatory education programs. (p. 171). Born in the 1960's many of these programs are still alive in one form or another. Despite the great hold that grades would seem to have over teachers, students, schools, and communities, the task of assigning grades may be counter-productive to educational opportunity and achievement. It functions more to "sort" students than to encourage better performance.
In fact, grades may or may not be a telling measure of student performance or competency in a given society. In the United States, government and educators alike reacted vigorously to the devastating findings of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk and the later 1988 report The Condition of Education. Both of these documents detailed evidence of decline in student achievement. Standardized scores had dropped, levels of functional illiteracy were alarming, and over one-half of gifted students were failing to meet their potential. (Perkinson, p.188-190). The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts determined that most seventeen year olds were unfamiliar with major historical events and renowned authors. "Here, too, the nation was at risk, or, as Lynn Cheyney, Head of NEH put it, 'our sense of nationhood is at risk when we fail to teach the young the ideas that have molded us and the ideas that have mattered to us.'" (p. 191). Ultimately, Perkinson reaches the conclusion that modern public schools, because they serve the political will and are egalitarian in nature, are incapable of reshaping themselves in a timely fashion to the evolving needs of society. He finds many compelling arguments for privatization of the nation's schools for the benefits that might be derived in a market system of education (p.198). In the author's view, Perkinson here adopts an Orthodox Marxist philosophy. "Orthodox Marxists believe that each social form must have within it the seeds of its own destruction; otherwise basic social change would not occur and the class in power would continue to sequester and use their power forever." (Feinberg, p. 54).
Responsibility for Grades.
All may take credit for good grades and none may accept blame for poor grades, but all parties share responsibility in any grade assigned a student. Ultimately, it is the student's success or failure that is measured. The instructor, the learner, the parent, the school and the community should relate in such a way as to support each success and remediate each failure, if equal educational opportunity is to be applied. The community has the moral responsibility to support effective instruction and provide a safe learning environment. The teacher has a moral responsibility to assign fair grades, representative of a student's competence as measured by authentic assessments, observed behaviors and demonstrated skills. Parents and students have the responsibility to challenge grades, if the basis for the grade is perceived to be unjust. School administration has both the responsibility and the authority to uphold or override grades.
The teacher has a moral responsibility to assign fair grades. To do anything less would violate the principle of equal respect. "The principle of equal respect requires that we act in ways that respect the equal worth of moral agents." (Strike, p. 17). There are three important considerations: people are to be treated as ends rather than means; persons are free and rational moral agents; and no matter how different, people are of equal value. If a grade is assigned capriciously, the student is a means to an end, that end likely being the teacher's ego. Further, the student's access to equal educational opportunity may be denied as a result, which conflicts with the equal rights to which he is entitled. If a student fails to meet course objectives, but is given a grade with inflated value, then the teacher has not respected the choices made by the student. Strike maintains that if we "regard as central the fact that people are free and rational moral agents ... we must respect the choices people make even when we do not agree with them." (p. 17). This is particularly true in the case of the student who has failed to earn a passing grade for a course. Parent phone calls and student pleas notwithstanding, the teacher has an obligation to hold the student to the academic standards established by the school and community. Summer school or retention may best serve the student as an opportunity to learn the skills needed for advancement. The experience may motivate the student to engage more fully in the learning process in the years that follow. The teacher also has an obligation to his colleagues. Passing a student, who lacked the requisite foundation for the next course of study, would be unjust not only to the student, but to the teacher who inherits him as well. Were the teacher to allow the student a passing grade when a failure had been earned, then the principle of benefit maximization would be violated as well. "The principle of benefit maximization holds that, whenever we are faced with a choice, the best and most just decision is the one that results in the most good or the greatest benefit for the most people." (Strike, p. 16). In this case, accountability for student learning will ultimately benefit the student, his teachers and peers at the next level of study, and the community that will employ rather than support the emerging adult. The teacher has a duty to make choices in a morally responsible way. He or she must be concerned with what is right, just, and fair.
The principal is also called upon to act as a moral agent. The principal is responsible for all that goes on in the school, including the conduct of teachers and students. The reputation of the school and the integrity of the learning process is his or her direct charge.
Recalling the case "A Problem of Grades", the principal, Ms. McDonald, is faced with a dilemma. Parents allege that their children have been graded unfairly. The criteria for the students' grades are unclear, and standards have not been applied equitably. The chief results are frustration and lowered grade point averages. It is too late to ameliorate the frustration, but grades could be revised, if the principal were to decide such action was appropriate. But there are costs associated with this remedy. If Ms. McDonald chooses to override Mrs. Milner's grades, the effect is that Mrs. Milner's judgment and competence are called into question before her students, colleagues, and the community. This result might be viewed as a latent function brought about by the pursuit of the manifest function of seeking equity for the students. The portrayal of this teacher as tough, capricious, and self-serving might even be incorrect. These terms are consistent with what Clabaugh might call "an appeal to hatred" by parents advocating for their children. It is entirely possible that she is an inexperienced, overzealous teacher whose ability to discriminate between authentic assessment and superficial judgment may need some refinement. That both the principal and teacher are in difficult positions seems inevitable, given the lack of supervision and direction provided to this young teacher. Since Mrs. Milner's side of the case is not presented, it is impossible to evaluate the situation with great confidence.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that Mrs. Milner has been described accurately. Perhaps Ms. McDonald has even discussed this controversy with Mrs. Milner, in hopes that grades could be renegotiated, but the attempt has failed. The principle of equal respect would require her to support the teacher as a free and rational moral agent whose choices must be respected. However, this principle could also be applied to the students who are of equal value and ought not be denied equal educational opportunity. Chipego points out "given the effects of grades on students, one must ask if it is fair that because of a different grading style rather than on actual student performance, some students taking the same course with supposedly the same intended outcomes will get an A while others get a C? The question of equal treatment comes into play here. Standards for equal students should be equally applied." (p. 3). Strike also speaks to equal treatment for those who are equal in relevant respects. Further, the principle of benefit maximization would favor the students, because if actions are to be judged by their consequences (an attribute of benefit maximization), then the greatest good for the most people, at present, is served by overriding the existing grades. Of course, a precedent would be set if the parents are successful in appealing the grades. The principal would have to be careful to give the teacher the opportunity to "save face". The principles of equal respect and benefit maximization are helpful in this analysis, because there are costs at stake, in terms of reputations, fair treatment of students, and empowerment of the local community. Taking all of these issues into account, in the author's view, revising the grades would be the appropriate action for the principal to take.
One's perspective on schooling has an implicit role in viewing the controversy developed through "A Problem of Grades". The students and parents in this case adopt a functionalist view of schools. "The functionalist generally sees schools as serving to socialize students to adapt to the economic, political, and social institutions of that society." (Feinberg and Soltis, p. 6). When they apply grades to equal educational opportunity and they seek redress for unfair treatment, the parents and students are using the institutions of society to meet the goals of those same institutions. The teacher and principal appear to see the situation as an interpretivist might. "The interpretivist sees the social world as a world made up of purposeful actors who acquire, share, and interpret a set of meanings, rules, and norms that make social interaction possible." (p. 7).
These perceptions of schooling have meaning beyond the case presented. The relationship of school to the community has always been functional. Society expects certain outcomes of students, which the schools are supposedly designed to meet. Students certainly have an expectation of what rights and privileges they should be entitled to upon completion of a degree or course of study. Historically, even when such expectations have not been met, the expectations continue. On the other hand, the relationships that occur within the school are more interpretive. Attention to the affective side of education and change in assessment of learning both offer evidence for the shift to an interpretivist view of schooling. The teacher, in this model, facilitates meaningful learning. Students learn what constitutes engagement, what is allowed, what is expected, and how to be recognized as a participant.
Is a satisfactory grade satisfactory? The answer to that question, it would seem, depends on how the grade is constructed. It would depend on whether the grade is a meaningful tool to promote learning. It would depend on whether the constituents could reach a consensus on the meaning and value of the grade. It would depend on the reader's view of what constitutes satisfactory.
Chipego, Andrea. 2000. Critique of Is a Satisfactory Grade Satisfactory?
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