Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

In Hot Pursuit of the Wrong Question

I received a question from a school that was contemplating a change in its grading scale from 60 percent to 70 percent in order for students to earn a passing grade. The school asked for my opinion on how such a change might impact learning. Here is my response:

I got your question about raising the grading scale for passing from 60 percent to 70 percent and its potential impact on student achievement. Before considering that change, the faculty should first consider a number of more important questions.

  1. Is each teacher clear on exactly what students must know and be able to do as a result of the course they are teaching, as well as each unit of the course?
  2. If two or more teachers are teaching the same course, have they established a guaranteed and viable curriculum in which they have agreed on the essential learnings and the pacing of each unit? Is one teacher devoting weeks to a skill that a colleague devotes days to?
  3. Have the teachers been able to translate the essential curriculum into student-friendly, "I can" language?
  4. If two or more teachers are teaching the same course, have they created common assessments?
  5. Is there consistency on the rigor of assessments within and across departments?
  6. Is there consistency on the standards students must achieve on an assessment in order to be deemed proficient?
  7. If an assessment is focused on more that one skill or concept and a student meets the standard on three of four skills, will you average the grades for each skill and deem the student proficient or will you site the fact he or she is not yet proficient on the one skill? What is the grade in this instance?
  8. Have teachers agreed on the criteria they will use in judging the quality of student work (such as speeches, essays, labs, and projects)?
  9. Is there evidence that teachers apply the agreed-upon criteria consistently?
  10. Have teachers agreed on the purpose of grading? What is it intended to do? Who benefits?
  11. What does a grade represent? Is it the achievement of an agreed-upon, clearly defined standard?
    • Is it how a student compares with other students?
    • Is improvement taken into account? If a student struggles at the beginning of the semester but demonstrates by the end of the semester that he or she is highly proficient, will the lower grades be averaged into the final grade? If so, does the grade represent an accurate reflection of the student’s achievement of a standard?
    • Is effort taken into account? If a student tries really hard but is unable to demonstrate proficiency, what will the grade be?
    • Is participation taken into account? What if an eager student cannot demonstrate proficiency but a lethargic one can?
    • Are behavior, promptness, and compliance taken into account? What if a student routinely fails to turn in homework but demonstrates high proficiency on each assessment?
  12. Will all teachers agree on such matters as:
    • Will students be allowed or required to retake a test?
    • Will students be allowed or required to keep working on an assignment until it is satisfactory?
    • How much will homework be factored into the final grade?
    • How much will quizzes, unit tests, and final exams be factored into the final grade?
    • If a student fails to turn in work on time, do we have a standard practice? If we simply give students a zero and don’t allow them to turn in work after it was due, won’t some students happily take the zero rather than do the work? How does allowing this irresponsible behavior encourage students to act responsibly?
  13. What is a failing grade? If you move a passing grade to 70 and a student gets a zero on an assignment, you are not giving him an F, you are giving him the equivalent of six Fs. You can’t have a grading scale with 10-point intervals between A and B, B and C, and a 69-point interval between passing and failing if your grading is to be statistically valid!

In short, your school is asking the wrong question, perhaps because it is much easier to address than the ones I have listed. Until you address the questions I have listed, changing your grading scale will probably have very little impact on student learning.


Staff at

We contend the student who did not meet the proficiency target should be required to receive extra time and support for learning, according to your school's system of intervention, to address the skill(s)/concept(s) not initially mastered. Once the person providing that intervention feels the student has learned the essential skills/concepts, then the student would be given another opportunity to demonstrate their learning. In other words, that student would take “Form B” of the common formative assessment. If other students did meet the target but want to improve upon their score/grade, those students should also be required to receive interventions/put in extra time for learning and would then be given the opportunity to take Form B of the common assessment. The new score/grade would replace the initial score for any student who earned the right to take Form B.

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At the school I currently work for just switched their grading system. Before, like most schools, homework grades and class assignments were included in final grades, but this does not truly show how much the students actually retained. The final grades are based strictly on assessments. These tests are made in each grade level and shows the true mastery of the subject at hand. When teams come together to answer the questions listed, things run smoother and there is less confusion when everyone is on the same boat. Each week in our PLC meetings, any concerns we have regarding the tests or any lessons are discussed so that we are all back on the same page. I think that the concept is great because it does show how much the students know and not how much they can turn in class assignments and homework, which they might have received help from parents at home. Teachers are held accountable everyday, I like that with this grading system, students are now being held accountable for more than turning homework in on time.

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We are currently discussing a similar situation. Although it took some time, and we still have concerns, we came to the conclusion that we are only counting the "final" assessment in which are expecting students to demonstrate mastery. All prior assessments (some will be common, some not) will be used as data points to monitor progress.

The issue, of course, is whether you allow all students to retake a test, whether they showed mastery or not. Unfortunately it's not something we've come to agreement on yet.

As Rick points out, the school/grade level/department has to decide what the purpose of the grade is. In the past, we included HW and all assessments averaged in to our grades. This bolstered the grades of hardworking students (irrelevant of their performance level), but didn't necessarily accurately reflect how much the student had learned. We were rewarding effort and perserverance, but not necessarily increasing how much students learned.

We are still concerned with the impact this change will have because students will have less assessments that actually count towards their report card grade, so we will have to see.

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Thank you for a great post! I have a question that is both easy and difficult to answer and I would like to hear your take. We have been working hard as a PLC and asking students to rework, retake and resubmit. This has been a great thing, but we are running into some problems in practice. The biggest question we are confronting is when is a retake necessary, how is a retake graded, and how many retakes should a student be given to reach the standard.

One example that stands out is that a teacher has the standard of 80% to be proficient. Student A scores a 65% and Student B scores at 85%. Student A is REQUIRED to take a retake as he did not meet the standard. He scores a 94% on the retake and, taking the most recent evidence of learning, has a 94% in the gradebook for the test. What is your advice, then, on how to grade these two students. We could offer the retake to the 85% student and all students to retake the test until they meet what their standard is, or we could simply say to the student that he has met the standard and doesn't need to retest. I think we are headed to standards based grading and report cards, but we could use some help.

Other schools must be having these issues. What are they doing to handle this issue?

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A great list of questions to help guide this essential conversations (ones which I've found are very involved and not solved in a staff meeting). A subsequent question following these which determine the grade could be "What supports and interventions do we have in place when a student receives a failing grade? If the new standard has been raised, do we have a collective response when students fail to meet that standard (or are in danger of not meeting that standard)? As always, really appreciate the supports you give schools and educators Rick!

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