The way teachers grade students has remained relatively the same since the early 20th century.

And while giving out letters based on percentages has worked for some students, it may have been harmful to others who had disadvantages or trouble navigating the system, according to Shawn McNeil, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for professional learning.

Last week, McNeil presented the district administration’s plan to overhaul how grading is done in the city schools so that it minimizes harm and more effectively communicates student learning.

“When we think about the work of creating systems of support for our students, and when we think about the importance of removing certain barriers, we have to think [about] how to communicate better,” McNeil said. “How are we going to provide our students and families with more accurate information about where they are in their learning progression? How are we going to provide this more meaningful information that’s not full of a lot of bias, that is more easy to understand?”

According to McNeil, teachers largely grade students the same why they themselves were graded in schools. However, the method used to implement that system can vary from teacher to teacher even in the same school building.

While grades are based on exams, compositions, projects and other work, they sometimes also include behaviors such as effort, punctuality, work habits and neatness. The different evidence teachers use to grade students can lead to inconsistencies in grading and allows space for bias to occur, McNeil said.

“Traditional grading practices are not bias-resistant,” McNeil said. “Grades should be based on valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge, and not based on evidence that’s likely to be corrupted by a teacher’s implicit bias or something that reflects a student’s environment.”

McNeil also said traditional grading is not mathematically sound.

For example, he said, grading on a 0-100 scale — where 0-59 represents failure and 60-100 represents passing — leans disproportionately toward failure. And averaging scores over time may lead to a faulty conclusion while determining a student’s grade.

“Do we want to continue to hurt the student by holding it against them what they started out with at the start of the quarter?” McNeil said. “Or do we want to create systems that encourage students to have a growth mindset, and understand that early failure does not mean that you are confined to that failure?”

The district does not yet have a timeline for implementing the changes but intends to form a coalition that includes district administration, principals, teachers, support staff, parents, students, board members and other stakeholders who are invested in and understand the need for changes, McNeil said.

Superintendent Wayne Walters called the plan “process work” that involves shaping belief systems, which oftentimes cannot be calculated in days or weeks.

“We will work on a proposed timeline,” Walters said, “but we wanted to bring the information to the board so that it could get a sense of our thinking, our processes to begin to further address inequities in our system.”

School board President Sala Udin said he was glad to hear about the work being done by district administration but suggested the coalition being formed address the entire way education is done in public schools — not just grading and reporting.

Udin recounted a story about famed local playwright August Wilson, who, while in school, was a shy and reticent student and rarely raised his hand. But whenever a teacher called on Wilson, he knew the correct answer.

One day, though, after a teacher accused Wilson of plagiarism for a paper that he had worked on for a considerable amount of time, Wilson dropped out of school.

“Think about that,” Udin said. “Think about what we did to that student and what we’re doing to thousands of other students.”

“We do need that coalition, but it has to be a larger coalition than just reporting and grading.”

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at