Absolute Grading

Absolute grading is the only form of assigning grades which is compatible with mastery or near-mastery teaching and learning strategies. The instructor must be able to describe learner behaviors expected at the end of instruction so that grading components can be determined and measures can be built to evaluate performance. Objectives of instruction are provided for students to guide their learning, and achievement measures (tests, papers, and projects) are designed from the sets of objectives.

Each time achievement is measured, the score is compared with some criterion or standard set by the instructor. Students who do not meet the minimum criterion level study further, rewrite their paper, or make changes in their project to prepare to be evaluated again. This process continues until the student meets the minimum standards established by the instructor. The standards are an important key to the success of this grading method. The following example illustrates how the procedures can be implemented step- by-step:

  1. Assume that a test has been built using the objectives from two units of instruction. Read each test item and decide if a student with minimum mastery could answer it correctly. For short answer or essay items, decide how much of the ideal answer the student must supply to demonstrate minimum mastery. Make subjective decisions, in part, on the basis of whether or not the item measures important prerequisites for subsequent units in the course or subsequent courses in the students' programs of study.
  2. The sum of the points from the above step represents the minimum score for mastery. Next, decide what grade the criterion score should be associated with. (Assume for our purposes that the criterion represents the C-B cutoff.)
  3. Reexamine items which students are not necessarily expected to answer correctly to show minimum mastery. Decide how many of these items "A" students should answer correctly. Such students would exhibit exceptionally good preparation for later instruction. (This step could be done concurrently with Step 1.)
  4. Add the totals from Steps 1 and 3 to find the criterion score for the B-A grade cutoff.
  5. Each criterion score set in the above fashion should be adjusted downward by 2-4 points. This adjustment takes measurement error into account. It compensates for the fact that as test constructors, we may write a few ambiguous or highly difficult items which a well-prepared student might miss due to our own inadequacies.
  6. After the exam has been scored, assign "A," "B," and "C or less" grades using the criterion scores. Students who earn "C or less" should be given a different but equivalent form of the test within two weeks. A criterion score must be set for this test as described in Step 1. Students who score above the criterion can earn a "B" at most. Those who fail to meet the criterion on the second testing might be examined orally by the instructor for subsequent checks on their mastery.
  7. Weight the grades from the separate exams, papers, presentations, and projects according to the percentages established at the outset of the course. Average the weighted grades (using numerical equivalents, e.g., A = 5, B = 4, etc.) to determine the course grade. Borderline cases can be reexamined using additional achievement data from the course.