by Adela Solís, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1995

Dr. Adela SolisGrading and report cards are the tools by which school districts have traditionally communicated the results of student evaluation to parents, students and other interested parties. Several national surveys by the Educational Research Service in the 1970s and 1980s indicate that virtually all school districts in the country use report cards to report achievement (Robinson and Carver, 1989). In the 1980s, grades, typically letter grades, were the most widely used marks used to express teachers’ judgement of achievement.

An ongoing question among educators of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students is whether or not this system of grading is appropriate for evaluating LEP students. Many educators feel strongly that the system is not consistent with the structure and content of bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL) programs. Others feel that since LEP students are subject to the same accountability as other students, they should be assessed through the same procedures.

Grading policies of states and school districts, by and large, do not address the issue of how grading should apply to special student populations, such as LEP students (From the Classroom, 1991). The most that some school districts have done is to state in their policy handbooks that school campuses may develop their own procedures for assessing LEP students (San Antonio ISD, 1994).

Although they need guidance, educators of LEP students do have some idea of what is needed. They want to adapt required grading so that the marks LEP students receive actually represent what they know and can do within the curricular program that serves them. Teachers also have indicated a need for a system that can provide a view of LEP student achievement within the mainstream program that shows growth relative to native English speaker achievement, as this level of achievement is a target that schools have set for LEP students as they push them toward state standards.

Some Current Efforts

The Evaluation Assistance Center (EAC) East at the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has provided information and assistance to several states that have begun to conceptualize grading alternatives for LEP students. Several groups have brainstormed suggestions meant to provide some immediate solution to the problem. However, they agree that more in-depth and strategic thought is needed to make assessment practices more relevant and responsive to LEP students. There is also agreement that strong policy is need to support practices. Education agencies in the southeastern states of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida began work in 1990 through the Georgetown University Evaluation Assistance Center East (Mississippi Department of Education, 1991). Based on specific concerns, they generated possible and actual grading options (see box below) that are serving as the springboard for other ideas.

In 1994 and 1995, with the help of the EAC East at IDRA, one state in the original group drafted procedures for secondary ESL students based on their specific concerns and the ideas that surfaced in 1990 (Mississippi State Department of Education, 1994). What was developed can serve as a model for other states (see box).

Strengthening Current Efforts

These grading options are viable adaptations to the traditional system. However, to be more effective, these options need to be formalized. Districts can do at least three things to accomplish this. First, districts should revise current policies (or develop new ones) that embrace assessment procedures relevant to this special population of students and that delineates specific grading procedures. School districts with precise and well-documented grading policies have a solid foundation on which to build (Robinson and Carver, 1989). It is important to underscore this point because many school systems do not seem to have specific policies. Also, there are districts that seem to think that one student evaluation system suffices for both mainstream and special populations.

Second, where there is appropriate policy, teachers’ implementation of grading procedures should be uniform and faithful to policy.

Third, districts should align grading to the principles guiding the instruction of LEP in their specific schools.

Revising or Developing New Policy

The lack of responsive practice in many schools may be the result of no clear policy for grading LEP students. What is needed, then, is well thought out and articulated policy to formally guide change in grading procedures. The literature on grading dating back to the 1950s reveals plenty of expert thinking about grading in the mainstream classroom that can be revisited (for example, Bolmeier, 1951). One of the main recommendations contained in the literature is that the grading system should coincide well with the educational program (Robinson and Carver, 1989).

D.R. Walling describes characteristics of effective report cards generally found in the literature as follows (1975):

  • The report card should show the basis for evaluation. This includes goals, objectives, skills and all other criteria, such as deportment, effort, promptness and attitudes that were measured to obtain the evaluation of the student.
  • The report card should show the student’s performance – performance in terms of the ability and some absolute degree of quality. The report card should be direct and clearly stated.
  • The report card should provide options for teacher and class differences, including space for written comments when needed.

Other sources also describe an ideal grading system as one that does the following (Robinson and Carver, 1984):

  • Communicates all the important information about pupils’ achievement and behavior;
  • Ensures that the meaning of the symbols used and the basis for assigning such symbols is clearly understood by both parents and students; and
  • Ensures that all teachers teaching at the same education level in a school or district have the same marking philosophy.

These guidelines are intended to increase the meaning of grades in general, but they are sufficiently flexible to employ in grading the LEP student. Furthermore, they remind us that grades need to be closely aligned with the program of instruction and that the assignment of grades must be as objective as possible.

Fidelity in the Implementation of Grading Policy

Having a policy on grading that embraces LEP student needs is important because policies, by definition, express philosophy and expected action that applies uniformly to all schools. The existence of policy can eliminate isolated efforts and can create coherent and widespread action to benefit all students.

Of course, the benefit of having policy is only hypothetical. Its implementation can be assured, however, if there are accompanying sanctions attached and, most importantly, if there is specific guidance made available for schools to follow. Written specifications, such as in the form of a policy handbook, can enhance fidelity even more. Fidelity is particularly important when good sound policies are in place, as this heightens the opportunity of LEP students to be assessed fairly.

Aligning Grades to LEP Student Instruction

While it is true that mainstream and LEP students have to meet the same state curricular requirements, the curricula and instructional approaches are not exactly the same. Also, the time expectations for meeting goals are different. These variations have implications for grading.

Consider these specific characteristics of ESL and bilingual education instruction. While LEP students must learn the same things mainstream students do, their instruction has added components.

For example, there is an oral language development component. Oral skills are pre-requisite building blocks to their literacy development and, thus, should be part of grading. The instruction of LEP students is paced to students’ needs and there is more modeling, expansion and repetition. In this context, the learning of concepts and skills is slower, and quantitatively less of them are mastered in one grading period. Grading should take this adaptation into consideration.

ESL methods, such as sheltered English, focus on teaching learning strategies to make content better understood. It is believed that the degree of content learning success is related to the mastery of learning strategies, thus assessment of learning strategies needs to occur and be assigned some mark. Content learning also may occur in the student’s primary language. In this case, assessment must occur in this language and the assigning of grades relevant to this learning has to convey the use of another language.

In programs for LEP students, the affective aspect of learning is given special attention. Particularly, instructional strategies are used that develop a positive self concept. Student self-concept, then, would need to be rated and graded.

Finally, the integration of culture in the classroom is central in bilingual and ESL programs. Here, students learn through culturally relevant materials. They also study U.S. culture and develop a deeper awareness of their own culture and how it influences their education. Because academic success is dependent on these understandings, these too would need to be rated and graded.

The system we use to indicate achievement in our schools must reflect the realities of the LEP program. Grades summarize the teacher’s ultimate judgement of what the LE student has accomplished, i.e., what he or she knows and can do. This judgement should be based on the curricula and methods to which they have been exposed.

Effects of Current Grading System

There have been many heated discussion throughout the years about the relevancy and appropriateness of grades and grading, not just within special programs but within the mainstream as well. Despite the rhetoric, we find ourselves in the 1990s still facing widespread required use of grades. The persistence of grades, as with other educational practices, may be a result of educators’ and the community’s difficulty in letting go of the past, and thus doing things simply because of a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” attitude. History alone, though, cannot continue to dictate what we do in schools because, alongside the tradition of grades, exists a long list of serious problems with the practice and negative effects on LEP and other minority students. The literature on promotion and retention of language minority students, to which IDRA has contributed significantly, documents some of the effects of poor grades, failing grades, lack of grades. Dr. Alicia Sosa, in calling for advocacy in testing and grade retention, identifies these adverse student effects: no advancement in English and content skills; low motivation; in-grade retention (there seems to be a disproportionate number of minority, LEP students being retained); disproportionate numbers of over-aged students in many classes as a result of retention; and high dropout rates among minority, LEP students, as result of retention (1993).

Dr. José A. Cárdenas documents Texas state regulations permitting school actions based on district grading systems that have been outright unfair (1985a; 1985b). There are disproportionate numbers of LEP students who have been categorized as “poor performers” based on grades. Also, the regulations in no way checked for the soundness of grading procedures or for the soundness (quality) of the teachers’ instruction.

Conclusion and Need for Input

Despite the documented irrelevance and negative effects of grades, they are still with us. Unfortunately, there is relatively little published material that provides guidance in making the required assignment of grades more equitable to LEP students. IDRA is working to build the knowledge base in this area with the intention to help states in the EAC East region complete their efforts initiated in the past few years.

Our position is that traditional grading practices, if they must exist, should be relevant and sound and be developed to help all LEP students throughout the country. Information will be shared through publications and at conferences by both IDRA and the respective state departments. To expand this particular knowledge base, we, at IDRA, are asking for assistance from our readers. We ask that material, both of practical and scholarly nature be sent to IDRA in care of the Evaluation Assistance Center.

Grading Options in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Programs

Underlying concerns

Strict adherence to a letter grade has been inappropriate for LEP students. It is inconsistent and does not account for what they are learning.

Current grading systems post situations in which students may get all failing grades or all passing grades. All failing grades indicate that perhaps the school is not providing appropriate instruction. All passing grades may not match, and may actually contradict, results of other standardized achievement tests LEP students take. These situations pose both practical and legal problems.


Designate on the report card that the student is not fully proficient in English by writing “ESOL” or by adding an asterisk (*) to the grade. This can be followed by a description of the student’s English language proficiency level.

Assign a grade and follow it with explanatory comments.

Use “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” instead of assigning a letter grade.

Indicate whether the student is “at,” “above” or “below” expectations with regard to learning objectives instead of assigning a letter grade. Follow this with a narrative that explains the rating.

Describe progress in narrative form.

Develop a plan similar to an individualized education plan (IEP) and assign a grade relevant to objectives on that plan.

Issue an “ESOL” grade if the student is enrolled in an ESOL program.

Issue two report cards: one for progress in the BE/ESL program and another for progress in the regular classroom (use in a kindergarten through eighth grade bilingual program).

Grading Options for Secondary ESL Students

Underlying concerns

There is an inconsistency in grade assignments and lack of grading options. At the present time, high school students often do not receive grades or Carnegie units and therefore are unable to meet grade promotion requirements. LEP students’ achievement is frequently not tracked from class to class, school to school, or district to district.


Develop a separate procedure for grading and reporting progress that is consistent with district policy and is appropriate for evaluating student progress in both course content and English language development. Continue to use this procedure until the student has attained intermediate English proficiency as defined in the district’s Informal Language Assessment measure.

Do not give failing grades during the students’ progress from beginning to intermediate language proficiency.

Ensue that grades reflect: (a) knowledge of academic course content, (b) knowledge of English, and (c) progress in achieving proficiency. These are three important indicators of progress. Maintain records (evidence) of these.

Use a dual reporting system in which the regular district report card contains traditional grades and the grades for ESOL program. Additional information can be added to the report card manually, by modifying the computer information, or by inserting the specific ESOL grade information into the report card.


Bolmeier, E.C. “Principles Pertaining to Marking and Reporting Pupil Progress,” School Review 59, (January, 1951), pp. 15-24.

Cárdenas, José A. “Educational Excellence and School Retentions,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1985a, August) pp. 1, 9.

Cárdenas, Jose A. “New State Regulations on Social Promotion,0 IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1985b, September), pp. 1, 11-12.

From the Classroom. “Teachers Seek a Fair and Meaningful Assessment Process to Measure LEP Students’ Progress,” From the Classroom II(1), 1, 3. (Fountain Valley, Calif.: Teacher Designed Learning, 1991).

Mississippi Department of Education. “Grading Policies/Procedures Pertaining to LEP Students” (bulletin), (Jackson, Miss.: Mississippi Department of Education, 1991).

Mississippi Department of Education. “Grading Guidelines for LEP Students” (draft document), (Jackson, Miss.: Mississippi Department of Education, 1994).

Robinson, G.E. and J.M. Carver. “Assessing and Grading Student Achievement,” (Arlington, Va.: Educational Research Service, 1989).

San Antonio ISD. Policies and Procedures Handbook (1994).

Solís, Adela. “ESOL Students and Grades: Developing Sound Grading Practices,” a speech, Mississippi Conference on National Origin Students (Biloxi, Miss., November 1993).

Sosa, Alicia. Thorough and Fair: Creating Routes to Success for Mexican American Students (Charleston, W.Va.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools, 1993).

Walling, D. R. “Designing a Report Card that Communicates,” Educational Leadership (January, 1975), 32, pp. 258-260.

Dr. Adela Solís is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©1995, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1995 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]