Contract Grading: Exploring Alternate Grading Systems

“Contract grading,” a form of grading where a student’s final grade is determined by the number of assignments completed, was first introduced at Andover by Emily Raymundo, Instructor in English, last year. More teachers began to adopt the model as the Committee for grading and assessment and the Tang Institute continually held discussions around formulating competencies to best assess students’ academic performances.

In contract grading, the student’s final grade is determined by the number of assignments completed to a specified standard, with each assignment graded by completion. Prior to the first assignment, students fill out a contract detailing the grade they are aiming for and the steps they will take to obtain said grade. According to Raymundo, she first decided to use contract grading in an effort to implement a more equitable grading system. 

“Traditional, numerical grading is something I’ve always struggled with, particularly when it comes to grading people’s writing. I think there’s so much that determines a person’s capacity to write an analytical essay that has nothing to do with how smart they are, how much they’ve worked, or even how good of a writer they are. It’s just about what they’ve been taught and how much they’ve been able to practice that,” said Raymundo.

Raymundo continued, “I felt if I did traditional grading, I would inevitably end up punishing students who just didn’t have the same experience as others, and that doesn’t feel good to me. Contract grading was a system that I thought could still be a rigorous intellectual experience for those willing to commit the time, but also privileges the amount of effort [being] putting in.”

Kate McQuade, Instructor in English, addressed the misconception that contract grading measures effort at the expense of quality. By using contract grading in her Creative Writing classes, she hoped students would prioritize taking risks and exploring their creative voice, instead of focusing on numerical grades. 

“I use contract grading in my creative writing electives because my main goal there is to help writers take artistic risks. A traditionally graded course can encourage students to play it safe, to write only what they know they can write well. But writers learn the most by trying things they’ve never done before. A contract-graded course can better support artistic experimentation because the grade is determined not by the quality of the final piece, but by following through on the learning experience. It can give students the confidence to amplify what makes their writing voice unique, allowing them to prioritize their own artistic goals rather than a grade,” wrote McQuade in an email to The Phillipian.

According to Raj Mundra, Interim Deputy Head of School and former Dean of Studies, Andover has held discussions around potential grading models and established a committee dedicated to this purpose, with contract grading being one of the grading systems faculty are considering. Mundra hopes discussions around grading methods will be held more often in the following year.

Mundra said, “I believe that there will be an even greater focus next year around grading. We have had a committee on grading and assessment, and we’ve been looking at different models, looking at what other schools do. The Tang Institute has had a lot of discussions around grading with faculty, and faculty are trying different things. But I expect [by] the next school year, we will have much more in-depth, community-wide discussions around grading”. 

Although contract grading is not used in the Math Department, some teachers have been experimenting with different grading approaches. Four instructors in Mathematics, including Heidi Wall, chose to use a “Feedback First” approach in the Precalculus sequence –– Math 320 to Math 340 –– this year, which provides students with feedback prior to the grade. Wall explains that this approach emphasizes student improvement.

“Our goal is to focus on providing our students with a variety of different types of regular feedback all focused on identifying areas of strength and areas of growth. In addition, we have been looking to help remove biases from traditional grading practices and help to provide a more equitable learning experience for our students across sections. We are interested in helping our students to grow and learn from their mistakes and this system has allowed us to help our students to focus on that growth, rather than a singular number grade,” wrote Wall in an email to The Phillipian.

Editor’s Note: The Phillipian requested an interview with Caroline Odden, Dean of Studies, but did not receive a response to the questions asked.