Determining a Grade: Using Professional Judgment

On a daily and hourly basis, teachers make professional judgments … making decisions with respect to individual students and groups of students that have profound implications for them.

Growing Success,

When determining a grade, we rely on our professional judgment in hopes of being fair and accurate. But what exactly is “professional” judgment?  Bruce Speck (1998) tells us that it is “… central to grading students’ various performances”, then goes on to highlight a challenge: “professional judgment often seems ‘mysterious’ or unpredictable, not only to the laity but even to professionals themselves.”

In this post, we’ll explore the concept of professional judgment, in the hopes of taking some of the mystery out of it.

Defining Professional Judgment

The term professional judgment is defined as a ‘systematic and purposeful thinking process (Growing Success, 2010).  Let’s deconstruct this phrase:

A process is a series of actions undertaken to achieve a goal. When determining a grade, the goal is to summarize a student’s learning so that information can be used to make decisions going forward.

Systematic’ and ‘purposeful’ suggest that the process involves a plan or procedure that will be applied in each case. Growing Success gives guidance with respect to that procedure by requiring that teachers’ interpretation of the evidence of learning should “reflect the student’s most consistent level of achievement, with special consideration given to more recent evidence.” (p. 39)

But what should inform our professional judgement? 

To make any judgment, we use criteria. Grading judgments should be made based on criteria and standards set out in the content and performance standards (in Ontario, curriculum expectations and the levels of the achievement chart). This sounds simple and straightforward, but it isn’t. Ask any three teachers to grade a complex student performance, and it’s quite possible you will have three different grades! This is why ongoing professional conversations about criteria are absolutely indispensable. The more we talk about the reasons for our grading judgments, the clearer our understanding of the criteria becomes and the more aligned our grading decisions will be.

Professional Judgment: Digging Deeper

Growing Success provides further detail: professional judgment “is informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning.” (p. 152) This definition highlights the fact that grading is NOT an action separate from instruction and assessment, but rather that teaching, learning, assessment (for, as and of learning) and instruction are all part of one continuous cycle of activity, which we have described as the “assessment loop”.

“Knowledge of curriculum expectations” is critical so that teachers and students can share a common understanding of the knowledge and skills to be learned. With that understanding comes clarity about the criteria that will be used as the basis for professional judgment.

“Context” informs professional judgment as well. It’s tempting to think that fairness in grading is rooted in judgments that use a consistent, one-size-fits-all approach. “I treat all students exactly the same, so therefore my judgments are fair.” However, Ruth Sutton (1991) points out,  “It is worth noting, right from the start, that assessment is a human process, conducted by and with human beings, and subject inevitably to the frailties of human judgment. However crisp and objective we might try to make it, and however neatly quantifiable may be our ‘results’, assessment is closer to an art than a science. It is, after all, an exercise in human communication.”

“Evidence of learning” refers to the information documented from conversations, observations and products that is then used to determine learning and growth. The quality of the evidence relies on the quality of the tasks that students are asked to perform to show their understanding. And of course, this connects back to the criteria. If the task doesn’t allow the student to demonstrate the criteria, the evidence of learning will be flawed.

Finally, “methods of instruction and assessment” also impact the quality of professional judgment. Learners who receive instruction and feedback that are directly aligned with the learning goals and success criteria have the best chance of demonstrating what they have learned.

While exploring what professional judgment is, perhaps it is also helpful to say what it isn’t:

Professional judgment is not 

  • your ‘gut feeling’;
  • application of a mathematical process without reflection;
  • a formulaic application of a predetermined sequence of steps without understanding of a student’s context and learning story.

One might think that consistency is an important aspect of professional judgment. Yes and no. Consistency does not mean everyone doing the same thing; it does mean consistently applying professional judgment as described above. Consistency will enhance professional judgment if we consistently:

  • plan for learning together, using the content and performance standards as a foundational starting point;
  • collaboratively examine samples of student work, and discuss the criteria that describe quality;
  • ensure that evidence is gathered from tasks that are carefully aligned with the learning goals and success criteria; and
  • remember that grading is a part of the process of assessment AND instruction.

Speck (1998) summarizes this last idea succinctly: “While grading certainly can be summative, I submit that the term grading also refers to a formative process that includes establishing standards and discussing how to apply those standards. To divorce the grading process from the actual grade is to promote the false concept that the process used to derive a grade is a complete mystery, unable to be investigated. My complaint about such a divorce is that the goal of the process then becomes a grade, rather than improved student performance. Thus, grades often appear to be the ultimate value—to students, professors, administrators, and employers.” 

Teachers’ professional judgments are at the heart of effective assessment, evaluation, and reporting of student achievement.

Growing Success, p. 8

One last thought and a call to action:

As professionals, we have a duty to ensure that we are constantly learning, updating our professional knowledge and skills for the enhancement of student learning, including the process of evaluating and judging learning. One impactful way to do this is to have learning conversations with our colleagues. We acknowledge that the pandemic has added an extra layer (or more!) of challenge to this process. That being said, we know many educators who have continued to focus on understanding the learner, their context AND the criteria that are applied to demonstrations of learning. With the prevalence of online learning, many educators have learned to rely more heavily on evidence gleaned from conversation with learners. Wouldn’t it be great, when we get back to normal (or a new normal?) to sit down and talk with others about what we learned about assessment, instruction and professional judgment?


Speck, B.W. (1998), Unveiling Some of the Mystery of Professional Judgment in Classroom Assessment. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1998: 17-31.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12, 2010. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer.

Sutton, R. (1991). Assessment: A framework for teachers. London: Routledge.


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