TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #11:
Grading for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Grading is the most widely used way to evaluate students’ academic progress. Teachers in inclusive classrooms must carefully consider the grading process to provide fair and equitable grades for the range of students in their classrooms. The basis for grading is often dictated by school or district policies and can vary by school level (i.e., elementary, middle, high school). Grading can be based on rubrics, a point system, a completion checklist, or a combination of these. Teachers often calculate grades by determining the earned points out of the total possible points or by assigning weights to assignments based on the length or complexity of the assignment (Brooksher, 2017). The purpose of this TIPS is to share grading considerations and potential adaptations for grading to provide fair and accurate grades for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms. Links to additional TIPS in the grading series are provided at the end.

Grades are recorded and reported in a variety of formats. Electronic formats, learning management systems, or school information systems may be used for reporting grades. Understanding how to navigate the grading process for students with significant cognitive disabilities can be complex. A foundation of a strong grading system is to identify the purpose of the grade in a fair and equitable grading system (i.e., what is the intended meaning of the grade). Establishing what a grade “means” for a student leads to increased student, parent, and teacher satisfaction in an inclusive classroom (Munk & Bursuck, 2004). Grading requires a collaborative process to determine both what is being graded and how it is being graded.


Research has been conducted on grading practices for the majority of students in classrooms (McMillan, 2001; McMillan et al., 2002), but research is lacking on grading practices for students with disabilities, especially for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Jung, 2009; Jung & Guskey, 2010) in inclusive settings. In a survey of teachers working in K-12 inclusive classrooms (Kurth et al., 2012) results showed (a) general and special education teachers use different practices and have different preferences for grading students with low-incidence disabilities; (b) general and special educators reported differences in their level of comfort and training for grading, with special educators feeling more prepared to grade these students; (c) elementary teachers were more likely to accept modified work than secondary teachers; and (d) secondary teachers reported using modifications to instruction less frequently than elementary school teachers.

Two Types of Grading

Common Grading System

A common grading system involves teachers assigning letter grades to students based on percentage of points earned toward accuracy on an assignment. Grades are typically reported as A, B, C, D, or F. In this grading system, a student cannot pass a course with a grade of F, or failing. Work habits such as participation, effort, and attendance may factor into the points system and account for a portion of the total letter grade.

Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading involves teachers grading students based on specific academic learning standards and assigning a grade based on student mastery on the standards (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Grades often are reported as 4 (advanced), 3 (proficient), 2 (basic), and (1) below basic. A rubric is used to describe the performance at each level. Behaviors such as responsibility, work habits, and attentiveness are rated separately. Standards-based grading is recommended for use at all grade levels and with students with disabilities (O’Connor, 2009).


Implementing a fair and equitable grading system for students with significant cognitive disabilities in an inclusive classroom should be based on both quality considerations and the focus of the learning criteria.

Four Quality Considerations for Grading

The William & Mary Training & Technical Assistance Center (2015) outlined four quality considerations for grading within the inclusive classroom. These included (a) grades are accurate, (b) grades are meaningful, (c) grades are consistent, and (d) grades are supportive of learning. The authors suggest that these conditions must be in place for all students in inclusive classrooms. For more information about the four quality grading considerations see: Inclusive Grading and Progress-Monitoring Practices PDF

Three Types of Learning Criteria

Effective grading focuses on establishing clear standards for how learning is measured across three main categories. High-quality grading and reporting for all students consider how graded items fit into three types of learning criteria: product, process, and progress (Jung & Guskey, 2010). Teachers should report grades in each learning criteria category separately to eliminate the possibility of having one grade reflect a combination of the types of evidence (Jung & Guskey, 2010). Having information aggregated by each category can help inform intervention decisions (Jung & Guskey, 2007).

Table 1. Product, Process, or Progress




Based on students’ cumulative demonstration of learning

Final reports, projects, or portfolios


Based on students’ effort, class behavior, or work habits

Quizzes, homework, class participation, or punctuality of assignments


Based on how much students gain from learning experiences

Pre-test vs. post-test, or improvement over time with similar assignments

Adaptations for Grading

The practice of making grading adaptations is not a new practice, but within an inclusive classroom, teachers must ask, “what does the grade mean?” Teachers must use a systematic approach when making decisions on how to adapt grading for students. Research suggests that grading adaptations may be a solution for students with disabilities who have a history of low or inaccurate grades, and could result in improvement in mastering general education standards (Silva et al., 2005). Grading adaptations require teachers to use informed judgment in a systematic way to address students’ individual strengths and needs. Silva et al. (2005) identify five types of grading adaptations that involve basing all or part of a student’s grade on the following criteria: (a) progress on IEP objectives, (b) improvement over past performances, (c) performance on prioritized content and assignments, (d) use of process and effort to complete work, and (e) modified weights and scales.

Table 2 lists possible adaptations to grading and cautions for their use provided by Silva et al. (2005). To these, added here are suggestions for how to implement the adaptations in academics for students with significant cognitive disabilities. 

Table 2. Adaptations to Grading with Academic Examples



Academic Examples

Progress on IEP Objectives

For use when a student is making progress on an IEP goal that relates to the context of content assignments in a general education classroom.

  • IEP objectives used for grading must be relevant to the objectives being taught in the general education classroom
  • To the maximum extent possible, instruction in IEP objectives should be implemented within the general curriculum

If a student’s IEP objective states, “The student will put historical events in a sequence on a timeline with 85% accuracy,” then the student’s correct placement of events on a timeline of 85% accuracy might result in the student receiving an A as a test grade.

Improvement over past performance

For use when a student has shown progress since the initial assessments but is still not reaching high levels of mastery with the skill.

  • Criteria on which a student’s improvement is based should be gradually increased
  • Students should not become too dependent on special incentives to try their best on assignments

If a student raises his or her math fact scores for addition problems from 60% to 75%, the teacher could add the 15% that would allow the student to raise his or her grade from a 1 to a 2 in the grading system.

Prioritization of educational content and assignments

For use when a student requires more time in the acquisition of content than pacing in the general education classroom allows.

  • Prioritization should be based on learning standards, course objectives, or another rationale
  • Prioritization should reflect appropriately high expectations for the student’s learning

If the team decides to prioritize one of two science units being covered during the reporting period, then the student will spend more time and receive more support on the assignments in the most important unit and the assignments will count more toward the total science grade.

A balanced grading system: Processes

For use to give credit to a student when they are able to apply a new learning strategy or process.

  • Focusing heavily on process can lead to low-quality products

A portion of a student’s grade can come from using editing strategies, such as revising sentences to add a capital letter at the beginning and punctuation at the end each sentence.

A balanced grading system: Effort

For use when a student benefits from external motivation to complete academic work.

  • Focusing heavily on process can lead to low-quality products
  • A portion of a student’s grade on a classwork assignment can come from effort on homework by measuring on the number of attempted problems on a homework assignment.

Modified weights and scales

For use when students utilize supports to complete assignments or participate in the general education classroom independently.

  • Grades can become inaccurate if modified too much
  • Weights should be shifted to classroom assignments that reflect student learning, and not to assignments that are easier

Grades could have heavier weight on participation in a science lab when a student is able to independently complete lab steps and manipulate materials than the completed copy and pasted lab notebook work from teacher made materials.

Note: Columns 1 and 2 are from Silva et al. (2005)

Adaptations to grading are possible regardless of which learning criteria are used as measurement: product, process, or progress. For example, if a student with a significant cognitive disability has an IEP goal of, “Given new vocabulary terms, the student will use those terms in context correctly 8 out of 10 words over three consecutive units”, IEP objectives can be measured within a product (i.e., completed portfolio for a science unit on life cycles), in a process over time (i.e., homework and quizzes on life cycles), or progress (i.e., a comparison of pre-test and post-test scores on life cycle standards).

Process for Adapting Grading

Table 3 is an adapted version of Munk and Bursuck’s (2004) outline for implementing grading adaptations for students with disabilities. The original steps have been adapted to be used with a students’ collaborative team to plan for effective grading for students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive settings. The process starts with a meeting between the general education teacher and special education teacher, prior to meeting with parents. Next, the team will implement the plan and review its effectiveness. Table 3 includes an example of the team using some of the adaptations from Table 2.

Table 3. Grading Adaptation Implementation Process



Example for a Student with a Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Elementary Science Class

Step 1

General education teacher and special education teacher meet to clarify purpose of classroom grades (i.e., what does the grade mean?)

Is it reflection of accuracy of content? Work effort? Progress toward standard? All of those things? Is the purpose different for students with disabilities?

The teachers discuss that the purpose of grading in the inclusive science class is to reflect both accuracy of content, work effort, and progress toward standards.

Step 2

Clarify parent and student purposes for grades (i.e., what type of information parents and students want to know from grades?)

The parents share that they would prefer to see grades that reflect their child’s progress toward prioritized standards and effort. They communicated that they would like communication about these grades in separate grade reports throughout each science unit.

Step 3

Come to a mutual agreement for the purpose of grades for this student

The team (including the general and special educator and the parents of the student) came to a mutual agreement to measure the student’s progress on prioritized standards, with separate grades for effort.

Step 4

Examine student learning characteristics (i.e. achievement, impact of disability, areas of strength, limitations) and inclusive classroom demands

The student has a significant cognitive disability which indicates he has a need for intensive instruction to learn new information and skills. He benefits when content is presented with visual supports and in short teaching segments. The student also communicates using an AAC device. The classroom demands include navigating science labs, following written directions, and physically handling objects. The student has limited use of fine motor skills and dexterity, and requires assistance from peers or adults to complete most fine motor tasks.

Step 5

Review current grading system and determine whether a grade could be more meaningful if a grading adaptation was implemented

The team decides grading adaptations are necessary for this student. The student’s grade would not include accuracy of work, but progress toward the prioritized standard (not all taught standards).  

Step 6

Select an adaptation that meets the mutual agreement for the grading purpose and addresses the grading problem previously identified

An example of using a balanced grading system for processes would be the team deciding that for the upcoming unit, the student shows an essential understanding of the science standard for life cycles and engages in using a checklist of steps for each science lab. A separate grade will be provided for the student’s work habits during the unit. The team decides to give all students a checklist of steps for the science lab and a portion of the student’s grade could come could from the effective use of the checklist.

An example of prioritization would be the team deciding that in order for the student to work toward the essential understanding of the standard, the student will complete labs in the classroom that include vocabulary which will count more towards the student’s grade than video homework.

Step 7

Document the adaptation in the individualized education program (IEP) and begin implementation

The team ensures the IEP reflects the adaptations used for grading as listed accommodations.

Step 8

Document the adaptation in the individualized education program (IEP) and begin implementation

The team meets within each science unit to reflect on the use of the chosen adaptations, and whether the grades are accurate, meaningful, consistent, and supportive of learning (William & Mary Training & Technical Assistance Center, 2015).

(Adapted from Munk & Bursuck, 2004)


Grades for all students should be meaningful and informative for teachers, students, and parents. Research evidence supports the use of standards-based grading for students with disabilities (Jung & Guskey, 2007; Muñoz & Guskey, 2015; O’Connor, 2009). When teachers are grading students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms, a multifaceted approach is needed. Teachers must first determine what the purpose of grading is and then decide what adaptations may be needed for making the grade meaningful for the student. R


  • Brooksher, K. S. (2017). A practical orientation to grading. GATEways, 27, 10–14.

  • Jung, L. A. (2009). The challenges of grading and reporting in special education: An inclusive grading model. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.), Practical solutions to serious problems in standards-based grading (pp. 27–40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

  • Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2007). Standards-based grading and reporting; A model for special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40, 48–52.

  • Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2010). Grading exceptional learners. Educational Leadership, 67, 31–35.

  • Kurth, J. A., Gross, M., Lovinger, S., & Catalano, T. (2012). Grading of students with significant disabilities in inclusive settings: Teacher perspectives. Journal of the International Association of Special Education, 13, 39–55.

  • McMillan, J. H. (2001). Secondary teachers’ classroom assessment and grading practices. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 20–32.

  • McMillan, J. H., Myran, S., & Workman D. (2002). Elementary teachers’ classroom assessment and grading practices. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 203–213.

  • Munk, D. D., & Bursuck, W. D. (2004). Personalized grading plans: A systematic approach to making the grades of included students more accurate and meaningful. Focus on Exceptional Children, 36(9), 1.

  • Muñoz, M. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2015). Standards-based grading and reporting will improve education. Phi Delta Kappan, 96, 64–68.

  • O’Conner, K. (2006). How to grade for learning K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

  • Silva, M., Munk, D. D., & Bursuck, W. D. (2002). Grading adaptations for students with disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 412(2), 87–98.

  • Tomlinson, C., & McTighe, J. (2003). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASC.

  • William & Mary Training & Technical Assistance Center . (2015). Inclusive grading and progress-monitoring practices. Retrieved from

TIPS Series: Tip #11, August 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. N., Wakeman, S., & Thurlow, M. (2020). Grading for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Classrooms (TIPS Series: Tip #11). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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