Students earn letter grades in school. In each course, teachers award these grades to reflect… well, what, exactly?
Each semester, most parents receive a report card — an assessment of their children’s school performance, usually in the form of letter grades, A through F. Good grades might qualify a student to participate in selective activities or advanced classes. Bad grades can close doors. Some report cards include comments from teachers, but grades often simply stand on their own. Further stripped of context, they are summarized in a transcript, a simple list of courses taken and grades awarded.
Many teachers loathe the grading process. It’s time consuming, for one thing. It requires them to make small distinctions that can feel arbitrary. The consequences of grades can be significant for students, and teachers are humans. It can be hard to set aside sympathy or biases, and grading systems can be mathematically unforgiving. Meanwhile, while some kids are motivated by grades, others aren’t. When students work for the sake of a grade it can actually undermine deeper motivation and get in the way of real learning.
So how should students be graded? Experienced educators have come to different conclusions for thoughtful reasons. This post will take a position on it, but in fine Ed100 form, let’s start by breaking the question down.
A grade is meant to convey the quality of a student’s work, relative to some expectation or basis of comparison. Grades enforce the meaning of high-quality work from the perspective of the person issuing the grade.
Educators use grades as part of their strategy to motivate students to work and learn. The connection between grading and motivation is complex, though, and frequently overestimated. Yes, many students will jump through certain hoops to earn credit, or to avoid losing credit. But they learn more when motivated by authentic interest, or by esteem for their teacher.
Grades are sometimes described as a form of feedback from an educator to a student. This is an impoverished view of the meaning of feedback. There is plenty of research that students respond to grades differently — and more usefully — if they include even a small amount of constructive communication. Some teachers feel that their students learn more from good feedback than from grades. Others view this as an excuse.
Schools use course grades in academic placement, the process of assigning students to classes. This approach interprets grades as an indicator of subject-matter mastery or competence. For example, a student who has earned high marks in pre-algebra might be expected to be ready for algebra. High school grades are the primary factor that California’s colleges use to make admission decisions.
From middle school onward, most teachers evaluate student work using letter grades that denote a range of performance.
Why no E?
Not all schools use letter grades, especially in early grades, but letter grades are very common. The use of letter grades roughly as we know them dates back to about 1897, based on a system established at Mount Holyoke college in Massachusetts. Originally, grades were ranked A-E, but in the 1930’s use of the letter E fell out of favor, allegedly because F conveys “failure” more effectively than E, which in other systems was an abbreviation for “excellent.”
Conventionally, letter grades apply only to academic work. In elementary grades, some schools also use a form of grades to assess and succinctly communicate interpersonal skills and social-emotional development.
Because virtually all high schools use letter grades, it’s awkward for a school to do otherwise. For example, California high school students who want to attend a public college in the state must pass a specific set of courses with a grade of C or better.
Would it be possible for a school with a different design to work around this requirement? Probably, but standards are hard to disrupt. The QWERTY keyboard layout is the standard because it is the standard, not because it is the best option for today’s typists. Americans remain cursed with inches and ounces, even though almost literally the rest of the world has adopted metric measurements.
But I digress…
In a pass-fail class, traditional letter grades (A, B, C, etc.) are replaced with a binary grading system, usually known as pass/fail or more accurately Credit or No Credit.
Pass/Fail works… but there’s a downside
Some colleges (notably, Brown University, since 1969) allow students to take courses on a credit / no credit basis. The theory behind this approach is that students will be more apt to explore courses that authentically interest them if they aren’t concerned that doing so could put their grade point average (GPA) at risk. There is evidence that this approach is effective at getting students to try courses that intimidate them, but it has a downside: students that take courses pass/fail tend to do only the minimum work required to not fail.
California school districts rarely permit this kind of grading in high schools because colleges and other programs are inconsistent. Some might accept these courses as credit-worthy, others might not. During the Pandemic, legislation established a possible precedent by temporarily permitting pass-fail courses.
Letter grades do not have a universally accepted meaning. Grades are awarded by teachers at their discretion, mostly based on policies of their own choosing. Students tend to learn that some teachers are easy graders and others aren't. Sometimes teachers align their grading practices, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. School boards and teachers unions have a shared interest in supporting teachers’ authority to grade students. Grades are generally final once awarded, and except to correct clerical errors cannot be altered except through the action of a school board.
What's a rubric?
In practice, most teachers award course grades on the basis of student work across a series of assignments and tests, assigning each a different value or weight. Teachers often provide students with a rubric (a scoring guide) that helps provide clear expectations and information about how significant an assignment will be in determining their grade.
For convenience and communication, many teachers choose to grade their assignments and tests mathematically using a 100-point scale, but this is a convention, not a rule. In a 100-point scale, scores of 90 and above might be considered an A, 80 and above a B and so on. Some teachers and schools extend this convention using plus and minus indicators to provide additional differentiation. For example, a frequently used convention associates a score of 80-83 points with a grade of B- and a score of 87-89 points with a grade of B+. Again, this is a convention, not a commandment.
For high school classes that are part of the college-preparatory sequence known as the a-g requirements, letter grades have an externally-defined meaning. Students must pass these courses with a grade of C or better to qualify for admission to California’s public universities. Colleges encourage high schools to enforce the rigor of their courses occasionally through an accreditation process.
When a student misses a test or fails to turn in a homework assignment, the penalty can be devastating — potentially far worse than if the student delivered terrible work..
This outsized penalty is generally an unintended artifact of how teachers record and calculate grades. If a teacher uses a simple spreadsheet and grades using points, it’s easy to associate an empty cell with a value of zero, which is significantly worse than the lowest value for a failing grade.
Not turning in assignments can be a sign of ADHD
Some teachers argue that this penalty is intentional — a spur to help ensure that students turn in work or make up for missed exams. Others counter that the penalty is excessive, and it is frequently a better indicator of the student’s personal organization aptitude and practices (also known as executive function) than of their mastery of course content. Not turning in assignments can be a sign of ADHD, or an indication of issues at home.
Teachers can soften the penalty of missed assignments in various ways. Many accept late work, for example, or allow work to be redone for credit. In a practice sometimes called equity-based grading, some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, set a value, such as a C or 60%, as the default grade for a missed assignment or test. Some teachers even make most assignments gradeless, or require that work be done in class rather than after class.
The most pure rebellion against picky assignment-based grading is to chuck it entirely. Some teachers are doing that in an approach focused on mastery, but let’s get back to that in a moment.
Grading on a curve means that students are evaluated based on how their work compares with others. In this approach, students who do the best work receive top grades, Those who do the worst receive low grades, and those in between receive intermediate grades, sometimes according to a normal distribution or bell curve.
This approach is a describable basis for grading, but neither students nor teachers tend to like it. It pits students against one another and can drive focus on scores at the expense of learning. Teachers sometimes resort to grading on a curve when they are teaching something for the first time and have no existing basis for understanding what students might be capable of doing. If assessments or assignments are easy for students, grading on a curve will fail because the range of grades will be indistinguishable. If they are relatively hard, the curve can distinguish differences in performance, but students will likely feel that the questions are unreasonable, or beyond the expected scope of the course. Students who are anxious about their grades will avoid courses that are graded on a curve.
A Grade Point Average (GPA) is a number used to describe a student's overall academic performance. Colleges consider GPA an important factor in selecting students for admission.
Courses can be of different credit value in the GPA calculation. Classically, each course grade is multiplied by its credit value, then the sum of these products is divided by the total credits attempted. Courses taken on a pass-fail basis are generally excluded when calculating GPA. Classically, a student who earns straight As will have a GPA of 4.0, not counting any adjustments or weights.
UCLA average applicant GPA: over 4.2
A weighted GPA modifies the Grade Point Average (GPA) calculation to take into account the difficulty or rigor of courses. For example, many colleges add a point or two for Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), honors, or accelerated courses that they favor. A student with straight As can have a weighted GPA higher than 4.0. For example, the average weighted GPA of students admitted to UCLA is about 4.24.
Average class grades have risen over time, even as standardized test scores have remained steady or fallen. This phenomenon, known as grade inflation, suggests that grading standards have generally become more lenient.
Course grades are awarded by teachers relative to their individual expectations for students. The absence of a consistent meaning in course grades is one motivating factor for the use of independent measures such as ACT or SAT scores.
A mastery-based education system (also known as a competency-based system) works very differently from traditional grading. Relatively few schools have attempted it, so implementations vary significantly.
A familiar example of competency-based advancement is Boy Scouts, which pioneered the approach of awarding badges for everything from knot-tying to public service. Many video games are competency-based, too — they permit you to advance to the next level only when you have mastered the current one.
Scouting badges and Donkey Kong
In the current education system, expectations about skills and knowledge are bundled into grade-level standards. Students tend to advance from one level to the next automatically, regardless of whether they have mastered the underlying standards. In a purely competency-based system, levels are smaller and more specific — more like badges than diplomas. Advancement is not automatic, or at least less automatic. Each skill is presented as its own challenge rather than being lumped into a larger course.
Perhaps the best-known academic badging system is Khan Academy, which enables students to learn and master specific academic skills at their own pace, either independently or with the support of educators. Another important example is the XQ Superschool project, which breaks monolithic academic subjects into specific learning units, each of which offers students ways to demonstrate their competency at different levels.
It is increasingly clear that academic knowledge and skills aren’t the only competencies that count in life. In work, employers value capacities and character qualities that students might be more apt to gain through extracurricular activities and life experiences than through class work.
The most important barriers to competency-based education are rooted in human capacity. It is already challenging to run an over-filled classroom, even with all the students — theoretically — learning the same thing in the same way. A tech-powered system that expects students to advance at their own pace? It could be an invitation to chaos, right?
It could be chaos. And yet…
On the other hand… it’s not as if the education system we have today is anywhere near perfect. Thoughtful experimentation will be vital to finding better ways of preparing kids for their uncertain future. School leaders should keep an eye on Khan Academy, XQ, ChatGPT and the horizon with an open mind. As A.I. becomes part of each teacher’s toolkit for supporting students, there is certainly reason for hope. Maybe virtual tutors will help students learn in new, creative ways, freeing teachers to focus on coaching, motivating, and intervening.
Innovation will be easiest in school communities where households consistently have good connectivity and good devices, so policymakers should remain vigilant about spotting and addressing digital divides. They should also avoid writing policies that make it hard for schools to innovate, for example by measuring in terms of credit-hours and Carnegie units rather than in terms of outcomes.
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