So, What’s the Deal With Letter Grades?

Close up of an old-fashioned elementary school report card.

There are a number of things in education that we accept as being the best practice, but rarely question. We continue forward because, on the surface, they appear to be legitimate practices. Or worse, we persist because “that is the way it’s always been done, so why rock the boat?” The 800 pound gorilla of these practices is the traditional “A” through “F”, 100 point grading scale. We accept this system because it is familiar; everyone knows that an “A” is great and a “D” is just getting by, and an “F” is unacceptable. Unfortunately we rarely question how, or why, we got here. Why are there five divisions? Why is the lowest division (F) a larger range than all of the other divisions combined? Or most importantly, what does a grade really mean and is there a better way?

The answers to the first two questions are actually pretty easy. The five-division system is purely arbitrary and is a by-product of the industrial revolution. During the late 1800s both Harvard and Yale experimented with the use of letter grades to classify students, with varying degrees of success. But if you want to send a thank you card to the school that created the grading system we are all so familiar with, you need to address it to Mount Holyoke. In 1897 the university adopted a five-letter system that was tied to a 100-point scale. Students who scored below 75 were considered to have failed the course and received a mark of “E”, not “F”. But  why 75 and not 60, or 65, or 80, or 50?

The practice of “grading” students is a relatively recent development. Prior to this time, students would communicate regularly with their teachers, both through writing and in person, regarding the subjects they were studying. When the teacher, or sometimes a panel of teachers, determined the student had demonstrated mastery of the material the course was considered completed and the student moved on to the next set of studies. There was no grade. But as more and more students entered the education system, especially the public schools, letter grades were adopted as an efficient way to classify large numbers of students; maybe not as effective, but definitely efficient.

So, what does a grade really mean? Researcher and educational author Rick Wormeli (2006) describes it this way, “A grade is supposed to provide an accurate, undiluted indicator of a student’s mastery of learning standards.” He goes on to remind us that grading should serve three purposes; to provide feedback, document student progress, and inform the instructional decisions of the teacher. Sounds simple enough, so let’s put it to the test using a real world example.

Emily is a high school freshman at High-Achiever High School at Anywhere, USA. She just received a 98% on her Modern World History test and is very pleased with herself. Why wouldn’t she be?  She just got an A! She goes home and tells Mom and Dad about her success and Mom asks her what the test was over. “Um……I’m not really sure. There were a bunch of matching questions, some multiple choice and an essay.”

Dad chimes in to ask about the matching, “Give me an example of one of your matching question.”

Emily proudly responds, “Louis Pasteur.  A French chemist.”

“And why was he important enough to study in history class?”

Emily pauses for a few seconds, “I don’t really know. I just memorized the first three words of each definition to match it to the name. ‘Louis Pasteur – A French chemist…’”

Does Emily really understand the material being covered in the class? Did it provide her with feedback on her progress or help the teacher make sound instructional decisions? The answer to both of these questions is no. But how can that be? She got an “A”, and that means she’s doing great. And she is, at earning points, but not when it comes to actually learning the material. We could change the class, the student, the grade level etc… and end up in the same place.

What if Emily earned a “B” on the test, but was allowed to bring in two packages of dry-erase markers and was given 10 extra points? Now she has an “A” again, but doesn’t understand the material any better. What if her best friend had a different teacher who decided the matching questions were worth half as much as the essay question? Same test, same answers, but her friend received a “C” because of the difference in point value.

These are just a few of the problems with the traditional grading system. Believe me, I could go on and on about inter-rater reliability, norm referenced vs. standards referenced, feedback loops, etc… But none of these issues are intentional. They are merely the result of a system that was designed to classify large numbers of students as efficiently as possible. So if you’ve never thought about the traditional grading system, I think you should. Look into the work of Ken O’Connor @kenoc7, Rick Wormeli @rickwormeli2 and @MarzanoResearch. Reflect on some of your own experiences with grades and grading. And when you’re done, ask yourself, “Am I ok with this?”

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