Why Grade?


Okay, let me ease the minds of many readers who feel a grade is a form of feedback. Yes, teachers need to give feedback on ALL assignments that is timely and specific. I for one don’t believe a letter grade (or number if that is what you use) is feedback at all. It is little more than a type of categorical ranking for a piece of work or period of time. It may be timely but is not specific at ALL. Why do schools chose to assign letter grades to work? What does the A, B, C, D, F (or now often an E) mean?

Our culture is obsessed with these grades. Grades are found everywhere, from Consumer Reports and stock ratings to ESPN and fashion magazines. Here is a quick rundown of the common understanding of letter grades:

  • A = The best can’t be better (unless +,- system used)
  • B = meeting the standards 
  • C = Average but okay
  • D = Below Average but passing
  • F/E = Failing do work or not acceptable work

So, if letter grades are used as feedback, are they specific? NO not very specific and actually quit vague by most standards. These grades might be okay for a stock rating or to judge a person’s attire for an evening but that is about it. Consumer Reports uses a great model for grading. The magazine gives a letter grade, but backs the grade up with a paragraph or two of justification. Giving specific reasons why a product receives a certain marking. I would bet that the grades came after giving reviews for awhile and readers wanted a “quick” guide to how a product compared to another. As educators or parents should we care how our student stacks up to another?

I hope not. Education is not about where a student ranks, it is about getting a student to be the best they can be. Grades hurt this growth in our students. Students need the kind of constructive feedback that Consumer Reports gives products that it is reviewing. Details about strengths and weaknesses. Remarks about how they can improve on their work. Does a student gain a desire to improve when earning an A?

Students often see the letter grade as a destination. Asking “what do I need to do to get an A?” Is this what we want in our students today? Reaching an end goal and stopping? Schools need to instill the value of improving work. Everything can be improved. I am still becoming a better teaching now, after 13 years on the job. Letter grades inhibit this growth in our students. In the many conversations I have with students, they often reflect that they are doing well enough when their grades are B and above. Many refer to this behavior as “doing” school. Are we creating learners? or something else?

Parents can actually be worse about grades. Parents will call and ask how their child can receive an A. Not worrying about the quality or the work or learning behaviors. Parents will often use these letters to compare their child to others. Should we be making comparisons? I personally would leave that up to selective colleges or employers.

This leads us to one of the major arguments for grades: those darn colleges require them. Should they? I don’t think so. Colleges should have an application process that has performance tasks. Admittance to college should not depend on arbitrary letters a collection of teachers gave a student over 4 years. Admittance should be based upon what a student can or cannot do! Colleges are currently complaining about grade inflation and student needs for remedial classes. So obviously our current K-12 grading system is not working for college admittance. Another example of where letter grades fail the students has been shared with me from high school AP teachers. Regularly they will have a student who “fails” their class but receives a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP exam. This means the student would receive college credit for the class but not high school credit.

Our culture thinks grades are great for education. Schools need to change this perception. Grades are great for the momentary comparison, for products or ranking a draft. Remember it is momentary if not,Tony Mandarich, Charles Rodgers or any other first round draft pick bust would be in the hall of fame.

Feedback is important for learning. Students need to know what they do well and what needs improvement. One way of doing this is to switch to a Standards Based Grading System. Nationally recognized author Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli) has been working hard to explain to the world why our current grading system is not working. Below is Rick explaining why the current system doesn’t work. 

Help change grading from a ranking of students to feedback that would work to get the best out of our students. Make a system that helps students grow and become life long learns. Not striving for a letter on a piece of paper but to do their best!

5 thoughts on “Why Grade?

  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking essay about grades in schools! You raised some great talking-points. It’s a branch of the conversation that teachers, parents, and students need to have on an ongoing basis about the nature of teaching and learning.

    I agree wholeheartedly that feedback has to be specific and designed to assist the person who is on its receiving end. And, to be sure, very few effective teachers put a letter or number on top of most assignments without that accompanying paragraph (either written or oral) of specific feedback.

    I disagree with your ranking system, and here’s why:

    A in no way means “the best can’t be better” according to any teachers with whom I have worked.

    Here is the common thinking about what standard letter grades mean to teachers and students. A = outstanding. Because we are human, there is always room for improvement, but this is very high quality work. B = better than average. C = average. D = meets the minimum standard, i.e. passing. F = does not meet the minimum standard.

    Grades don’t have to hurt students. The real question, for me remains, what is done with the grades students have earned? To a student who asks, “What do I have to do to get an A?” an appropriate response–the type given by an effective teacher–would start out by saying something like, “You are asking me what you have to do to produce outstanding work that is well above average. Well, here are some suggestions…”

    Some parents certainly use letter grades to rank or compare children. The fact that some people do this does not a) make it widespread and b) mean we have to throw out grades.

    Many educators would like to avoid using grades in schools, but since this is not likely to happen any time soon, as teachers, we can improve on that oral and written feedback that explicates the grades earned and awarded.

    The real educational issue with assessment is not “grade inflation” but the fact that schools are still assessing students on a “fill them up with facts and procedures” model (SAT, AP, quarterlies, benchmarking, and various ESEA and RTTT testing all push this model despite evidence that it’s not effective.) Students now “learn for a test.” That is, when students study, they deliberately utilize short term memory only, as they do not believe that permanently knowing facts or procedures is necessary, useful, or in any way beneficial. Once the test is over, students deliberately put out of their mind what they crammed into short term memory just for a test. Students believe, rightly or wrongly, that they will access all information they need for every eventuality their life immediately at the moment they need it. Sort of like the McDonald’s drive through.

  2. I might have missed it. But it reads very well in terms of NOT giving any grades at all – BUT you never suggest that… Great piece otherwise. The new book, “Hacking Assessment” by Starr Sackstein, has a lot of great suggestions that can be implemented or adapted for any classrooms. She and others write about ‘Teachers Throwing Out Grades’ or TTOG on Facebook (#TTOG on Twitter) as well. And I just read that Goucher College doesn’t admit based upon grades.

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