Monday, June 6, 2011


About ten years ago I started doing some serious thinking about the grades I was reporting for my students.  Early in my career my grade book was filled with assignments and few of them required great thought; too often they were busy-work.  The real evaluations, assessments and tests made up a small portion of the overall grade.  I reasoned that this allowed kids with a good work ethic but troubles retaining content to still earn a good grade.  The real world rewarded hard workers, after all.  Lots of smart people struggle to hold a job, but those willing to work.  It was however a nightmare for me.  Between grading with any integrity, tracking missing assignments and calculating grades I was exhausted.  I got to wondering….what does a grade mean?  Who looks at it and what do they think it means?  That just kicked off a firestorm of further questions and eventually conversations and possible solutions.

Please indulge me while I rattle off most of these questions.  Consider your answers too:

What do grades in elementary school mean and what message to they send our kids?  When is the right time to transition to the traditional A-F?  Should we even have those?  What do they mean?  According to most school handbooks A is exemplary, B is above average and C is average.  But what does this mean…is the “average” the average kid that age, the average kid in that school or community, the average kid in the class?  Is it measured against some absolute or against the peers, thereby making the grade a de facto competition?  Do these grades represent academic performance, reaching an achievement measure, effort, integrity, mastery of content knowledge and/or skill?  Why does the range for A-D typically cover 10% increments while the F covers from a 0% to a 59.4%?  Is it acceptable to be correct only 61% of the time or know only 61% of the skills and still receive credit for a course?  Should reported grades include evaluations early in a term while students are adjusting to new content, new expectations, a new term and teacher?  Should it be their performance at the end that matters?  If the grade represents skills and content acquired, standards met, should practice and homework assignments be counted in the picture?  Should students lose points for turning in late work or coming to class late if the grade supposedly represents mastery of content and skills?  Should extra credit exist if the grade supposedly represents mastery of content and skills?  If so, what should that extra credit be awarded for – bringing tissues, box tops, attending school events, writing extra essays?  Can a student’s performance really be discerned from a letter?  Is a C in an AP class different than a C in an Honors or regular course? (And for another time, don’t such designations create de facto tracking?)  Is a C in English 10 the same in each school, each district, state?  Who looks at and interprets these grades and do they define the grades the same way the people who assigned the grades do?  Are we all looking at the same apples?  How long do the grades matter?  Can we discern anything about a person at 30 years old based on their high school or even college transcript?

After asking these questions of my own practices I came to the conclusion that the grades were relatively meaningless.  The horror!  If I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say via a grade how could they mean anything?  I had the opportunity to see Ken O’Connor (  at a staff development session, and he really got me thinking.  Ever since, my grades have been streamlined and strictly about academic performance – no busy work, no points off for being late – all tests, essays, presentations – real opportunities for student to show what they know and what they can do.  Not yet perfect by any means, but I can rest much easier when I look at grades.  Mind you, to some degree they are still contrived and I am still not sure what they really mean.  But I am working on it. 

But education is far more than just mastering content and skills, right?  That’s just schooling – and Twain asked not to let it get in the way of our education.  The real world, whatever that is, asks for adults to be hard-working, responsible, thoughtful citizens.  Schools are partially responsible.  When schools and teachers insist that work be turned in on time or that students do not plagiarize, they are following through on that commitment.  But should a students’ integrity, for lack of a better word, get wrapped into a grade that supposedly measures their academic performance? 

I like O’Connor’s suggestion…give two grades.  Make one strictly about academic performance and the other about integrity.  On the academic side cut all the busy-work and practice work grades and evaluate on the finished product only?  Consider it this way… a basketball team has practice all week.  They do drills. They break the game down into small segments.  They shoot foul shots.  They dribble.  Then on Friday they have a game.  Fans, family and the media all show up.  None of them care what happened all week in practice.  All that matters is the performance at game time.  Our students need practice and drills.  They need the “game” broken down into parts.  And they may even need a few games to hit their stride.  Then they might blossom at the end into champions we never saw coming at the beginning – and they should still get invited to the Big Dance based on their strong finish.

Let’s have some serious dialogue about completely rethinking how we grade.  Let’s do this for our students.       

1 comment:

Jay W said...

I worked in corporate instructional design and technical training for a number of years and I have many times taken note of the differences in the methodologies of school versus corporate education. Corporate training is largely competency-based and/or outcome-based rather than schools that by and large seem to focus more rogue memorization of facts and concepts that lend to test scores. Corporate training rarely values scores or grades (unless tied to a certification), rather students demonstrate their capabilities and knowledge through demonstrations, peer-to-peer teaching, application of skills and understanding, and problem solving exercises to achieve a higher level of knowledge and skills, but not to prove them. The bar is still high, but the rating of their educational progress is removed. Corporate education, if anything, have a pass/fail evaluation rather than a grade which allows for the flexibility of more creative course design and evaluation. If primary education schools could apply this same approach, it would allow a student to demonstrate that they are educated, capable and can apply principles of what they have learned but not be compartmentalized into the confines of the grades. Not only can this be just as effective of an evaluation method but it would eliminate students being categorized by their ability to perform on tests (not necessarily on how smart they are) and hopefully no longer have a child's education function as a competitive sport between peers.