Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Oh, Letter Grades...What Shall We Do With You?

The idea of assigning a letter as a means of measuring a student's learning is really kind of crazy if you think about it.

The trouble is, we don't usually think about it. We accept this as a "normal" part of school...because it's such a common practice, it feels normal, right?

But think for a moment about what that letter really represents. Think about report card grades: condensing a whole term's worth of learning into one symbol. Doesn't that strike you as a pretty outrageous reduction?

And that doesn't even touch all the other stuff we cram into a grade besides actual student achievement. Often teachers include things like effort, participation, attendance, and even behavior in this grade. Some teachers mark off for students not putting their names on their papers. Some mark off for students not coming to class with their materials. Some mark off for students turning in their work late.

The problem is, none of these things really have anything to do with what students have achieved.

Learning ought to be the key concern, not the grade in and of itself. But grades are often held over students heads this way. ("If you don't turn your assignment in on time, you'll lose 10% of your grade.")

If grades are intended to really demonstrate what students have learned we need to rethink how we generate a grade. And the first thing we need to do is remove all of this other clutter that skews the meaning of the mark. The grade should only be a representation of students' learning. No effort points. No participation points. Just achievement.

This means teachers need to be clear about what they expect students to learn, and design assessment tasks that actually measure what matters, not just what is easy or convenient.

What do you think? I'm curious how students, parents, and my fellow educators respond!


  1. Interesting. What would you suggest instead of grades?

    1. I think this might become the first in a series. :-) I like portfolios and narratives and standards-based grading...all of which are valid alternatives to traditional letter grades. But there is such wide-spread acceptance of letter grades that it's fighting an uphill battle to change the status quo.

      I have at least two more posts on this topic in mind...

  2. The same can be said for number grades. Teachers lament that the student does not check the feedback that was written on a grade assignment. Research shows that as soon as you put a number or letter on it, the student is finished with it (done learning, assuming they even began). Numbers and letters dont show learning...grading does not give feedback. We need to push to get rid of grading (assigning numbers and letters to assessments) and go to a binary system------ "got it, move on / still working on it"

    1. Fully agree, Paul! Letters, percentages, numbers, etc. all seem lacking in this regard. Standards-based grading seems to help, and this gets at what you describe as a binary system, I think: clear learning targets, clear assessment rubrics, and clear communication with students about what proficient evidence of learning looks like.

  3. I agree that assessing student achievement is, while more difficult and more work, much more beneficial to student learning. I just wonder how we instill the importance of deadlines/individual responsibility, which essentially run life outside of school, without using point/percentage deductions from their work. Thoughts on that?

    1. Hi Matthew,
      Thanks for your response. I know what you mean, and I *do* agree that instilling a sense of personal responsibility, work ethic, initiative, etc. is really, really important. I've come to the point, however, that I don't think that information should be included in a student's grade. I think it all depends on what you are intending the grade to communicate. I think that a grade should communicate the student's level of achievement of learning the content. Grading for completion or grading for turning things in on time (common practices, and ones I have actually used myself in the past) really just make the meaning of the grade muddled--they don't accurately reflect the *learning.* At least, that's my best thinking right now...

      I think it's important to still report on students' work habits though. Certainly not following through on assigned work has an impact on learning! I think we should report such work habits, but I would rather see that in some sort of narrative or a separate mark on the report card than have it rolled into the grade.

      I'm still thinking on this...I'm sure my ideas about grading will continue to evolve. :-)