What's In a Letter Grade?

AplusGreat, you got an A! Now what the hell does that mean?Assuming you don’t want to abolish grading entirely, if you’re going to be focused on learning you need to determine what exactly you want your grades to reflect. Hopefully by now you’ve Audited Your Gradebook and you know you want it to reflect learning and nothing else. That’s great, but it’s not the whole story.

Teachers can essentially make their grades say whatever they want and they don’t really have to do any fancy number crunching to do it.

Letter Grades Represent a Student’s Place Relative to Peers

Blech. Please don’t do this. This is the old-school model of the “Bell Curve” whereby the majority of students receive a “C” because that means “Average”. A’s are reserved for the top whatever percent of the class, regardless of how much they actually know about a topic. In this system, letter grades serve as classifications to determine how students rank amongst their peers.

Seriously this model sucks. Don’t give us that crap about that was the original purpose of letter grades when they were developed in the Ivy League 200 years ago. That may be true, but times have changed back then. For starters, slavery is illegal, most people don’t work on family farms and we’re not just talking about societies academic elite. There might be something too all this nonsense at the University level, but even Stanford Law School and others have adopted a model of Standards Referenced Grading. Leave this over-competitive nonsense in the past and recognize that the purpose of schools is to help all kids succeed, not determine who’s most likely to.

Letter Grades Represent the Quantity of Knowledge Shown

Still blech. If you give a test with 100 problems on it (What the hell is wrong with you?) and a student gets 88 of them correct, you assign a grade of 88% which in most school’s equates to a B+. Traditionally, the percentage represents the number of questions correct, or the amount of knowledge learned. This seems like a great model if you want your students to do a lot of really basic problems, but what do they do with the more difficult ones?

Letter Grades Represent A Combination of Quantity and Depth of Knowledge

Less blech than before but still slightly blech. This is actually what the vast majority of teachers use, whether they realize it or not. Suppose you give an easy test that a student receives 90/100 points on. Then, you give a hard test that a student receives 50/100 points on. Add them together and your student has a 140/200 or a 70%, usually a C-.

But what does that C- actually mean? Does it mean the student struggles with hard questions but not with easy questions? Not necessarily, they could have gotten a 70 on both tests and received the same grade, or gotten a 90% on the hard test and fallen asleep at the wheel on the easy one. This “C-“ could mean a variety of things, and nobody knows. Hell even the teacher would need some time to figure out what exactly that C- represented.

Suppose you give a test in which the hard questions are worth more points than the easy ones (again, as many teachers do). If there are still a variety of ways to get to “C,” “B,” or “A” then what does the grade really mean? It’s a combination of quality and quantity, a combination that can’t be deciphered. Now combine those test grades with classwork grades, homework grades and other tests and you get a summative grade at the end of the term. You could have “A” students with huge holes in their understanding and “C” students who know more than the teacher but are too “lazy” to do their work. What do these letter grades actually represent? Good luck figuring that out.

Letter Grades Represent Depth of Knowledge

Problematic, but definitely not blech. This speaks to Kathie Nunley’s Layered Curriculum model in which students receive a “C” for doing the most basic Depth of Knowledge functions like rote memorization and basic recall. As students think more in-depth, such as comparing and contrasting or analyzing they can earn a “B”. Students who demonstrate the ability to think critically, critique and develop new ideas can earn an “A”. Grading in a way that reflects Depth of Knowledge makes sense.

Like the others, the problem with this model arises again when you try and average things together. Suppose on one unit a student worked at the highest Depth of Knowledge imaginable, work so inspiring Benjamin Bloom himself would stand and applaud. Then, suppose the following unit the student just wasn’t getting it. For the sake of argument let’s say they worked hard, but struggled to understand. What grade does the student then deserve at the end of the term? More importantly, does the cumulative grade at the end serve any purpose? Or do we just need to help this student with the material he struggled to understand in depth?

So are composite grades at the end of a term completely useless? Not necessarily.

Perhaps there is some benefit to being able to say at the end of a term “On average, little Johnny performed at a [x] level.” Maybe this is beneficial to future teachers, maybe it’s not depending on the school. Some districts will use it to make decisions about retention or promotion and parents sometimes appreciate this sort of data as well.

What’s far more beneficial however is to adopt a system of Standards Referenced Grades, where students are assessed relative to how well they understand a specific standard. Those grades are recorded specifically, so that teacher and student can look at them and see what objectives the student still needs work on. Rather than averaging them together at the end of the term, teachers, parents and administrators can then look at percentage of objectives passed, rather than the average score on an objective. This provides a much more detailed, more accurate measure of student achievement than does a composite average of scores – each of which was likely obtained differently using different criteria.

How do these “percentage of objectives passed” translate into letters? In short, they don’t. So you have decide for yourself whether there is an appropriate manner of doing this. Many Standards Referenced schools “dual-report” using a letter grade system as well, whereas others don’t bother, leading to some confusion or dissention within the community. Ultimately it’s all up to the teacher to decide what’s in a letter grade...and to be focused on learning, one must take that decision seriously. 

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The Poor Man's Excuse for Standards Based Grading

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