Letters Shouldn’t Make the Grade

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Grading was an issue I wrestled with for over thirty years in my job as a junior high and high school English teacher.  At their root, grades are necessary evils, required to motivate students to do that which they ought, but don’t particularly want, to do.  It would be wonderful if we all possessed an innate general curiosity which led us to seek out that which is noble, truthful, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  But, after a millennium or two of regularly doing exactly the opposite, resorting to selfishness, greed, and sloth in order to satisfy our creature comforts, it’s logical to assume we humans will always have to fight against our baser tendencies.  Young people, contrary to the way they often seem to older folks, are no different in their approach than previous generations.  The current change they especially grapple with, though, is how fast our ever-evolving technology is being integrated into all aspects of their lives—we’ve all been participating in countless sociological experiments as the electrical revolution showers us with device after device, innovation after innovation, which rapidly alter everything, with an emphasis right now on how we communicate with each other.

As you can tell, we could go off on a lengthy general analysis here, but one communication alteration in particular has significantly impacted those aforementioned grades:  Grading programs and on-line postings of student performance for parental consumption have changed the nature of teachers’ evaluating students to the point where the usefulness of the A-B-C-D-F grading scale has been obliterated.  Using a percentage rather than a letter under the current system would better represent a student’s performance in school and be a fairer way of reporting that student’s achievement to colleges and/or future employers.  Schools need to dump letters and use numbers.

I’ve completely lost the battle against grade programs, and will refrain from reprising all the reasons I believe they have hurt public education.  (You could read how more subjective, non-quantifiable student characteristics need to be factored into grades here, or check out a detailed analysis of why grade programs are awful in my eBook, Snowflake Schools.)  Suffice it to say that I don’t like how all student evaluations now come in the form of points so that they can be used with a grade program which reduces student performance to a percentage.  Maybe I’ll summon the energy to tilt at that particular windmill again some day—because I absolutely believe they don’t serve us well—but for the sake of this essay, I’ll concede their pervasiveness means we must adapt to minimize their negative impacts.  So if grade programs and on-line grades are here to stay, in the name of consistency, we should use those percentages on grade reports and transcripts.  You’ll also note that the report card is rapidly fading out of existence as well—everything is on-line, which eliminates the need for any kind of “card.”  (I’m fine with that change since as a big tree hugger I’m good with anything which reduces paper consumption. And to emphasize I’m not asserting any “alternative facts” [i.e. lies] here as well as refraining from sugar-coating reality from myself, I cannot deny how popular grading programs have become with teachers.  But when you combine the ease of computers crunching percentages when fed points with the public posting of each and every assignment result on-line, you really change the nature of the beast, as we will touch upon later.)

To start, those percentages are all the students and parents see up until their conversion to letters at the ends of semesters.  And here’s where the harm of using letters rather than numbers arises:  Any person with the slightest arithmetic knowledge can tell you there’s a greater difference between an 81% student and one who clocks in at 88%, as compared to that 88% student and your 91% ace.  There can’t be much discussion that 7% is a bigger gap than 3%. (I realize with Trump as President, this kind of objective reality could vanish any day now.)  However, on the grade reports issued for those three students, two will have a B, with only that 91% landing the first-prize A.

My contention has always been that the vagueness of the five-letter-grade system in the hands of teachers is a good thing:  Much of what goes into students’ performance has little to do with how they do on assignments where points are assigned.  Again, I’ve sounded this alarm often in the past, but to review the concept: Things like promptness, reliability, effort, quality of classroom participation, courtesy, temperament (mean vs. kind, for example), and source of motivation (the craven nature of some students who have no interest in subject material unless it will be an aspect of their grade is unacceptable and must not be rewarded) should matter when evaluating a student’s progress in class.  But none of those things translate well or readily into points/grade programs and thus are mostly left out of the grades our kids receive now.  So, grade programs have made a big difference in just how the grades our kids earn are tabulated.

Before on-line grade postings took away the more human kind of evaluations, that 88% student might have deserved to rank lower than the 91% student for deficits in some of the above characteristics.  Yep, that would have been the teacher’s judgement based on observations taking place in the classroom over many months.  Uh-huh, those would be subjective evaluations which parents would have to trust were being meted out fairly.  Nope, that wouldn’t always be the case; personalities can conflict which might lead to different reactions in ways far too subtle to be clearly seen as discrimination or conscious bias. (And, by the way, grade programs can’t do much to end this by-product of human interactions.)  But there have been many more cases where teachers used their positions to give students lower grades than they might have earned in points because their performance had been poor in other ways.  Being a “good” person isn’t something that is documented specifically with an objective rubric, but we all know how important it is.  I’m admitting—not to mention advocating and encouraging—that non-scientific stuff can/does/should influence a student’s grade, and there are cases where a teacher should use subjective criteria to help a student see the need for improvement.  I also understand some people would rather have a grade reflect nothing but how a kid scored on tests—which is what grade programs have moved us closer to.  But keep in mind that throughout the history of public education, there have been many, many more instances of students benefitting from a teacher’s subjectivity:  Bumping up a student’s grade because the teacher had observed the stellar quality of that 81% student’s character, work ethic, and effort—even though the “objective” point total for that kid might have topped out at 77%.  So that’s the huge scandal of the pre-grade program/posting era:  Teachers tended to shade grades in ways designed to reward positive non-point behavior or to punish those who demonstrated negative traits which were not included in point totals; that definitely happened more than it happens now.

Instead, we have the harsh reality of points, which leaves little room for a teacher’s opinion on the student’s overall performance.  The only evaluation calculated is a percentage of points assigned on specific assignments, with a significant proportion being determined based on tests and quizzes.  And that’s where the conversion to letter grades really comes up short.  A 79% might qualify as a C+ in most people’s eyes, but in many schools, on the permanent records, the + will be eliminated; that almost B-student will wind up with a C on his transcript and grade point average (GPA).  So, instead of a 79% to be averaged in with other percentages, this student will have a 2 (on a four-point GPA system) instead of a 3.  To illustrate how this can impact that kid’s class rank or college attractiveness, if another of his grades had been 86%, let’s say, the overall average of those two percentages would have been in the solid B range—82.5%.  But, using the cruder letter system, that B coupled with the C, would result in a 2.5 GPA, a middle C (which translates to roughly 75%).   And it doesn’t take mathematical prowess to recognize all the other misleading, bad results this can lead to:  a student who ekes out low B’s in her classes (with an average of 80.5%) is recorded identically to the student with an 88.4% under the letter-to-GPA system—both would have a 3.0 GPA.

So until we de-emphasize grade programs (by at least stopping their on-line posting, which hardens what should be a more nebulous, evolving rating), we should use percentages rather than letter grades on permanent records—transcripts and the like—in order to represent student performance more accurately and fairly.  The wide-spread (and also problematic, in my view) practice of weighted grades (giving grades earned in honors classes an extra point on GPAs, an honors B being figured in as an A or 4 instead of 3, for example, on the GPA average), would also have to be adjusted.  Probably, honor classes’ percentages could be increased by 10% on final averages.  Yes, that would lead to the somewhat absurd outcome of some very academically talented students having a final average above 100%, but that’s already happening regularly with those same students having a GPA of something like 4.35 on a 4-point GPA scale (weighted A’s are worth 5).  I could renew my anti-weighted-grade tirade, but I won’t push my luck any further for now.

To sum it all up, using letter grades in the era of grade programs is unfair to students.  It wouldn’t be hard or costly to shift to percentages over the A-B-C-D-F system most schools currently have; and it would better represent student achievement, at least until we revise the “only points matter” nature of how schools evaluate student performance and allow for teacher judgement of important subjective traits to resume its place as a key ingredient for determining how students are progressing.

For more detailed analysis of how both grade programs and weighted grades are detrimental to public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.

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