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Who are grades good for?

May 7, 2010 4 comments

A few things have gotten me thinking about grades again recently. I say “again” because as a college admissions officer I thought about grades a lot – what were good grades, what were bad grades, what grades meant at one school versus another, how grading systems helped kids or hurt them, how people get invested in grading systems – there’s a lot to ponder about grading when you spend 3 months a year immersed in high school transcripts.

What has me thinking about all of this again?  Well, the final session in one of my courses focused on grading philosophy and best practices, and I spent an hour talking about college options for a child in the 50th percentile of his class – who has a 3.7 GPA.  And finally, I read the grading policy for a second grade class in which students are being given A-F grades, and where the teacher assures parents that “only a few particularly capable students will ever earn As.  Most second-graders will probably perform at the C level.”

As I consider all the mixed up ways we deal with grading, I keep circling back to the same two questions: what purpose do grades serve and who are grades for?

For the first question, I think the purpose of grades varies across groups.  For teachers, grades are a relatively easy, defensible, quantitative way of reporting and tracking student performance.  For schools they are an easy record of student achievement that allows failing students to be flagged and all students to be easily sorted into leveled classes.  For parents, grades show at a glance whether a student is doing well in school.  For colleges, grades are a fast way of comparing students across teachers, schools, and states.  I am less sure what the purpose of grades is for students.  Their response to grades is so bound up in the response of their parents, teachers, schools and prospective colleges that it’s hard to sort out what purpose grades would have to them independent of other influences.

Do any of these purposes support the larger educational goal of encouraging students to continually improve their skills and understanding – whether they’re “on grade level,” three grades behind or three grades above?  In traditional grading systems is there any reason for a student to struggle mightily to improve from 40% mastery to 60% mastery of a subject if he’ll still get an F?  Is there any reason for a gifted student to push himself harder on a project if he already has an A?  There might be a reason for students to work harder if we reported narratives of their work and progress rather than summing it all up in a single percentage or letter.  I think this kind of system could work for more students, so why don’t we do it?

Mostly, it takes more time.  Narrative reports take more time for teachers to write and more time for high school schedulers and college admissions officers to read.  They also make it harder to create standardized cut offs for student performance, which would mean high school and college administrators would spend a lot more time trying to make decisions.  Placing students into honors classes using evaluative reports rather than a grade cut-off would mean more debate – both before and after placements were made.  Narrative reports in college admissions would force colleges to consider students’ attitudes, work habits and investment in their learning instead of simply comparing how many As each applicant received or writing a quick deny for the kid who got a C.

In the end, our current approach to grading makes life easier for a lot of adults, but this shouldn’t stop us from debating whether it’s good for kids.  So tell me: What are your experiences with grading, both good and bad?  What would you like to see schools do?

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