Letter Grades Deserve an 'F'

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn't stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn't believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.

The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.

Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

Teaching and learning with an eye toward mastery of a defined list of competencies circumvents many of the pitfalls that points-based grading causes. If mastery of a specific concept or skill is the stated goal for everyone, students are free to be more creative in their thinking. They are encouraged to challenge themselves in pursuit of that mastery. And they maintain a focus on the process of learning rather than the destination of a grade. Finally, if mastery is understood to be the goal of education, students have little incentive to cheat.

While a shift to standards-based grading from the traditional, points-based system sounds daunting, now is the perfect time to make the transition. Currently, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a ready-made, comprehensive list of standards for math and English, a list of skills that could be used to communicate what a particular student has learned in a given marking period. For example, if John is in 8th grade, the Common Core math standard requires that he “know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions.” If John understands, and can apply this skill, his teacher will be able to communicate his proficiency simply and clearly to him, his parents, and other schools.

Standards-based grading establishes one high standard—mastery—for all students. Students who move often, such as kids in poverty, the military, or the foster care system, benefit the most from a standards-based system of evaluation because it would quickly and clearly communicate their competence in a given subject based on a common set of standards. As standards are not dependent on geography, socio-economics, or ethnicity, all students subject to that standard are held to the same expectations for mastery, and eventually, graduation.

Presented by

Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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