Letter Grades Deserve an 'F'

The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

Nir Elias / Reuters

Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students' peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.

Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?

At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

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.