What’s in a grade?

Is there anything more important to your students’ academic futures than their grades? A student’s GPA will determine their eligibility for advanced coursework, honors programs, college acceptance, scholarships, and awards. The score a student receives in your class can offer opportunities, or mean summer school. Grades are the thing that all students are judged by in their academic lives and that means they can be very important.

Now, I ask you, have you ever had a meeting at your school where staff comes to some agreement on what grades stand for? A conversation, maybe about the meaning of a grade? The philosophy behind what it means if a child has a 95% in your class, or a 72% , or a 55%….

No? Not on the agenda for professional development? Haven’t had that conversation as a staff? Has your administration shared their philosophy on grades?

Seems like an oversight, doesn’t it?

It seems to me that a school can’t come together and support students properly if they’re not having this conversation.

Now I’m not saying that every teacher has to have the SAME definition of what a grade represents. I’m not saying that administration should be able to dictate their philosophy to teachers. And I am definitely against anyone putting pressure on teachers to give certain grades. What I am talking about here is just a discussion about the philosophy of what a grade represents.

If a student has a 95% in a class what do we think that means? What does the student think that means? What do their parents think that means? Does it mean they have mastered 95% of the content taught thus far? Does it mean they can expect to score in the 95th percentile on the state test? Does a 95% indicate compliance? Or competence? Is there any room in that grade to account for how hard the student tries? Or is it based on the mastery as demonstrated on assessments?

Consider a student who has a 60% in a class. Does that mean they know 60% of what has been taught this year? Does it mean they don’t hand in work 45% of the time, and the rest of the time they’re getting 75s? Or does it mean they do every assignment, but always score 60’s? Does it mean they aren’t compliant? Does it mean they work slowly so the work isn’t finished?

I once had an administrator tell me that my report card grades should track to state test scores. She explained that if I had 20 students in the 90 – 100 range, then she expected those same 20 students to score at the highest level of the state test. And if 10 students were failing my class, she expected those 10 students to fail the state test. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that then, and I’m still not sure.

During the pandemic, some school systems put a hold on failing grades, or offered endless opportunities for students to make up work. Students could do nothing for the entire year, then make up a few assignments and earn a 65%. Does that 65% represent the amount of content that student mastered? I would say no. So, what does it represent?

An administrator I do professional development for has recently eliminated zeroes. What does that mean? For the student who never does homework but scores well on tests, I guess that helps to ensure that their class score represents the amount of content they have mastered. It takes the compliance grade out of the equation for that child. They are no longer being marked down for not doing the homework that it doesn’t seem they need to do, because they are doing well on assessments.

Consider that colleges have had to start offering “bridge” classes to get students ready for college level courses. Many colleges offer “College Algebra” or courses to prepare students to write a 5-paragraph essay. Surely when those colleges accepted their students they were passing the majority of their classes or they wouldn’t have had the GPA necessary to apply. Is it then consistent that a student who has passed their high school courses needs to retake algebra or learn how to write an essay? Again, does this indicate inconsistency with the grades students are getting, and what we think those grades mean?

I don’t pretend to know these answers, and I realize I am throwing a lot of questions out there. I do know, however, that a conversation about the philosophy of grading and grades would help to close some of these gaps.

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