Grades: What Do They Even Mean?

We have all been in classes where all you had to be was a warm body and you received an A.  Contrast that with the other class that we all have taken— the class that you needed to make a metaphysical shift in order to barely squeak by with a B.  We likely agree that the latter grade is the more valuable of the two. However, that’s not how it shows up on paper.  From the perspective of an outsider, the latter is the lesser grade.

Image courtesy of chrisroll at
Image courtesy of chrisroll at

Within the same school, two classes with the same title more than likely have grading systems at work that value and report very different things.  For instance, one teacher might assess group work as a part of a grade while another might only include quizzes, tests and homework in theirs.  Still another may factor in growth.  With all of these differing factors at play, how can we continue to rely on letter grade scale alone?  Think about how these differences show up in your own school.  If difference in grades and grading systems is so varied within the same institution, what happens when we look beyond and make comparison between grades across the same city, or state, or even across the country?

With all these competing factors and variances at play, we must ask ourselves the question: What do grades even mean?  This is the question that my teaching team set out to answer at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.  One of our first meetings had us all at a table, thinking about how grades fit into our educational vision.  As you might imagine, the questions that arose were not easy ones to answer.  Grades are often filled with a certain level of mystery.  We perceive ourselves to be talking about the same system when the letter grades of which we speak couldn’t be more varied in application.  Couple that with the dilution of grades, and you have a system that is quite clouded.  If we can’t agree on what a letter grade even stands for, how are we supposed to accurately report by using the letter grade system?  After all, perception is reality.

What shows up as a part of the grades in our classroom?  We decided that one of the most important shifts that we could make as a team was to be clear about what went into our grades in the first place.  This may seem rather simplistic, but simplicity speaks volumes.  By sending a clear message of the system in use, we open the door to more meaningful conversation with both students and all other stakeholders.

Clarifying the Grading Scale

A (90-100%) = Excelling at current expectations of course

B (80-89%) = Achieving current expectations of course

C (70-79%) = Mediocre/average with current expectations

D (60-69%) = Below current expectations of course

Incomplete = Work is not complete or gradable

The team started by identifying what each of the letter grades reports.  Although we may assume that people are  aware of the grading system, it is important that we skip the assumption and allow every stakeholder to be operating from the same basis.  By giving clarity to what the letter grade means, we stand to have more informed and therefore more constructive conversations.  There are many places in education where assumptions are made that in turn end up diminishing the needs of one group— generally those who are not a part of the dominant culture.  It is not only important, but necessary to level the playing field by making clear our expectations and the systems that we operate under.

Note: You can see that our grading system does not include the traditional F.  It is replaced by an incomplete.  It stands as a subtle shift to the grading system.  It communicates a simple, yet powerful message: there is no such thing as failing.  Students are given multiple attempts at revision and extended time to retake test and finish work.  This specific topic requires more detail and will be explained further in future posts.

Creating Meaningful Comments

We agreed on creating comments that made clear what was being assessed within each of the classes.  Here is an example of a comment that appeared on a student report card:

Part 1

The Math Grade for Quarter 2 is a reflection of the student’s ability to:  1.) use communication, collaboration, and problem solving skills to complete the Unit 1 Geocaching project with accuracy 2.) master plotting points on a number line and coordinate grid, finding distance on a coordinate grid and finding area on a coordinate grid 3.) master unit conversions 4.) master finding area and perimeter of rectangles, triangles, parallelograms and trapezoids 5.) master multiplication with decimals 6.) active participation in their education and accountability for their materials.  

Part 1 is founded in the reality that we need to be clear about what is being communicated by the grade that is appearing on the report card.  We need to take the mystery out of the grading process by stating what is being assessed and therefore valued in each classroom space.

At the end of each quarter, a statement is prepared in each of the content classes.  The statement appears next to the letter grade that the learner has received.  With the varying models of assessment within our own team, the statements all appear differently but use a common format to communicate the information to stakeholders.

Part 2

Tori consistently shows her commitment to her own education and has a strong desire to achieve at a high level.  She has shown great improvement in confidence.  

In order to improve, she can become more familiar with Schoology as a resource while using sites like Khan Academy, Buzz Math.

Part 2 stands in favor of the belief that grades should be a way to both communicate information and allow it be a part of the growth process.  We want the conversation and growth to continue well beyond the day that report cards are sent home. There are two things that are addressed on every report card that is sent home.  The first is a statement of what the student does well.  Every student that enters our classrooms has a unique set of a talents.  It is important to acknowledge and applaud the strengths that they exhibit in our space as well as the growth that they have made.  The second piece is a statement of areas of improvement.  The statements vary with each of our students and holds true to the belief that we must honor our students individuality.

Final Thoughts

Many in the educational community have identified the need for some sort of change in how student achievement is reported.  Some even go as far as advocating for doing away with the letter grade system altogether— a change that I would argue would take more than a leap of faith.  Are grades really the best reporting system to show achievement?  We might identify the answer to this question as ‘no’, but also recognize the difficulty in changing a nation-wide reporting system without taking smaller steps along the way.  By being clear about what our grades mean in the first place, we can take the first step in changing what many know as an ineffective system.  What have you done to clarify the assessment process?

Follow me on Twitter:


2 thoughts on “Grades: What Do They Even Mean?

  1. I like the idea of defining what each letter grade represents. Curious about the comments. Did the staff generate a list that was imported to grade book system? Also, what happens if at the end of the term the ‘I’ wasn’t made up? How long does it stand before there is a grade entered?


  2. Thanks for this. I sadly moved away from allowing general multiple times for assessment as I found with double the student load I simply could not keep up. It also created some concerns from colleagues. I’m curious as to what is your average student load? Also interested in what happens with I’s not made up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s