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The Push Back Against Letter Grades: Explained

Letter grades are the norm for almost every public school in the United States, and the grading scale is often similar. 90+ is an A, 80-89 is a B, and so on. Seems good enough, right?

But teachers recently are saying no. Let's take a look at the criticisms of letter based grading systems.

1. Subjectivity

Some teachers 'refuse' to give A's while others rely completely on the accumulation of points. Some teachers curve grades while others only use raw scores.

The Math:

Even when teachers use the same grading scale, point systems between classrooms vary incredibly. One teacher might give 10 points per homework assignment and 100 points for a test: a 1:10 ratio. However, another teacher might give 5 points for a homework assignment and 100 points for a test. That's a 1:20 ratio. This means that even a student in the latter class who completes and turns in all of their homework can still end up with a C if they don't test well.

2. No Universal Application

Even with common core and standardized testing increasing, there is no rulebook for grading! I had AP classes in which my grade was 50% tests and 50% homework. I had other classes with categories for attendance, quizzes, participation, classwork, extra credit, essays, etc. Similar to #1, every teacher and every class requires extra time to adjust to the grading method.

3. What's Wrong With Average?

Averages are useful to us in our daily lives all the time. We wouldn't stress about having average blood pressure, traveling the average speed on a highway, or a baseball player's hitting average. In fact, we rely on regularity by using averages and trusting them. But when a student earns an average grade, typically a C, parents and teachers worry! Some children might even be punished for earning below an A or B at home. In the real world, we don't expect adults to have full mastery of every important skill. It's okay to not have a green thumb or be able to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner. We know plenty of adults who are average drivers, communicators, and even spouses! Furthermore, we know people who live their daily life just fine being below average in some areas! (Who actually goes to the gym every day? Every week? Ever? Just me, okay.)

4. The Limit of an A+

On the other hand, some students have extraordinary abilities in academic areas! Children who can write poetry worthy of a Nobel Prize before they can earn a driver's license, who can calculate multi-digit products accurately in their heads, or who can paint like the greats. But a well-performing biology student and Charles Darwin can both only earn as high as an A+ on paper.

5. Too Simple

Within the realm of 4th grade math, for instance, there are still several topics and standards that differ greatly. One of my students is a long division rockstar, but fractions can really stump her. How can I assess her math ability with a single letter? Imagine assessing a life-long friendship with 1 of 5 letters... it's just too much information to be summarized with a single letter. Even with report cards and progress reports and teacher comment sections, teachers still need parent-teacher conferences annually to precisely communicate the student's performance and behavior.

What do you think about letter grades? Should we change the way we grade? What is a suitable replacement for assessing understanding?

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