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What does a grade mean?

Families can struggle to interpret the meaning of a child's grade. On a parenting message board, I recently came across posts challenging the fairness of teachers' assessment systems and questions about what constitutes an "average" report card. I was also reminded of the topic when I heard my clients and friends express relief after Montgomery County Public Schools' decision to revert from standards-based report cards to letter-grade report cards this year. As I talk to parents I hear over and over again that they want grading to be fair, objective, and understandable. Yet, there are a range of grading practices that might be fair in any particular circumstance.

Suppose your child's teacher assigns a ten-question math worksheet. Your child answers the first eight questions correctly. From these answers the teacher knows that your child understands the concepts taught in class. On the final two questions your child makes errors. The teacher can see that your child made minor mistakes unrelated to the content of the unit. Based on your child's prior work, the teacher knows that these mistakes do not indicate a misunderstanding of mathematical concepts. What score should the teacher give for this assignment?

One way to grade this assignment would be to compute the percentage of accurate answers. I think of this as a traditional grading model. Your child would earn an 80 percent. This grading system has merit when the goal is error-free work. However, if your child maintains a similar level of accuracy throughout the academic term, his final grade, a B-, might not reflect that he understands grade-level material well. This phenomenon can be particularly discouraging to children with learning differences and their parents. Teachers using such grading systems tend to give assessments with a greater number of questions so that individual errors do not have an overly strong effect on final scores.

Giving partial credit for problems is another grading option. If we suppose that your child earns half credit for showing his work for each of his last two answers, then his score would be 90 percent, an A-. The importance of accuracy is still stressed, but the penalty for incorrect answers is less. A partial-credit model can help facilitate shorter assessments because answering problems incorrectly carries less risk of a low grade. To the extent that grades can impact students' self concept over time, this approach may help to keep more students engaged and happier.

Yet another option for grading this worksheet would be to score it by indication of proficiency. Errors unrelated to the content being assessed would not prevent a child's work from being judged proficient. In this model, minor mistakes or non-mathematical errors like failing to write down a unit (distance, volume, or weight) with a numerical response do not affect children's grades. Proficiency is a sufficient academic goal, and working above standard is relatively rare. Thus, competition and perfectionism are deprioritized. This system can also help teachers notice and assist struggling students quickly; a series of non-proficient scores tends to stand out more than lower number scores or letter grades.

But there are still many other options for grading work. Teachers might use a rubric that gives points for accuracy, neatness, timeliness, effort, and/or following directions. Such grading systems take into account that the skills students need to succeed in later schooling and life are not all related to the content of a course. Hard-working students who take longer to become independent with new skills are also rewarded in these rubric-based systems. The risk with rubrics is that students who are proficient with the content of a course may still earn grades that are less than perfect, particularly students who struggle with executive function.

All of these grading systems have their advantages. As you can see from the examples above, no system is free from consequences, and most rely on a teacher's subjective judgements. Yet, all can be fair if consistently applied. As well, each can provide valuable feedback about students' strengths and about areas for improvement. Grades, like any other form of communication, require context to interpret.

If you're interested in this topic, I recommend this teacher's perspective on her six-week experiment to reward achievement without using grades. You may also want to read my blog post about standards-based report cards.


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