Are Letter Grades Failing Our Students?

letter_grades_debateIn Colorado, districts want to get rid of ‘D’s’ in their grading systems. In Virginia, there are efforts to standardize what an ‘F’ signifies. In an Iowa district, letter grades on report cards are supplemented by more frequent teacher feedback focused on priorities. It seems that letter grades are no longer making the grade when it comes to measuring student progress.

In fact, they’re “relics from a less enlightened age,” says education expert Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and Schooling Beyond Measure and who Time magazine describes as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.”

According to Kohn, letter grades are not only unnecessary but harmful.

“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn explains. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading.

“That’s why the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports – qualitative accounts of student performance – or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.”

Some states weighed the pros and cons of letter grades and decided to replace them with standards-based grades that are designed to measure students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives. Kentucky was the first to attempt such a statewide reform, starting in 2013. Schools sent home two report cards – one with letter grades, and another indicating how proficient a student was in various standards, like reading and writing, with a narrative description of progress.

Kentucky parents overwhelmingly preferred the new report cards, according to school surveys.

“They became our strongest supporters because it gave them more and better information,” Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky and a leading advocate for standards-based grading, told Slate magazine. “When parents have the experience of this they can see the value.”

In traditional grading, letter grades report the number of points earned in a subject but not very much about what the student has learned. Standards-based grading, proponents say, offers better feedback by evaluating how well students meet measurable mileposts and objectives. That, in turn, improves instruction for each individual student, and it allows the student more ways to demonstrate that they’ve learned the material before moving on.

no-zero policyTeachers Divided Over Controversial ‘No-Zero’ Grading Policy

Should a student’s “good faith” effort be enough to avoid a grade below 50? A growing number of school districts think so.

Virginia’s Fairfax County Public School district adopted standards-based grading in all elementary schools during the 2012-2013 year. At first, parents were confused, but eventually most were appreciative of the amount of detail provided, as well as the ability to track their children’s progress.

The district has also proposed making changes to the way middle and high school grades are delivered. Moving towards more standards-based grading, the district proposed separating out grades for student effort and achievement. So whether or not a student completed a homework assignment is separated from how well he or she understands the concepts. Other proposals include changing the weighting systems teachers use to formulate grades and eliminating zeros so that the lowest score a student can be given for an ‘F’ grade is 50 percent.

“It is time to examine our current grading policies in an effort to ensure that we have consistent and equitable practices throughout our middle and high schools,” deputy superintendent Steven Lockard wrote in a message to educators.

According to Alfie Kohn, however, the problems with grades – the way they undermine students’ interest in learning, preference for challenge, and depth of thinking – can’t be solved by just tweaking the details.  In some ways, he says, standards-based grading “may even make things worse by getting kids more focused on the details of how well they’re doing – rather than being engaged with what they’re doing.”

Ken Halla has been a high school history teacher in Fairfax County for 24 years. His view is that no matter what the system of measurement, a student and his or her parents should always know where they stand during a semester.

“A student should always know what they have learned and what they haven’t learned,” he says. “The best way [to assign grades] is the one in which students realize their deficiencies most easily.”

Halla wishes students were motivated just by learning, “but that is not realistic as they have to get into college or get a job after high school,” he says.  “To that end grades (be they numbers or letters) are a motivating factor – not unlike money for an employed person. What I have been doing is moving towards personalizing the learning experience for my students, so assessments always depend on the student and the situation.”

  • Ana Villanueva

    Students learn at different capacities, if a student understands parts of a concept is that failing? No, that is the progression of learning. Grades are antiquated like memorizing history is counterproductive to understanding it. These are kids, not robots. The skills they hone through their education are preparing them for what they have to face. We need to instill the love of learning so they will learn. If a kids finally “gets” a concept a few days later, why are we using punitive measures? Self-fulfilling prophecy…if you listen..they will learn.

  • LetsNotHurtAnyonesFeelings

    Just pass ’em all. Who really cares?

    • Mea Certo

      Seriously, that is not what this is about. The fact of the matter is that students will do whatever they have to do (except learn the material) to get the grade. They cheat, copy and beg their ways to grades or have their parents do it for them. When you learn anything as a child or adult… the learning happens without a formal grade being assigned. Example: When your parents taught you to talk and count, you did not receive a grade… you just did it because it was fun. And if you failed to pronounce words as a small child… they kept working with you until you learned the proper way… WITHOUT a grade

      • Samuel Broyles

        Ah, it is interesting how rapidly students are learning more ways to cheat – and in college classes that frequently entails their use of technology tools, such as if they have an online test they simply communicate online with each other about the questions. And, as always, there are still those who simply try to look over the shoulder of another student to see their answers. Yes, it takes time to do this, but once you truly put your mind to it, and discover ways to stop this, my experience is that students are getting higher grades if they are forced to rely on using their own brain. In fact, after a couple of years I have finally discovered a couple of methods which will result in a student having a lot of challenges if they cheat. Thus, whenever I give an exam I no longer even look to see if anyone is cheating, because they will very quickly (after they see their grades) realize they must do their own learning, and feel they can simply rely on being able to cheat. As I noted to another person, I also think that perhaps a difference here is that as an educator, I teach at a private east coast college, and I only teach either seniors or graduate students. Thus, I see the realities that when they go out into the work world that they cannot simply rely on having fun. They will be evaluated whenever they are applying for a job, and whenever they are seeking a promotion. And I can very, very honestly say that the students who I see that are achieving the greatest success are those who were held to high standards. And, I am not just talking about academic standards at school. When I speak with those who truly are “winners”, it is amazing how typical it is that they consistently talk about them having parents who held them to high standards. It is these students who will be the leaders. The leaders will not be those young adults who expect things to be laid in their lap, with life being made easy for them for the sake of “political correctness”.

        • Dave

          I’m beginning to see the problem here, and I thought it best to just warn anyone who reads your posts here. In two separate posts on two separate articles, you claim to be “a business professor at a major U.S. university” while simultaneously claiming here that you “teach at a private east coast college, and I only teach either seniors or graduate students.”

          If you saw someone making the same simultaneous claims in two different threads, what would YOU think?

          You’re seriously coming off as another one of those people who is so unhappy with your life at age 62 that you’ve decided to spend your remaining years complaining about everything you can using whatever justification you can dream up.

          You’ve already made yourself look bad for not reading this article or understanding what it was proposing. That damage is done. Think about this next time you get ready to post.

          • Dave

            And seriously dude, when did Cal State Fullerton become a “private east coast college”?

            Is this your idea of creative marketing?

      • leemat

        Not all students cheat…….It is nice to have the letter grades as well as the SAT scores. How would a college evaluate a student applying without the letter grades.? Would more emphasis be put on the SAT scores? That could be even worse for some students who may excel at papers or small tests but have problems with long tests like the SAT.
        I don’t know of any parent that would ever do a high school child’s work. Are you referring to an elementary student and helping with huge, mostly artistic projects. I certainly helped my kids with enough of those but was clear, I was only helping with the art.
        That’s is why age levels change…we can’t expect the same type of learning for a 5 year old as a 16 year old. I don’t hear of any colleges doing away with grading and if there are some out there, I would be wary about spending that kind of money and getting a job. What do you say when a potential employer asks for a transcript.

  • Kirk

    Yes, absolutely. You can’t possibly (or shouldn’t) give them a 0. It is so weighted. Why should an F have a 59% range (in a 10 point scale) and each other grade has only a 10% range. If each grade has a 10% range then the lowest F should be 50%.

    • Lisa

      If they did nothing, they should not get any credit. There is a reason that F has a 59% range. My son went through a phase about the time he hit MS where he would do assignments and then never turn them in. He learned really quickly how hard it is to come back from that 0. That 59% indicates a pretty minimal required effort. By the time the student gets to college, that F has a 69% range in courses for their major (usually grades of ‘D’ lead to a repeated course) – and by grad school, what most people consider to be a ‘C’ is now an F).

  • Samuel Broyles

    Yes, I know – a lot of people will not like this opinion – but, well, so be it. What part of “real life” are people in education and administration, and especially parents and students not getting about this topic? In life, employees are evaluated, and their performance is critical to their upward career mobility and financial success. If students graduate without teachers being able to evaluate them, then those students will enter into a work force in which they feel they will not be evaluated. I feel sorry for those students, because not only are they in for some surprises, their avoidance of being evaluated may potentially lead to reduced focus on worrying about being top quality performers, which will lead to them having less success. And, I am getting sick of hearing teachers complain about students’ cheating. If a teacher uses their own brain (duh), there are a lot of ways to avoid students cheating. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But perhaps the thing that frustrates me the most is that our education system has become so focused on “quantity”, that we are forgetting the “quality” of education. I want my students to actually get top quality education. Yes, this sometimes means that a few of them view me as tough, but it is amazing how many appreciate my efforts. In fact, sometimes I am stunned at messages I get from prior students after they have been in the work world after a few years who say “I now understand why you pushed us, and wanted us to learn those things, because I am actually using those skills, and they are really benefiting me, and leading to me having better job performance than my peers”. To me – that makes it all worthwhile. But, if we let students get away from being challenged to actually do things like think, because they know they will pass, then we are doing a disservice to them that will negatively impact their adult lives. Come on people – do what is right for the students – don’t do what is just easy. Samuel Allen Broyles, California

    • Miky Telbis

      After evaluating your comments I disagree with your overall message. As a teacher, professor, and parent I can say that in my classroom I perform a formative evaluation daily. You do not need to sit someone down and use a standardized rubric in order to see how he or she did that day. Believe me, such evaluations are outdated and useless because they can not possibly encompass all of the qualities an individual might possess. You my friend have no idea of the negative implications associated with standardized testing, grading, and the evaluation system. I hope you are of an older generation and soon to be out of the labor force. If not, no offense, but for the love of God do some research on the topic. Standards have ruined our schools and continue to do so.

      • Samuel Broyles

        I have absolutely no idea where you even got the idea that I was referring to standardized tests or rubrics. In fact, I am opposed to them because I believe they reduce students’ learning skills.

        Students need innovative teaching and learning opportunities, and so many standardized things do the opposite. All that my message is communicating is that if we do not do something to evaluate students’ performance, they will always assume they are doing fine.

        And, sadly, this has a risk that when they leave school and go out into the work world, they will not be prepared when they are given expectations from their employers. And, if they do not fulfill those expectations, then their chance for success is extremely low.

        I hope this makes my message more clear, and I honestly am sorry if I gave the impression that I support standardized teaching, tests or rubrics. That was not my intent, nor is it the way I feel.

        • Dave

          I think you’ve completely misunderstood this article and, in response, started a troll-like thread in which you’re going off on something that isn’t even an issue here.

          First of all, NOBODY is saying do away with evaluations. We’re talking about replacing an antiquated, uninformative letter grade with something more informative that will give the students, parents, and future teachers a clear, concise evaluation of the student’s performance in each area of the curriculum.

          Thanks to you going off on the article, you’ve made it appear as though you’re arguing FOR over-simplified evaluations like standardized tests and letter grades. This is why you’re getting the response you’ve seen.

          Perhaps you should take a step back and re-read the article with an open mind and stop trying to make it sound like someone is claiming that all evaluations should be eliminated. I think you approached this subject with assumptions about what they were going to say, simply based on a headline that you over-interpreted, and reacted to your own opinion rather than what was presented in the article.

          You can start by reading this quote from the article. Does this sound to you like anyone is proposing elimination of any and all student evaluation tools? Seriously?

          “That’s why the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports – qualitative accounts of student performance – or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.”

      • Samuel Broyles

        After having now gone back and re-read you messages 3 times, I realized something. First, I hope to God you are not a teacher of any of my children, because I want them to be held to high standards so they are prepared to experience and achieve genuine success in life. Second, I am going to get on my knees tonight and give thanks to God that you are a person with whom I will never have to deal with. It is people like you who are ruining our students with your stupid politically correct mentality, and it is people like you who are producing students with a greater potential for not achieving true success when they enter into the career world. Thus, I feel sorry for your students, but more importantly, thank God I don’t have to be around you.

      • Samuel Broyles

        And permit me to make one last comment. I know that you will be steaming with anger at my comments, but just know this – I don’t give a s……

    • Angela Bird

      My take on the article is not that we should be anti- evaluation, but in favor of better evaluations. As I talk to other teachers just in my building, there are too many different ideas of what an A or a B means. I have never had a job, or even known anyone with a job, where the performance review (aka evaluation) was simply one letter.

      • Samuel Broyles

        I totally agree with you – we need better evaluations. But, I do believe that we need to do evaluations of some type. The reason is simple. If we do nothing to provide the students with any type of evaluation, there is a risk they will assume they are always doing fine.

        Unfortunately, while this may make the students ‘feel good’, there is a risk of having no evaluations of students performance. That risk is that when the students leave school and go out into the work world, they will not be prepared when they are given expectations
        from their employers. And, if they do not fulfill those expectations,
        then their chance for success is extremely low. Their performance will be evaluated by their bosses and employers, and that is simply a fact of life.

        Hopefully we will develop new methods for performance evaluations of students, because I never want a student to feel badly about their performance. But, unless they realize there is some type of expectation, I honestly believe we are not properly preparing them for “life after school”. All I am trying to communicate is that we need to do things to make sure that students are extremely prepared for success after school, and that is a major responsibility of a teacher, because we all want our students to succeed.

      • Samuel Broyles

        You are correct – their evaluations are not 1 letter grade. Rather, they are a composite of various items. But, the level of performance is one of the most critical, because companies want to succeed. Interestingly another thing which recruiters look for in job candidates is their ability to demonstrate that they can work well in team environments. The reason is very simple. As business becomes increasingly exposed to more and more domestic and international competition, they are more focused than ever on cutting costs as a way to help increase their profits. As a result, they often put teams on major projects for efficiency and greater potential for success. Thus, if a person does not demonstrate team ability, performance, focus on getting the job done right, having an internal personal drive for success, then those people do not get onto the list of people who will be considered for serious success. But, regardless of how people feel – job applicants and employees will be evaluated – and you are right – we need better methods that are actually more comprehensive of evaluating students. Those teachers who do not take evaluating their students serious, or just ‘let them pass’ are honestly not doing that student a favor. Instead, they are setting them up for limited success. In reviewing various articles on this website something occurred to me this morning. I am a professor at a private college on the east coast, and I only teach students that are either seniors or graduate students. Thus, among other things which I teach them (i.e. the subject matter of a course), I also have a strong focus on teaching them how to best prepare for their careers, and what they should assume companies look for when evaluating job applicants, or employees who want a promotion. “If” I am wrong about something, that would explain much of the reaction to my comments. Here is that “if”. “If” almost everyone else on this site are teachers at either elementary or secondary education levels, that would explain the differences in our opinions. However, “if” that is the case, then I definitely stand up and say that at the education levels I teach, there is an apparent increase in the number of students who simply feel that because they did something that they should be rewarded. I have even had students say “well, I should get a better grade than them because I worked harder on the project”. My reply is always the same, “your grade is based on the quality of your work, not on the quantity of time you spent on the project. That other person received a higher grade because they submitted a higher quality report”. However, we then sit down and discuss why this point is important for them to understand, because in their careers, they will not be evaluated or promoted or given raises just because of the hours they work. Instead, that will be based on the quality and value of their performance. And on this point, I refuse to back down. It is amazing how many professors are increasingly saying that they are stunned at the growing trend of college students to expect not having to be evaluated, because they were not held up to any standards in pre-college education. Not only have many of us discussed this among ourselves, BUT perhaps more importantly (to the students’ lives), we have discussed this with multiple employers. Many of them are really getting sick of this situation, and the result is that they are becoming more focused on finding students that came from educational institutions which held the students to high standards, so they would be ready for the work world and success in that world. People on this website can say whatever you want about this one, and insist on communicating your politically correctness, but I truly do not care if this bothers you. I am preparing my students for success. Thus, I will never “coddle” them, because the corporate world surely will not do that. Thus, I want them to graduate and be strong and ready for success.

  • leemat

    I have to disagree, as a parent of three children, two are in college and one is in high school, I have to say letter grades were very important and highly motivating to my kids. They changed the grading system in elementary school to a standard base system and I thought it did not afford my kids the same motivation. The standard base system was previously used only from K-2 and it changed to K-5. My town is now considering it for middle school and high school.

    I have seen how my son was so motivated to make Varsity Scholar. It was very important to him and he worked very hard. I don’t think he would have worked so hard if he didn’t have to achieve a certain GPA. Colleges use grades and businesses use those transcripts to hire people. We need letter grades at the high school level to prepare them for college. I find it ridiculous to even think about not have letter grades at the high school level. What about class rank and college admittance criteria?

    I have contacted my town and plan to be very vocal in opposition to this potential change. I hated the change in elementary school but of course it didn’t have the negative consequences that it could have at the high school level. If my kids were small, I wouldn’t move into a town that had the standard base grading.