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What Do Grades Mean?

December 2016 Article in the NP Telegraph

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Letters grades have been used in both colleges and schools across the United States since the last part of the 19th century and percentage grades were added in the early 20th century.  Grades were used to evaluate students, group or classify students into various levels based on what they learned and understood. Colleges used letter grades aligned to numerical or percentage scales; A=95-100, B=85-94, C=76-84, D= lowest passing grade.  The F grade was not used during the early years of grading.

In the early 20th century, American school systems, elementary and high schools, began to use a standardized grading systems. During this time, compulsory-attendance laws had been passed and the number of public high schools increased from under a 1000 students to over 10,000 students between 1870 and 1910.  With the increase in student enrollments, less written, descriptive reports were practical. High schools began to use both the percentage and letter grades to evaluate students.

Grading and reporting student achievement across the United States has been steadily standardized to some degree.  There continues to be questions and differences of opinion among educators, students, and parents regarding the variability that exist about the relationship of grades and learning.  One concern shared by many members of the educational community regarding variability is grade inflation, the phenomenon in which the grade does not represent what a student knows and is able to do with the knowledge learned.  One rationale for grade inflation is related to the stress from students who are concerned about their grades and their future career opportunities; having credentials that appear to look good on paper and less on actual learning.  Another common concern among parents and students, is the variation in grades from teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state; grading scales do not represent the same thing. Grading can be a subjective process. The main purpose grading is not what symbol you use (A, B, C, D), how often to report, how many grades to include, or how to combine them.  Grades should convey how well students have achieved the standards; they are about what the student learns, not what the student earns. A grading and reporting process needs to be accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning. 

  • Consistent - The same student work, completed in two different classrooms, should receive the same grade.
  • Accurate - Grades are based solely on achievement, which means other factors like attendance, behavior, attitude, timeliness, compliance are not used to calculate a grade.
  • Meaningful - Grading practices should be so clear that students should be able to tell teachers and/or parents what grade they have received, even before the teacher calculates it.
  • Supportive -  Feedback to students is timely so that students can actually use that feedback immediately to improve their performance on tests, projects, and assignments – improve learning.

If you were teaching a world language class, would you prefer your students walked away with an ‘A’ for the class, or that they became fluent?  If they walk away fluent, they probably are going to get an ‘A’, but I know lots of people who got an ‘A’ in a world language class as students, and can’t speak it to this day.  They learned to jump hoops, not necessarily learned the language.

So why are grades so important to education?  Is it because grades are the most common form of educational jargon, it’s what we have always used, or it easiest to collect.  As humans, we tend to like to label, sort, and rank to show accountability to our public, but through this process, we have seemed to be the least accountable to the people that matter the most; our students.  Giving a multiple choice test through a “scantron” to mark is much quicker than having a conversation with students, but does not accurately measure their understanding of a topic, but more on their ability to memorize and complete a multiple choice test on the subject.

District wide grading and reporting practices for North Platte Schools were identified as a district improvement initiative in the spring of 2016 for four reasons: 1) the need to better align grading and reporting practices with district curriculum, instructional, and assessment beliefs and practices; 2) the need for consistent grading practices within and among grade levels and courses; 3) the need for establishing district grading and reporting guidelines; and 4) that grades will convey how well students have achieved the standards, a reflection of learning.

The essential questions posed for district staff will be:

  • What purposes do you believe report cards and grades should serve?
  • What is our assurance level that the grades assigned to K-12 students are consistent, accurate, meaningful, and supportive of learning?”

The purpose of North Platte School District’s grading and reporting is to ensure achievement grades are consistent, accurate, meaningful, and supportive/timely for all students. Based on a review of educational research and best practices, the district's Teaching & Learning team will develop a K-12 procedure and practice manual of grading practices during the 2016-17 school year, which will be organized within identified guided practices to be implemented and audited during 2017-18 school year. These practices will be fully implemented by the 2018-19 school year and revisited yearly, with the overall goal of supporting the learning process and encouraging student success.