Monday, September 05, 2005

Grading "Rules of Thumb"

The Problem: Grade Inflation. All of us give grades as teachers. Students have a tendency to see them as the purpose or the “end” of their studying, but as teachers, we should view grades as the “means”. We use grades as carrots, really, to inspire the kids to learn. They are powerful motivators if we use them well, making A’s truly representative of superior achievement, making F’s the “earned” grade for students who are not working, and reclaiming the “B” as a grade indicative of above average achievement or effort.

There are many theories as to why our educational system is wanting, and perhaps there’s an element of truth in all of these theories. One contributing factor, for sure, is grade inflation. If obtaining good grades is easy, then it’s obvious that there is less motivation to work hard. In the self-reporting section of the ACT test, Alabama students intending to go to college report an average high school cumulative average of 3.1. At the same time, the average ACT score is 20.2, or .7 points below the national average. Most grading scales would claim that a “B” is “above average”, but the fact of the matter is a B is now the average grade, and perhaps even more alarming, the “A” is the mostly commonly given of all grades in our nation’s high schools.

What’s true of the high schools is true for our colleges. One university professor I know, so disturbed by the grade inflation at his school, wrote an open letter to the university, suggesting, tongue in cheek, that the grades of B through F be eliminated entirely from the grading scale, and replaced with A+++, A++ , A+ and A, with an A being the lowest passing grade!

Rules of Thumb: If then, this is the environment in which we work, what are some reasonable “rules of thumb” we ought to consider when awarding grades to students? By “rules of thumb”, of course, I don’t mean rules which are inviolable, as every class is unique, and some more talented than others. However, I would argue the following guidelines are about the right balance for high school teachers:

1) First, the grade of an “A” ought to be for superior achievement alone. A’s ought to be reserved for the purpose of stretching our most intelligent students. To be blunt, average ability kids, even those who work very hard, should not generally be able to “earn” an A, as the level of thought and sophistication required to earn an A is beyond their intellectual ability.

There will be some teachers who balk at this, claiming it smacks of intellectual snobbery or elitism. Shouldn’t every child, unless impaired by some learning disorder, perhaps, be able to earn an A? My answer is simply “No”. Here’s why: If you show me a class where the average ability student is able to earn an A through effort, I will show you a class where the top students, frankly, aren’t challenged intellectually. Over the long term, we do a tremendous disservice to these students, who are never challenged to work at their potential.

2) A “B”, on the other hand, ought to be representative of EITHER “above average achievement” or “above average effort”. An average ability child who works very hard ought to be able to earn a B and a bright student who works on an average level ought to be able to receive a B.

A “B” needs to be reclaimed as a good grade, not the average one. Students of average ability who graduate from our high schools with cumulative GPA’s around a 3.0 ought to be recognized as solid citizens and extolled as hard workers. If the student is very smart but doesn’t work particularly hard, it’s possible to demonstrate “above average” performance. Similarly, an average student can earn a B through sheer, consistent effort.

3) A “C” should be an indication that students have learned what is “minimum and essential” in the class.

Put in a different way, a student who receives a grade of “C” in an Algebra I class should have the minimal tools to be successful in Algebra II. No, the student doesn’t have a superior grasp of the material, or even an above average one, but they know the basics.

4) A “D” grade should be rarely given, except as a semester/trimester/yearly average.

If in fact the C represents what is minimal and essential, then what does a “D” really mean? If a student hasn’t learned what is minimal within a specified grading period, he or she should generally fail.

I can think of one exception: when a teacher has an extremely weak student who is working very hard. Because the student is weak, they may not be able to complete work at the “C” level. But because they are working hard, it’s inappropriate to fail them. That’s when I would give a student a D. It tells the student that hard work matters.

Schools that adopt this “D” policy can honestly say to its weakest students and their families that “If the student works hard, he or she will not fail”. That’s a powerful statement for weak students--their ability to pass all core classes in the school is in their hands. Coupled with better grades in P.E. and lighter electives, it's possible for these kids to be successful.

5) An “F” should be given for students who don’t do homework or don’t work in class.

We are reluctant to give F’s because, we say, we are afraid of hurting kids’ self esteem. This is nonsense. The worst lesson we can teach our kids is they can get away without doing what is required of them. Frankly, in any random mix of kids, we probably should have a percentage of F’s in our grades, at least initially, because there will always be a couple of students who will test to see if it really matters if they do homework. It should! In many school systems, despite teachers' rhetoric to the contrary, it doesn't, because those same teachers are unwilling to fail the student.

A typical grading distribution: What, then, would a school’s grading distribution look like if it adopted these principles? That depends on the school and the students within that school! For a school like ours, which is an archdiocesan school that accepts students from the highest to lowest abilities, yet which has an average ACT score of 23.1, I suggest that the following distributions would be the norm for early in the year:

A’s (10-20% in core classes)
B’s (30-40% in core classes)
C’s (30-40% in core classes)
D’s (5-10% in core classes)
F’s (10-20% in core classes)

The average GPA in those core classes would be close to a 2.5 Once other classes, like P.E. and some electives are added in, the GPA might be in the neighborhood of 2.7 –2.8, or a B- average.

As the year progressed, and as students understood that not doing homework yielded a failing grade, I would expect the percentage of F’s to go down, with most of those grades becoming C’s or better.

An anticipated objection: Would a school that graded this stringently hurt their students’ chances of getting a scholarship? If grade inflation is the norm, won't it hurt our students to grade in a manner inconsistent with the norm?

It is hard to convince parents, but the truthful answer is “no”. Here’s why: Colleges understand that grades are inflated around the country. They also understand that different schools have different standards, such that a 4.0 in one school is in no way equal to a 4.0 in a different school. Even further, a GPA within the SAME school may mean something very different—for example, as in the case of two students, one of whom takes an honors curriculum, and the other who takes the easiest classes available. Faced with these myriad problems in comparing GPA’s, most schools base scholarship (and admission) criteria on nationally standardized tests. The ACT and SAT are the great “gate-keepers” for our colleges because they are equalizers in the assessment of abilities.

But aren’t some scholarships contingent on certain test scores AND GPA’s? Yes, but read these criteria closely. For prestigious universities, the typical scholarship criteria would be something like “32+ on the ACT and 3.5+ G.P.A. The reality is that the 3.5 GPA is not a particularly high standard (in most high schools, fully ¼ of the student body would have a 3.5+). But the 32 eliminates just about everybody except the most elite of students. In other words, the GPA's as stand alone criteria really don't matter that much--test scores do.

What some universities have begun to do is pay much more attention to class rank, which in most schools is a combination of GPA and difficulty of courses taken. But because that is an internal number, where students are measured against each other but not relative to other schools, the student is not penalized if the school "grades hard". In addition, schools look at other factors, like involvement in extra-curriculars, leadership positions held, service rendered to others, unusual responsibilities--all of which are grade neutral.

In reality, far from hurting students, if a high school insists that students from the freshman year forward must demonstrate truly superior work for an “A”, that stretching will actually HELP students for college admissions and scholarships, because it will yield higher test scores.

I promise! As an anecdotal story, my oldest son graduated from our high school last May. His GPA was a 3.7— good, but not great. However, his mother and I insisted he take every AP course and honors course our school offered, and his teachers were stingy with the A. The result? He did well on the SAT test, and because of that, was not only accepted to Notre Dame, but received a generous scholarship.

Grades are carrots, and little more. Let’s use them to stretch our kids as far as we can.

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