The importance of letter grades

As you may have noticed, those of you who might be faithfully reading, I’ve been thinking about grades and grading a lot lately.  Basically, I’m trying to come at the idea of grading from outside the box and trying to come up with meanings for what and how we grade, as teachers.

My newest question is the 5 point grading scale:  A, B, C, D, and F.  Wouldn’t a 3 point scale make more sense?  Basically, I’m not sure that all of us teachers are really good enough at assessing students that we can make the fine distinctions between and A and a B.

I think it makes more sense that we have Good, Adequate, and Failing grading scale.  In terms of employment, that’s how my reviews have gone in the past.  It’s easier to determine skill in this way, so it’s probably more accurate.  Personally, as a teacher, I would like to think it would be easier to grade honestly this way.

However, it probably would lead to the same grade inflation that we see today because no parent would want their student labeled as “adequate” instead of good. Sigh.  Tough to win on this grading business.

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.



  1. gls said,

    November 8, 2009 at 8:59 am

    An interesting observation. In South Carolina, we further confuse the issue through the use of a four-point scale as well: SC’s PASS Test (our NCLB accountability measure) measures below basic, basic, proficient and advanced performance. It seems a bit top heavy to me.

    I often only use a three-point system on rubrics. I tell students, “Think of 3 as ‘A’, 2 as ‘C’ and 1 as ‘F’.” They tend to like the simplicity; I like the relative ease of making and scoring with such a rubric.

  2. November 8, 2009 at 9:11 am

    We have some testing that is just starting to become standard that measures students in that same way. Quite honestly, I don’t believe many teachers really understand the difference between the different levels. And if teachers don’t, students certainly don’t.

    Good example with the rubric. I grade that way quite often as well.

  3. Scott Erb said,

    November 10, 2009 at 8:52 am

    I teach college, so it’s different in a way, but I always go on a point scale (40 to 100). I find I can distinguish between an 85 and an 87, even if I can’t say why.

    I’ve co-taught a course on “Children and War” many times with an Education professor, and from her I learned all about rubrics. She seemed shocked when I said I assigned grades based on what I “felt” them to be. Yet when we did an experiment — she following her rubric (about ten qualities, each earning a certain number of points) and my subjective assessment — we came out almost the same on every paper. My method, though, takes much less time.

    To translate these to letter grades for me comes at the end of the semester. I take into account the “whole student.” Did she show improvement? If so, I might radically discount an early botched exam, feeling she made up for it. Was she present for all classes (again, in college they can skip)? If so, then that may give her the benefit of the doubt in a close call. I tell students that the letter grade number totals (on a normal 90-80 scale) is their base grade. It will not go down, but can go up if a student shows effort and improvement. In that, I try to use grades not just as assessment, but as motivation.

    Of course, I can do that stuff in college teaching. I would never want to have to jump through the hoops and requirements that you all in K-12 endure. Bureaucracy sucks.

  4. November 11, 2009 at 10:04 am

    I agree with you, Scott, that rubrics often reflect my own more abstract judgment on an assignment’s quality. As you said, though, in high school, we have to show more how we arrived at that grade.

    On the good side of that, however, we are trying to be more consistent as an English department. Everyone has heard the story of the student who handed in a paper to one English teacher and got a C, but another English teacher gave it an A, because it was all graded so subjectively. Because of our Professional Learning Community ideals, we are sharing and talking more about what we are grading for and what we should be focusing on. Our hope is that it will make us a little more consistent in our grading efforts. Rubrics help that because it makes sure that we are allotting points to areas that we deem important instead of knocking 50% off a student’s grade because they used the wrong “your” consistently throughout a paper.

    I’ve been trying to come up with a way to make grades do what you said about the “whole student.” It’s a lot harder to do that in high school. It’s a good idea, however, to focus on improvement instead of simply flat scores. On the other hand, I’d rather have the mechanic who’s fixing my brakes actually know all of the material, not just show the most improvement. 😀

  5. Scott Erb said,

    November 11, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    LOL! Yes….”Well, yeah, it’s too bad the tire came off while you were driving on the interstate, but the last car he fixed had three tires come off, so he’s really improving…”

  6. Jay Burns said,

    November 12, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Who kept driving after the first two tires came off? That guy didn’t show any improvement at all. 😉

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