Grades: the Rodney Dangerfield of Education

Figuring out how grading practices help communicate student learning to parents and students⎮2 min read

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I started teaching in 1992, and I have been working as a district office administrator since 2006. So I’ve been talking and reading and thinking about grades for about 29 years. This quote from Feldman (Grading for Equity) summarizes my experience well: 

Examining our grading practices can challenge our deepest beliefs about what we know (or think we know) about our teaching, our students, and ourselves.

Grading feels PERSONAL in a way that not many other education discussions do. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents can talk about all sorts of complicated education issues comfortably, but everyone knows that grades are a “third rail” topic: it’s likely to get intense very quickly. 

In my school district, principals and curriculum specialists have been talking about grading for years and there is a “consensus” document administrators are using to talk with teachers about grading issues. The goal of these conversations is to figure out what grading “rules” should be consistent between classes, what the justifiable differences are between different curriculum and other contexts, and generally what practices we can all agree on to help communicate student learning to parents and students. This might be the most complex conversation we can have in our district, and I’m glad it’s happening mostly with (instead of to) teachers, since teachers are the folks who have to figure out how to actually grade in real classrooms. We have some great references to use for these discussions (like Guskey, Brookhart, Dueck, and many others), but I think the most productive conversations happen when teachers share their gradebooks with other teachers and try to figure out what grading practices should be similar and what should be different. 

One thing that almost all grading scholars agree on is that the traditional percentage and letter based grading system most of us are familiar with – the A-F system of grades based on a percentage scale – is flawed and may get in the way of reporting student knowledge/skills accurately. The A-F grading system has never been based on good research and grading practices in traditional percentage grading systems vary widely (and, sometimes, wildly!) between schools, teachers and districts (this review of the research is pretty comprehensive). 

Traditional, percentage grading systems get very little respect in the research literature, so I was surprised to see this study: 

High School GPAs and ACT Scores as Predictors of College Completion: Examining Assumptions About Consistency Across High Schools.

The journal article is behind a paywall and it’s pretty long/technical, but here’s the punchline: by examining a big data set of high school students’ GPAs, ACT scores, and college grades, they found that high school GPAs predicted (were correlated with) college grades as well or better than ACT predicted those same grades. 

This is surprising (at least to me), given what we know about how differently different teachers grade. How can this “wild wild west” of grading practices produce a statistic – GPA – that predicts college success better than the ACT? The ACT company spends millions developing that test, students take the ACT under very controlled decisions, and in general it’s amazing that high school grades have as much predictive “power” as this standardized achievement test. 

So should traditional, percentage based A-F grades get more respect than they do? Maybe. I agree with researchers about the limitations of percentage grading systems, but this study reminds me to think carefully about existing grading practices, and with more respect. Millions of teachers for decades have been trying to figure out how to assign grades, and many of these practices are easy to criticize. But dismissing all the work teachers and schools have done in the past to make percentage based grading systems work might be a mistake. Correlation does not equal causation: a high school GPA doesn’t cause success in college, just like a high ACT score doesn’t cause college achievement. But maybe it’s worth thinking about what the existing “flawed” high school GPA might measure and how that relates to college success? 

Blog article originally published by Not for Points.

Rob McEntarffer

Assessment/Evaluation Specialist, Lincoln Public Schools