What do grades really mean?

Posted on July 13, 2013 by Scott in Articles

I have really given even more thought to what do grades really mean? Are they an indicator of work given vs work completed? Are they an indicator of correct answers vs incorrect answers? Are they just a number on a scale of 0 to 100? Or do they—or more accurately—should they mean something more? Let’s take a look at some of these “meanings” for grades in a little more detail.

If grades are merely an indication of work given vs work completed, what does this tell us about a student? Among varying disciplines, the information would be the same: the student is diligent or lazy. If a student turns in all assignments, what can you infer about their ability? Nothing. It just shows that they are able to complete work given in a certain time frame. It says nothing about the quality of the work or the demonstration of understanding of any concept. Don’t get me wrong, the skill of being able to complete work on time is a valid skill, but just isn’t best placed as an indicator of grades. And if we look at the opposite, a student who doesn’t turn in assigned work regularly, how would you assess this student? Many would say lazy, but what if there is more behind it? What if the student has issues at home that prevent them from doing the work? What if their comprehension of the material is so low that they can’t do the work? The student may indeed be lazy by not putting in any effort, or maybe not.

If we look at correct vs incorrect, this too has some issues. Not everything can be graded as completely right or wrong. For many topics, there are levels of right and wrong and these are hard to assess consistently and objectively. And sometimes a silly mistake can make the whole assessment go wrong. If a student has the general concept down, but makes a silly mistake like forgetting to carry the one in math on each problem, yes the answer is incorrect, but this student’s level of understanding of the concept of subtraction is completely different from the student who doesn’t even know how to approach the problem. In the end, on a right vs wrong scale, they earned the same grade, but they are not the same student grade-wise.

Percentages can also be misleading. What does a 100% or a 93% or a 52% really mean? Are these numbers based on work assigned vs work turned-in, right vs wrong, rubrics, or something else?

In current times when we are continually trying to reinvent the educational wheel, grades—how we determine them, what they measure, and ultimately what they mean—is rarely, if ever, discussed. Instead, we throw more assessments at the problem, re-evaluate what and how we teach, and we impose artificial constructs like the Core Standards blindly across all disciplines.

One of the core issues of the American education system is grades. There is no consistent understanding of how to grade, what to grade, and what grades should mean across districts, states, or even within the same halls. I think the true place to start with American school reform is at the level of how we measure the abilities of our students.

If we truly want the grades that students earn to be a true representation of that student’s ability—and I think we all do—then we must define a standard as to what constitutes an academic grade, how we calculate it, and how we present it to students, parents, administration, and ultimately universities.

Towards this end, the only thing that should be included in an academic grade are assessments that demonstrate what a student can DO with what they know. Everything else, except behavior which we’ll talk about in a moment, is scaffolding to get the student to the point that they can actually DO something. These are the small steps that we plan so break down a difficult activity into more manageable pieces. Not unlike in sports where athletes practice one particular skill or another, these don’t “count” towards the ability level of the athlete as a whole. How the athlete executes on the field on game day is what counts and what ultimately is recorded. Any assessments which only assess knowledge-level questions are the basis for being able to apply that knowledge later on, but don’t actually demonstrate ability. Just because a student knows all the vocabulary and all the grammar rules or knows all the formulas in math does not mean they know how to put the vocabulary and grammar rules together into sentences or that they know how to apply the formulas to solve a problem. Yes, we do need to keep track of these little steps, but not integrate them into the overall academic grade because they will only work to misrepresent the student’s ability. If they do very well on these small-step assessments, but can’t DO anything with them, then their grade will be artificially increased. If they do poorly on these small-steps in the beginning, but demonstrate ability later on, their grade will be artificially decreased. Either way, the grade is no longer an accurate representation of ability.

This brings me to the idea of participation and/or behavior. Many of us have included one or both of these in the academic grade to the detriment of our students. I know that participation is very important in many disciplines and can be measured, but since this is a small-step towards being able to DO something, it shouldn’t be included in the academic grade. If a student actively participates in class the end result will be a better understanding of the material and a better application of the knowledge and if a student doesn’t actively participate in class, there will be a lack of understanding and they won’t be able to execute. So, although we do want to encourage active participation, active engagement in class, we don’t want to artificially increase or decrease a student’s academic grades based on it. Here’s another example. You may have a student who actively participates, consistently raises their hand, and always seems engaged, but cannot demonstrate ability. On the other hand, you may have a student who is timid and quiet and doesn’t raise their hand constantly, but is paying attention. They can demonstrate ability even at a high level, but because of their seemingly lack of participation, their overall academic grade is decreased. In both cases, the academic grade, again, doesn’t truly reflect a pure indication of ability.

Finally, behavior. Many of us dock a student’s grade because they are a behavior problem, they are absent, they are tardy, they fail to turn in assignments, etc., etc. All of these are behaviors and should be assessed separately. None of these directly influence a student’s ability. Obviously, if a student is absent all the time, doesn’t do the scaffold work, or consistently behaves badly in class, they’re not going to perform well, but again, by including behaviors in the academic grade, it is no longer pure and no longer represents true ability. There are a lot of successful jerks in this world and their behavior hasn’t necessarily hindered their ability to be successful and the same is true within the classroom.

This article has already gone on way too long, but what I’m basically saying is that we want the academic grade to be a true, accurate reflection of a student’s ability—what they can DO with what they know. We don’t want to artificially increase or decrease the grade by including scaffold assignments, participation/effort grades, and/or behavior. These are important aspects of a student’s overall classroom record, but should not be included as part of the academic grade.

So when you’re assessing your students, take a moment to think what are you truly assessing and if it should be included in a student’s academic grade or if it should be reported separately. If we all follow these basic guidelines, grades between teachers, between districts, and across state lines will actually mean something and actually mean the same thing—an accurate depiction of student ability.

Would love to know what you think! Sound off in the comments!

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