The Problem with Grades

Let me begin by saying I'm not a proponent of the ungraded school.  There is a place for grades but how we grade tells kids what we care about.  Our current grading system tells them that we value compliance most and learning not so much.

Imagine the following two high school students with similar abilities in the same classroom:

Sue's Grades A A B B F
Mary's Grades C C D C C

Which of these is the stronger student?  Which is working harder?  If grades are to evaluate performance, what can you infer from these grades?  If you used the grade point system (4 points for an A, 3 points for a B...) to average these students' grades, Sue would have:

4 + 4 + 3 + 3 + 0 = 14 divided by 5 grades = 2.8 gpa (a high C)

Unfortunately, Sue missed one assignment or turned it in after the teacher would accept it and the F dropped her from a B+ to a C+.  A couple more assignments and she'll have that grade up to a solid B though.

Mary would have:

2 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 2 = 9 divided by 5 grades = 1.8 gpa (a high D)

Given similar abilities, Mary seems to be doing the minimal but has turned something in every time assignments are due.  Perhaps her work is incomplete, hurried, guessed or perhaps she really doesn't understand the concepts.

But high school teachers rarely grade like this.  Most use a point or percentage system:

90 -100 = A
80 -  89 = B
70 -  79 = C
60  - 69 = D
 0  -  59 = F

Under the point system, Sue and Mary are evaluated entirely differently.  Let's look at the points they earned on those same assignments:

Sue's Grades 93 90 82 80 0
Mary's Grades 73 77 66 75 74

With the point system, Sue's grade averages as follows:

93 + 90 + 82 + 80 + 0 = 345 divided by 5 = 69% (high D)

Mary's grades average as follows:

73 + 77 + 66 + 75 + 74 = 365 divided by 5 = 73% (a C)

And so Mary is doing better in the class than Sue.  I call this the "Power of the Zero".  The one assignment Sue missed is a greater influence on her overall grade than any of the assignments she actually did (and did well).   There is little incentive for a student to dig into an assignment, give it extra attention, apply superior analysis or creativity and produce something fantastic.  More important, it would seem, is to do everything the teacher tells you to do but don't go overboard.  Fill the blanks; don't overthink it.

Of course, simply changing how we calculate grades doesn't address the larger problem:  what are we teaching, what tasks are we asking kids to do, what quality expectations do we have of them and how are we determining what they've learned?   Meaningless tasks and tests that simply measure how well you crammed the night before (or listened when the teacher gave all the answers the day before) are pointless.  So are "high expectations" that put format (headings, margins, typos, even fonts) above content.  Yes, there are teachers who won't accept papers that don't fit their exact specifications.

Compliance is a nice thing.  It's not the reason we have schools though.  Let's refocus on what we want students to know and be able to do when they exit our classes.  Grades should reflect our values.  Do they now?


  1. I so admire your hard and experienced thinking on education. Have you applied to the Dept. of Ed? NO JOKE!!!! THEY NEED YOU DESPERATELY!

    We need you....but I am going to accept whatever future you chose.... I would ONLY ASK that when you blog, please send the thoughts off to BIG NEWSPAPERS and well known magazines: I offer a challenge. Ross has had letters published in THREE of his fav mags....two were golf I think but one was ...big.... a news mag...not Newsweek....something something and Reports? AND BET YOU CAN DO SO IN LOT LESS TIME THAN HE DID!!!!!! He took...five years of retirement. I would give your about three months!


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