What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

Etruscan A.
Image via Wikipedia

As a student I never liked the idea of grades because they never told the right story about my effort (or lack of it), my abilities (or lack of them) or whether I was being challenged enough.

Was that B because I couldn’t do A-level work or because I was not interested enough to do so, or because the assignment was too easy and did not require my full attention or effort?.

As a parent, I don’t like grades because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my son: he’s a great reader and writer who loves history but struggles with math and the whole concept of homework. (except for the math part he is a lot like me as a student).

As a teacher, I don’t like grades because they do not represent a standardized scale of measurement. An inch is an inch and a mile is a mile, but what the hell is a B-minus? Is my b-minus the same as the teacher in the next room’s, in the next school’s? What is the distinction between a B and a C, and does that C I might give mean the work was too challenging for that student or that I could not engage her enough to get her to work hard. Does that B represent an otherwise A student who didn’t try or an otherwise D student who got inspired and worked his tail off.

I also don’t like grades because I see my students concerned more with what grade they might get than with what they might learn in pursuit of that grade.

In addition to teaching in a middle school, I teach at a college, SUNY/Empire State College, that for most of its existence did not give letter grades.

We give them now because graduate schools demand it, but we continue the process of writing narratives about a student’s learning, how that learning was accomplished and how it was demonstrated.

I graduated from this college and my transcript is about a half-inch thick (no wonder grad schools don’t like them), but it gives the best description of me as a learner I have ever seen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give that kind of description to all students and their parents? What would it take to make that happen?

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11 Responses to What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

  1. Mary Beth Hertz says:


    I’m happy to you expand on your comment from my grading post. I am hoping to convince my school to let me do narrative report cards, but first I have to find a way to make the process easier. With 300 students it’s a lot of work!

    One more thought: when we give letter/number grades we dehumanize teaching by turning our students into numbers. If we had to write narratives we would be forced to get to know our students.

  2. gtceblog says:

    This reminds me of when I taught for a semester at a university in North America and the grades I would have normally given as a university teacher in the UK were considered outrageous in the context of the US. In the UK at the time, it was extremely rare to get an A grade and relatively rare to get B – and so I continued this practice in the US. But my American students who I gave B’s too insisted that their work was worth an A. I remember thinking “Who is the professor here..?”

  3. Karen Chichester says:

    Amen Brother Deven. I’d also like to add that grades are lousy motivators. A well written IEP tells me more about a student than his report card ever could.

  4. As a teacher just beginning to put together a program and collect work samples of students, I’m trying to figure out what an A in my class even means.

  5. As a parent, I’d love that. šŸ™‚

  6. A letter grade is as bad as giving the class average. Why do parents get so wrapped up in how their child is doing relative to the class average? This is frightening. Have they ever thought about what is being averaged. Wouldn’t it be nice to standardize all students and teaching… forget about that “human” factor…

  7. Amanda A. says:

    For artwork, grading is done via portfolio. So are school admissions — but only for artists. When are we going to start viewing all learning as art and grade it accordingly?
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Deven Black says:

      But even grading by portfolio can be a bad deal. Is your eye the same as the eye of the art teacher in the school in the next town? Are there concrete standards by which to assess that portfolio. Is the portfolio graded on a pass/fail system or is it assigned a letter or number grade? Who determines the criteria by which the decision to pass or fail is made? Is there any assurance that all art teachers follow the same standard?

      I know I’m being a little extreme, and I don’t know at what level you teach, but I suspect all grades are subject to the same ambiguity, even math grades. Yes, one can say Jill got 80% of the questions correct on the collection of tests given in the class, but is that average then adjusted to account for homework compliance, notebook neatness, or any other criteria?

      I) am not against grades, per se. I am against ambiguous grades, irrational grades and grades that don’t communicate enough information to any of the parties involved. Unfortunately, I suspect those criteria cover the overwhelming number of grades issued.

  8. Barb Lieberman says:

    How about individualized educational plans for every student? Then, everyone involved with that student has to write a report that reflects strengths, progress, and continuining challenges…

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