What Are Grades Anyway?

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It’s the end of the school year. As a student, I loved this time of year. I put in extra effort to do my best on my exams and then felt the freedom that comes with summer. But as a teacher, I hated this time of year. Parents and students both become fixated on grades, and suddenly I wondered whether the main goal of my job was the doling out of As.

We can debate all day about whether an A should mean “exceeds expectations” or “just exactly what was wanted”, but the tension around grades still won’t disappear. As a former teacher (and previously long-time student), here are some thoughts on grades.

1. Yes, there is subjectivity involved in grading, whether we like it or not. Good teachers try to grade fairly and consistently. I used multiple forms of assessment (tests but also papers, performances, and projects), gave frequent grades, and tried not to look at names of students when grading papers and exams. But grades are not an objective measuring tool most of the time. Even objective questions (like true-false or multiple choice) involve subjectivity as a teacher chooses which questions to put on an exam and how to word them

But an amount of subjectivity is okay. Very few areas in life are totally objective, and though grades are subjective, the overall picture they give of the student is still usually accurate and fair.  Teachers have varied ways of looking at and accounting for grades. Try as we might (and most teachers definitely try!), grades aren’t a perfect measuring stick that is consistent and objective across the board.

2. Grades are a tool and do give some reliable information.

A test grade gives the following information:

What your students knows…

  • About this particular subject
  • On this particular day
  • As it relates to this particular test

A final grade in a class shows how well your student can demonstrate that he/she knows the material (which is a combination of knowledge and effort on both the teachers’ and students’ parts).

A grade is a tool to show you whether or not your child is meeting a standard. It is okay if your child gets a B. I was a very diligent student and often obsessive about grades. But I remember getting a B+  my first semester of Latin. Though I was disappointed and felt that I had worked hard, I also realized that this was fair. I really didn’t understand Latin that first semester though I did all the work; things started to click for me the next year. The same thing happened in Geometry. I’ve heard that employers–and even colleges–can be skeptical of straight A students as this can possibly indicate an employee or student who isn’t well-rounded.

This was definitely true of my college GPA. Though I wasn’t a straight A student in college, I was close. But as I received my diploma, a part of me regretted the honors listed there because I saw the often-angry, constantly-stressed life I had led to achieve the grades. And work-life balance is still a tremendous struggle for me, as the pursuit of work excellence can often lead to a forgetfulness of all the other important things in life.

Through the course of all my years of education, I probably received more unfair high grades than unfair low grades, and most likely the same is true for your student too as teachers often give completion grades and projects that allow students to boost their grades. Most of the time, teachers are required to provide objectives ahead of time and tie their tests to these goals. They are often required to provide study guides or a review of material  before a test and to use detailed rubrics in much of their grading.

Like many tools, grades are imperfect, but when looked at as a whole across a long period of time, grades give some reliable information.

3. As a tool (albeit an imperfect one)grades are good practice. Obviously, grading is less consistent in college with professors who have a good deal more freedom. So it is good for a student to get used to multiple teaching and assessment styles early.

But further down the line will receive feedback on our jobs and on many other aspects of our lives (premarital counseling, personality assessments for work, etc.). These are tools to be used but are not the ultimate goal of life. Let’s look at an example.

When I taught, the principal would come in occasionally to sit in on a class and then review my work. He would sometimes give notice and sometimes come unnannounced. There were times that I felt he sat in on a class that was a good sample of what I was teaching and how, but other times, the class wasn’t a good representation. Thus sometimes the feedback he gave was better and more helpful than others. As I did for my own students’ papers, he had a long list of things he was looking for. At times, I felt this was fair. Other times, I wanted to tweak his list. These reviews may have been imperfect, but each one gave helpful feedback. However, I didn’t do my job for these reviews any more than I did my job just for money. Students need to find intrinsic value in their work even when it is hard. And the tools used to review that work should be used just as that–tools.

Grades are an imperfect but semi-reliable measuring tool of how your student is performing. If you trust the school and their system, then see the grade for what it is: a way to see what your student knows as far as he is able to demonstrate it.

4. Most importantly, teachers don’t base their love for your child on grades. This may be cliche, but it is true. I loved the delightful students who were constantly forgetting that there was a test but could get so wrapped up in a book that they finished it in two days. Or the ones who struggled with writer’s block and tears and came to me for help. Or the ones who always had genuinely good contributions in class.  Or the ones who cheated but repented. Teachers genuinely love students, and I didn’t have a harder time loving students with low grades. A teacher will not teach exactly the way you would, but that it okay. A teacher may not show love the way you do. But most of the time, the teacher cares a great deal for the students and the content.

The life lessons learned in the academic journey are crucial life lessons about grace and work and performance. Grades are one part of learning how to work, how to take feedback, when to rest, and how to improve.

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