(I was so impressed with this post on Donna Seibenthaler’s blog recently that I asked her permission to share it on this blog. Donna, thank you for putting these important thoughts down in writing.)
In the world of action adventure movies and comic books, directors and writers often talk about “rebooting” a series. It’s a way of beginning a series anew with the same characters, a way of giving them a fresh start for a new generation of viewers and readers. Well, I propose we reboot our grading system.
One of the issues I struggle with as a teacher is convincing my students that grades alone should not be the ultimate goal of their academic career. Many of my students, particularly my AP students, come to my class as sophomores and juniors in high school never having received less than an A. These are type-A, grade-motivated (perhaps, grade-obsessed) students who have a hard time learning how to accept less-than-perfect grades with maturity and a positive attitude. At times, I find I have to defend myself to students and parents when I give B’s and C’s, while I attempt to move beyond points and letter grades to what really matters: learning!
I don’t know how I feel about grade inflation. I know that there has been evidence to support the idea that grade inflation is a real threat to American education, and I also know that there has been evidence downplaying this threat. Based on my own limited experience, I believe there is some legitimacy to the idea that grade inflation is alive and well in our schools. Why this is occurring is a complicated question. What follows is a few ideas I have for students about putting their grades in the proper perspective and rebooting the grading system as a whole.
- Believe it or not, C is still a passing grade. C means average. A student who receives a C on an assignment or for the semester did average work. They did not fail. Somehow, many students and parents now equate C with below average, and that’s simply not the case. Likewise, A’s refer to stellar, excellent work, not simply above average work. B’s are for above average work.
- The teacher who gives out mostly A’s is not necessarily doing well by the students, and the teacher who gives out mostly B’s and C’s is not necessarily doing students a disservice. Often the teacher who gives out mostly A’s is not challenging students, not compelling them to reach their full potential or learn the most. For example, I received a hard-fought-for B- in one of the college courses in which I learned the most, while in classes where I earned an A, I learned much less overall. Sometimes those teachers who give out A’s left and right are so tired of defending themselves when giving out B’s and C’s, that they give up and give A’s even when they are not deserved, making those grades less meaningful and not reflective of actual learning. If everyone gets A’s, or even A’s and B’s, grades become meaningless. There is no way to tell if actual learning or improvement is taking place.
- If grade inflation is occurring, colleges have no way of knowing whether students really earned those good grades. All students’ GPAs, even those who did earn those grades, become meaningless. If GPAs become less reflective of student achievement, colleges will, if they are not already, focus exclusively on standardized test scores like ACT or SAT scores. Do your ACT scores and GPA “match”? If not, why do you think that is? I think colleges want to see students challenge themselves and will often look more favorably on a B in an advanced course than an A in the easiest course possible.
- In life, effort matters, but it’s only one component. I’ve had students say, “Well, I gave my best effort, so I think I deserve an A even though I didn’t write the best essay or get 90% of the questions on the test correct.” That’s like saying, “Well, I gave my best effort, so I think I should get the job or promotion even though the other guy is a better candidate and more qualified.” I, like most teachers I know, reward effort, often on the smaller assignments. But I can’t base my grades solely on effort. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just won’t “get it” right away. You will fall a little short. That’s okay. If you keep putting in your best effort, you’ll “get it” eventually, and in the meantime, the teacher will reward your effort when she can.
- If your primary focus is on grades, you are missing the forest for the trees. You will memorize for a quiz or test so you get the points, but you won’t really be learning for life. As courses get more challenging and more comprehensive in nature, you will find it harder to manage because your primary focus has been on grades and not learning.
- Intrinsic motivation will take you further in life. You will not always be graded in this life. When you no longer have that extrinsic motivation, what will be your reward? Developing intrinsic motivation is important as you leave high school and head out into college and beyond. Learn how to motivate yourself.
- Believe it or not, grades tend to take care of themselves if you are focused on learning for learning’s sake. The A or B may not come right away, but it will come along eventually, but you must focus your attention where it matters, i.e. not on points.