Transparency in Teaching (Stuff) Podcast

002 “F” for Failing — Grading Grades

002 “F” for Failing -- Grading Grades

First, this is just my opinion. For what that’s worth, it’s the opinion of someone who’s been in the classroom for 33 years. I don’t know how students view grades in elementary school. I get the feeling that parents are more focused on grades than their children are at that age. I say this based on my own experience raising my two boys.  

I can’t say I remember my boys ever telling me they got an A or a B on something.  I found out how my kids were doing at parent conferences, and although my sons sat next to me while the teacher explained their strengths and weaknesses, I don’t remember my boys being very concerned. Perhaps that’s because they were both “good” students who did their homework and didn’t misbehave in class. It was only when they entered junior high school that there was a sudden change of awareness of how they were doing based on grades. This is when the grading went from “outstanding,” “satisfactory,” and “needs improvement” to the alphabetical representation of ability. 

So, let’s talk briefly about the A, B, and C stuff.  Suddenly, with the beginning of junior high, a new set of expectations is thrust upon kids and parents, but it’s really not so new.  

The alphabetical grading system is something that we’ve had ingrained in our heads since what seems like the beginning of time. But what do those letters really represent? Somewhere, we’ve come to believe that an A means you’re passing, and earning a C is not acceptable.

In reality, a C means you did exactly as you were asked to do; you met all the requirements.  A grade of B means you did more than expected, and an A really should mean an exceptional quality of work was done that went above and beyond what was required. An A has lost that meaning over all the years of student evaluation. 

Many students think that just turning in an assignment means they will get an A. “But I turned that in!” is what I get when students wonder why their grade is lower than they think they deserve. They seem to have forgotten that quality counts for something.  Students constantly ask me what they need to do to get an A. I never tell them because then that’s ALL they will do. They won’t strive to go beyond whatever requirements that an A entails. The learning stops there. 

Most of the students I see today have little or no drive to go beyond their learning. They are solely focused on what it takes to get an A, well, at least those who strive to complete work and actually care about their grades.  I have a slew who couldn’t give a shit about them. They’ve given up on grades from years of failure. (That’s a whole other rant!!) 

Our “A” students are “A” students because they do their homework, meet the requirements, and read at grade level, which in actuality should really be a C.  As teachers, many of us are so stunned when we have students who care and actually complete the work that we’ve come to see their minimal effort as an “A”, when probably they are really C or B students.  

You can’t really blame these kids who are considered our “good” students. They have had it drilled into their heads that you need A’s to get into a good college, so challenging themselves might mean failing, and failing is bad. They have had their curiosity and willingness to try new things educated right out of them. 

But what does this lie of upgrading students really do for them? They have come to believe that they are better at a subject than they really are. Then, once in high school, where grades actually matter because they are markers for college acceptance, they may begin to fail or not receive those coveted A’s they were so used to. We are making them believe they are more competent than they really are.  Is that fair? So that brings me back to the question, “What do grades really mean?”

The answer is nothing much. So much of grading is subjective. A teacher decides what constitutes an A. What is that teacher basing that on? Retrieving memorized material on a multiple-choice test? Writing a decent paragraph, Turning in all the homework on time? There is no consistency between teachers, schools, or grade levels. The grade earned is based on one person’s opinion.  

You can set qualifiers or even use what’s become so buzzy, Standards-Based Grading, but whether a student met that standard is still subjective. Teacher preparation programs do not do any training on how to grade (at least not that I know of). One teacher’s A is another’s C. So what’s a student or parent to do? 

The trick is to figure out how each teacher grades, which might mean a few low grades on the first few assignments until the detective work is done. I remember doing this for my college courses. Then there’s learning which teachers grade easily and which don’t. Then, students try to sign up for those educators who will require the least effort for a good grade. You see, it’s not really about learning anymore. 

What I think we really need to focus on is teaching kids how to learn, not what to learn. We need to grade the process, not the product. We should be rewarding those that try and fail and try again. The grade that is earned should be based on growth, not whether or not they meet some sort of arbitrary goal. (You can argue that the “goals” are not arbitrary, but somewhere, someone decides what is important and what is not.)  

Still, trying to differentiate your curriculum to meet the needs of 34 students in 6 different classes is a seemingly impossible task, especially when teachers are expected to cover a certain amount of material each year. What do you do when you have some students who are still struggling with a concept and still provide for those who have already surpassed the goal?

For example, math classes have the most obvious issue here, as skill builds upon skill. Kids who don’t master concepts are still expected to go on to the next unit and do well. And what do we do with kids who are still reading at the third-grade level in seventh grade? At what point did our schools fail? Who’s fault is it if a kid gets promoted to the next grade when they haven’t mastered the skills of the current one? It’s like building a house on a poorly constructed foundation. Eventually, the house will fail, just like our students.

I don’t have a good answer on how to solve this grading problem. It is complex. Different populations of students have unique and changing needs.   

I concede we do need some way to measure what kids know. More importantly, we need a way to evaluate a student’s ability to use knowledge in innovative ways to solve problems. Whatever the answer is, it is NOT what we are doing now. 

What worked years ago doesn’t work with today’s students. Suppose the goal is to produce capable, productive, and knowledgeable people who can positively contribute to the advancement of humanity. In that case, we’ll need to find a more effective way to develop a student’s desire to learn than earning some educator’s subjective letter grade.

And well, that’s just my opinion….

Never stop learning,


What’s your opinion? How do we solve this issue? How do you encourage your students to succeed? How does your district handle students who remain below grade level?

Leave us your comments. We might use yours in an upcoming episode.

Resources used in this episode:

Do No-Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students? | Edutopia

Leading to Change / Effective Grading Practices

They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do? – Angels And Superheroes

Grading Systems – SCHOOL, HIGHER EDUCATION – Students, Grades, Teachers, and Learning –

Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) – PMC

Are Letter Grades Failing Our Students? | NEA

What Traditional Classroom Grading Gets Wrong (Opinion)

Why It’s Crucial – And Really Hard – To Talk About More Equitable Grading | KQED

School Grading Policies are Failing Children

Call to Action for Equitable Grading

An A Is Not An A Is Not An A: A History Of Grading

Grading Systems – SCHOOL, HIGHER EDUCATION – Students, Grades, Teachers, and Learning

Teachers are walking away from their careers in Alabama because of unruly students

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