Grade Articulation

In the previous discussion we examined setting a meaningful goal for the entire class.  We saw how it can transform the way a class works together and how it can help all levels of students feel connected, engaged, responsible, and valuable. 

Now let’s talk about the measuring stick, grades.  We are going to break this discussion into two parts, defining grades and then grade alignment.

In the abstract sense, grades should be a validation of accomplishing the goal and serving the purpose of the class.  Grades should not be the goal or the focus.  In a basketball game the objective is to win, which means to score more points than the opposition.  However, teams that focus on scoring, instead of ending up on the positive side of the balance sheet, scoring more points than the opponent, often fall short over time.  The old adage is, defense wins games. 

Over the years I’ve had countless fights with administrators, counselors, parents, students, and even other teachers, over grades.  The failure rate is too high, or someone else’s passing rate indicates that nobody is doing anything in that class.  Students and parents fret over GPA and class ranking as if colleges really care about such things over SAT and ACT scores.  I even know of a person in a position of leadership in education who had their child take the easiest possible courses so they could best secure a high GPA.  The thinking was that such a GPA would help them with college.  It did not.

The arguments over grades can quickly disappear if your grades are well defined and articulated in correlation with your class purpose.  The issue should never be the grade but the performance of the student.  Of course, teachers can always improve and should work to do so.  However, if you’re reading this, you’re already on that path!  Let’s get into it.

For a decade I taught night classes at the local community college, Cochise Community College.  Cochise County is a small county in southeastern Arizona.  That means you’ve probably never heard of it.  You should have, though.  A few years ago the college was recognized as the 2nd best college in the nation for, in short, academic success.

During one year’s convocation, which always came with a fantastic breakfast, the chancellor focused on grades. 

“The biggest issue educational institutions are facing today is grade inflation.”

I was floored.  I expected him to focus on failure rates, or enrollment, or … something fluffy and superficial.  Now, whether he was correct in sighting it as a problem, meaning it has negative consequences, is up for debate.  But, the trends are obvious.  Below you can see a graph from the website https:/ comparing average GPA in various school from 1983 until 2013.

This increase in GPA is in direct conflict with the confidence the public has in public schools as reported by The Daily Signal.

Maybe the good chancellor was onto something?  The way he framed what grades should mean, how students earn grades, and how the teacher should consider and award grades fundamentally changed my approach to education.  Let me reconstruct his argument here.

First off, an A is an exceptional grade, a C is a normal grade.  This is because grades should have the following meanings.

  1. The letter grade A should mean mastery.  Mastery, in this context, means the student fully understands all of the required material at a level they would be equipped to teach other students.

  2. The letter grade B should mean fluency.  Fluency, in this context, means that a student is very good with the material.  However, it is not fluid, frequent mistakes are made, and there are some minor gaps in understanding or ability. 

  3. The letter grade C should mean proficiency.  Proficiency, in this context, means that a student has met the minimum requirements as outlined by the course expectations sheet to be awarded credit for the class.

  4. The letter grade D should mean approaching.  The student is approaching, but not yet attaining, proficiency.  They have not satisfied the requirements of the course as outlined in the course expectations sheet.

An F, of course, is awarded to students who are not nearing proficiency.  They’ve either failed to perform nearly entirely, or were misplaced in the course.

Before continuing, let’s examine what’s wrong with grade inflation.  Grade inflation serves the short-term desires of more than just students.  Of course, they want to pass the class.  However, passing the class in the absence of merit or development is meaningless.  Not all educators get this, certainly not everybody outside of education agrees.  I once had a coworker who was pursuing a Master’s degree offer to pay me to do her statistics homework for her! 

Grade inflation is a false safety net for students that are either insecure or lazy.  But, it is also a safety net for teachers.  An ineffective teacher doesn’t really have to do the hard work of developing, if they can award grades inappropriately.  Not be clear, all teachers start off ineffective.  Teaching is a very difficult thing to learn.  Efficacy in teaching is not just a matter of course, it takes devotion, reflection, risk taking, and guidance. 

Worse yet, a lazy teacher can really get by with grade inflation.  Nobody really complains about their child having an A in a class.  The parents might suspect that the student isn’t get challenged and hasn’t earned the grade they’ve been awarded, but it’s a good grade.

To explore a little more about the negative consequences of grade inflation, please consider this article by Resilient Educator.

How do you know if a student deserves one letter grade over another?  Well, that’s slightly dependent on the class.  However, if extra credit, test retakes (more on this later), or other non-academic performance is taken into consideration, grade inflation results.  Students must demonstrate their level of knowledge, proficiency, and performance (as is appropriate to the class), in accordance with the course expectations sheet.  If a student is in a writing class, examples of their writing should make up the bulk of their grade.  In a foreign language class, the student must demonstrate a level of competence with reading, writing, and speaking. 

In short, the students must pass the assessments and the assessments must be appropriate for that class.  A student that consistently receives a low C or high D on tests does not deserve an A or a B in the class, no matter how hard they tried.  Effort develops ability, ability is reflected in grades.  Effort is not directly reflected in grades. 

The chancellor’s expectation was that the teaching staff became less flexible with respect to how a student can earn their grades.  However, he also expected the teaching staff to be far more flexible with the timeline of grade assessment.

His argument went like this.  If you are teaching a semester long class where students are responsible to learn things X, Y and Z, and you begin with thing X.  If a student failed to demonstrate proficiency with thing X on the first exam, but in learning thing Y develop their understanding and demonstrated that on a subsequent test, shouldn’t that be good enough?

In other words, the final exam is king!  Now, the test must be high quality.  If old questions are rehashed, the level of rigor is significantly diminished.  At that point, students only have to remember to answer correctly.  They’re not actually demonstrating proficiency with the subject.

Student grades should be a reflection of their level of proficiency with the content of the class as demonstrated under circumstances that can accurately evaluate the student.  Class attendance and participation help expose students to the ideas.  Homework allows them to practice.  Tutoring allows them to address misunderstanding, confusion, and inefficiencies.  Quizzes are a check-up, to see where students are.  As such, a quiz informs a student of their progress.  The tests are where the accumulation of the learning is demonstrated for evaluation purposes. 

The chancellor wanted teachers to carefully evaluate the level each student demonstrated on appropriate assessments for their particular class.  For example, at the end of the course, if students demonstrated fluency in the subject on an academically valid assessment, they deserved a B.

Tests and the Poor Children

One way in which grade inflation occurs is through inappropriate levels of rigor.  A question’s ability to allow a teacher insight into the student’s ability level in a subject depends on a few factors.  First, if the question is based on rote memory, not much insight is gained.  You can memorize phrases in a foreign language without understanding any meaning.  Further, this would not demonstrate the ability to form a sentence in a foreign language.  So a question must challenge a student to apply what they know.  Memorization of facts is important, it provides reference and common ground for understanding and communication.  Typically, more than memorization is required to be even proficient in a subject beyond say 5th grade.  I’m sure there’s some grey area here, but the point remains.

Second, if the question requires problem-solving, then for the performance to be a valid reflection of the student’s ability to apply knowledge and solve problems, the question must be new to the student.  Once the path to the solution is known, the procedure can be practices and rehearsed. 

Third, if a teacher coaches a student on exactly what will be on the test and the test is too narrowly focused on a handful of concepts, the student does not demonstrate problem-solving skills, memory, resourcefulness, and creativity.  They simply mimic what they were just shown.

A test should allow a teacher to assess a student’s ability level with the content of the course.  Too often, to secure good grades, compliance, blind effort, and short-term memory are all that is required to pass a test.  All of these conspire to all but guarantee that a student “forgets,” what they “learned.”  To read more about this memory dump, please consider this article by Edutopia.

Here’s an unpopular sentiment.  Learning is hard.  Tests are hard.  That’s okay.  It’s okay to struggle. 

Now, some in education say, There’s no need to have a high-stakes test.  They don’t exist in the real world. 

This is 100% false.  A pure fabrication, at best.  If a student wants to become a licensed Lineman for a utility company they must serve a four-year apprenticeship, which is concluded with a set of high stakes, one-shot only, tests.  That’s right, if they fail, they’re on the look-out for a new career.  Lawyers take the BAR, the GRE is required for many Master’s programs, and employers often give difficult tests to potential employees.  Students aren’t fragile.  Test-taking is hard, yes, but facing challenges is what helps us, as people, develop!

Let’s just say it like this.  There is no chance of success if there’s not a legitimate chance of failure.  And what someone does in response to failure says a lot about who they are.  But, we all have to learn how to respond to failure.  Resilience is hard to attain but very valuable.

Aligning Grades

At some point in this discussion, you may have wished for a greater definition of mastery or fluency, and wondered about the delineation between the two.  Let’s tackle that. 

Mastery should be demonstrated under conditions that mirror the highest level of recognized achievement on the measuring stick.  That measuring stick can be the end of course examination, an external test like AP, IB, Cambridge IGCSE or As, or in the case of a certification course, the certification test.  Exactly how that articulation is designed is up to the teacher. 

Suppose you’re teaching an AP test.  The grades awarded by AP that signify successful completion of the course are 5, 4, and sometimes 3, depending on the subject.  It might be appropriate to say a student projected to get a 5 deserves an A in the class.  Perhaps, a student projected to get a 4 deserves an A.  Once that determination is made, it needs to be explicitly clear to administrators, counselors, parents, and students.

A student that wants an A in my class must display a level of mastery that would translate to earning this score on the end-of-course examination.  That means they consistently demonstrate high levels of proficiency and are continually improving.  

That arrangement means that you must follow the good chancellor’s advice.  It will be critically important to consider the body of work produced by the student.  Maybe they stumbled at some point.  Due to how grades are calculated is that stumble creating an exaggerated negative effect on their grade? 

When we get into purposeful practice we will discuss how to mirror the level of difficulty in assessments and activities to help prepare students for the test, as well as to provide you the insight into their level of performance, which helps you determine a grading structure.

One last word on the subject … the measuring stick.  Your class must have an external measuring stick.  It provides you feedback on your performance, gives the students a goal that you do not control, and lumps you and the students together in the efforts.  Maybe you’re fortunate enough to teach an IB or AP course, or something similar. 

Unfortunately, a lot of standardized tests are completely insufficient for this as they lack transparency and feedback.  In my home state of Arizona, our standardized tests are complete and total garbage.  How does one create a 742-point scale from a 60 question multiple-choice test?  Pure voodoo!  It is meaningless information because you do not see the questions, get specific feedback on the performances of your students, and cannot reverse engineer the information you get to arrive at an understanding.  It either went well, or it didn’t.

If you do not have a measuring stick, that is, a test written by someone other than you that allows students to demonstrate what they know about the topics in the class, I’d advise you create one.  Perhaps have some members of your department write a test for you, and you return the favor.  Provide a list of the topics that are to be learned, and the level at which they are to be understood by students, and let them write the test.  At the end of the course, you administer the test without having seen it yourself.  It would be better if someone other than you graded the tests, as such would remove any bias, but that would be the icing on the cake. 

Wrap It Up

Imagine a student approaches you to ask, “Why don’t I have an A?” 

You could respond, “What does it mean to have an A?”

Now, imagine that student said, “To have an A means that I have demonstrated the highest proficiency at the highest level on appropriate assessments.”

I hope this discussion will motivate you to put in place all of the pieces so that such a conversation could occur.  You’ll need to define your grades, establish appropriate assessments, align the level of difficulty with your external test (if you have one), and educate all involved about the structure and meaning of grades. 

It is a lot of work, and likely will require annual revision and consideration.  However, by having a more appropriate grading tool your students will better develop and better perform.  It is worth it!

3 thoughts on “Grades

  1. Sam D

    Good read, enjoyed thinking about this stuff again after a long time since I left teaching 7th grade math and science) I used to spend time with my students (and the parents) talking about how I viewed the difference between assessment and evaluation. What the purpose of them were and how some were in our control and others were not.

    1. onteaching Post author

      That’s an interesting observation to make with parents and students. They think a “point” is a “point.” How long ago did you teach?

      1. Sam

        I taught until my second daughter was born and she just turned 21, which is crazy to me. I have stayed engaged in education (site council, pta and some political collaborations) also a number of my friends are teachers. I miss the classroom but the ‘business’ of teaching reduces the appeal. A couple of my former students I still see from time to time (two actually work for my wife at Raytheon)

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