What Do Grades Really Mean?

What is the purpose and meaning of grades? What is the difference in your mind between an A and a B or an E and an S? Should top grades be given only for mastering hard-to-learn concepts or information? You really need to look at these and many other questions before you begin grading students.

There has been some controversy about whether grading is a good or even appropriate practice. Some people question the overall effect of grading on the self-esteem of the student. However, at this point grading and assessments remain one of the few ways we have to determine mastery of knowledge.

Elementary School Grades

Teachers and many parents approach grades differently in elementary school than they do in middle and high schools. In one way, this approach is very healthy. Teachers are able to provide parents with an understanding of where their student stands based on the required benchmarks for that grade. Then the parents and teachers can use this information to provide better instruction and help to the student.

If a student earns all E's except for one S in reading, the parents should understand that the student might need a little extra help in that subject. Obviously, an S is a good grade, but the difference between that grade and those earned in the other courses allows for parents to compare against educational benchmarks.

Further, very low grades in elementary school can help teachers and parents decide if a student needs to repeat a year in school to be better prepared for middle and high school.

Major Trends in High Schools

Unfortunately, there is a major trend for students in high school and college to receive more As. This is not occurring because the students are suddenly achieving at a higher level. Instead, it is the pressure of outside forces acting on school systems.

You should strive to maintain your own belief of what constitutes A-quality work and not allow it to be compromised. Remember, if a student comes back a few years after leaving your class and he cannot read, people are going to question how he could possibly have received an A (or B or C) in your class.

Should the number of As you give equal the number of Fs?

Forcing grades to conform to a bell curve using arbitrary standards does more harm than good. It is better to teach effectively and assess validly, all the while working to help all students achieve A-level work.

Grading Too Low

Realize that if you give an inordinate amount of Ds or Fs, you will probably also receive a lot of questions from your administration. In fact, some administrations actively discourage giving low grades to students. It can be difficult as a new or inexperienced teacher to fight the administration on this particular issue.

However, if you have a good reason to give low grades, and you have the evidence to prove that the student earned those grades, then you should definitely do it. Low scores should always be cause for reflection. An effective teacher should examine her methods and look for new ways to teach the material.

With that said, if you give a test or assignment that every student fails, you should take a deeper look at the reasons. As previously discussed, something may have been confusing or there may have been a problem with the wording, and you may want to consider throwing out the results. If the failures were caused by a lack of studying on your students' part, then definitely keep and use the scores.

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