Nancy's Columns

The Grading Dilemma

Under topic: testing

Teachers face a dilemma when forced to give students letter grades: A, B, C, D, F. When an average student receives the average grade of C does this mean he mastered the content of the course in a satisfactory way given his potential? Or does it mean that an above average student did not accomplish what was expected of him and received an unsatisfactory grade of C. Who is to know if there is this distinction when un-commented grades are given and posted in records? Also what is the range of accomplishment between an A and a B grade?

Did one student do work that would be considered outstanding and receive the same A as another student who just barely made the A grade?

Or does the A grade mean that the student showed great improvement and is being rewarded for his effort?

College placement offices have always had problems with letter grades because one teacher's A means something quite different from another teacher's.

Are the grades given to reflect only the mastering of the course content? Do they reflect effort and improvement on the part of the student? Are they based on completion of homework assignments and attendance at class? In these latter cases, a student presumably could show mastery of the subject on a test, but still receive a low grade because of poor attendance, missed homework or a "poor attitude." Elementary schools seem to have less difficulty with grades than high schools. In elementary schools teachers tend to confer more often with each other and with parents.

Students usually know where they stand in relation to the rest of the class. Also programs and the placement of students do not depend wholly on the grades in the folder. Teachers use other criteria and are more flexible in making adjustments to programs to fit the students' needs.

They also get to know each individual child and can be more responsive to his or her needs. This is not true in high school. Teachers make judgments about many more students whom they see for less time and these judgments can affect students' futures.

College placement offices have always had problems with letter grades because one teacher's A means something quite different from another teacher's.

Colleges solve this problem, in part, by keeping track of the students from a particular school and correlating their high school grades with subsequent performance. In other words, they find out what an A from that school really means. Recently, in New Jersey, it was discovered that after taking the placement exam, 73 percent of all entering freshmen at Middlesex County College needed to take a remedial course in either math, reading or writing before taking the regular college curriculum.

That should not be surprising given the national trend.

What is surprising is that some of these students apparently did not know they were candidates for remedial courses.

Madan Capoor, Middlesex County College director of research and planning, is quoted as saying that some freshmen, who failed the test, were shocked at their low placement scores because they had gotten C's, B's and a few A's in high school. Some wept. Perhaps it is time for school systems to re-evaluate their reporting procedures.

Instead of giving letter grades which either have no meaning or which have different meanings for different people, students should be told exactly what they can do and cannot do and what programs will be available to them. Letter grades do not give this information.

This type of reporting also has the potential of being used punitively or as a reward and can be very discouraging.

Students need to be encouraged to take the next step in learning, letter grades do not assist in this process.

First published in 1998

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