What Does a Course Grade Really Mean?

When a high school freshman receives a grade of ‘85’ in Algebra I, everyone, from college admissions officers to the student’s parents, interprets the grade to mean that the student has achieved an 85% mastery of the subject.  In theory, that is what the grade represents; however, rarely is that actually the case.  One might wonder if report cards and transcripts border on false advertisement.

Three grading practices commonly adopted by teachers create this disconnect around what a grade really represents.  The first is cumulative grading effect; the second is extra credit points; and the third is effort points.  Either standing alone or in concert, these practices are the biggest culprits in the false representation of course grades.

The cumulative grading effect refers to the idea that grades earned throughout the year are averaged for a final grade.  In this scenario, a math student could struggle early in the year trying to develop conceptual frameworks to digest the subject matter.  This early struggle could cause a series of bad grades on exams and quizzes that would skew the final grade even if she were to finally master the subject.  On the other hand, in the same math class, a student might demonstrate a consistent, yet less than complete, level of mastery across the entire year and have a cumulative grade average higher than that of the other student.  This could, and often does, cause a teacher to assign grades that do not truly represent each student’s relative level of mastery.

Extra credit points are another culprit in false representation of grades.  Teachers regularly try to motivate students by giving extra credit points. Though faculty sometimes give these extra credit points for activities that reflect additional effort in the subject, often the extra credit points are merely used to manipulate students to act in a way preferred by the teacher.  Or, at other times, extra credit points might be given to a student for actions focused on a school or class project without any relation to the subject area mastery. Bringing canned goods for a school food drive and earning points for doing so would be appropriate for a civics class focused at that time on helping the less fortunate, but not in Algebra 1. In this latter example, extra credit points drastically distort the meaning of the course grade earned and serve to undermine the grade’s usefulness as a measure of mastery.

The third culprit that harms the meaning of the course grade is the practice of awarding effort points.  Obviously as educators, we should do what is necessary to foster a good work ethic whenever possible.  However, if the course grade is to represent the mastery level of the subject, a legitimate question arises as to the appropriateness of granting points based solely on effort.  Effort points exist in assignments such as extra credit readings, homework assignments that are repetitive rather than for exhibiting subject mastery, class participation credit, and attendance points.  Though all of these are valuable and I do not think that these assignments should go away, they should not be used to affect the final course grade. Instructors should not use these practices purely to motivate students to do what is required to master the subject.

In an ideal world, students would be motivated, inspired, encouraged, engaged, and taught completely about the subject throughout the school year or semester with a reliable and valid measure of subject mastery at the end of the course.  The measure of subject mastery would be accurately represented by the transcripted grade.  However, such a measure of subject mastery does not exist in most cases and high stakes single test measures are not preferable.  But, that should not stop educators from attempting to have the student’s transcript more accurately reflect the course ending mastery in the subject area.

Many independent schools might reconsider grading policies and creatively develop methods of representing that which we value without skewing or distorting the meaning of the course grade on a student’s transcript.  One thing that is certain, for anyone who views a student’s transcript, the final course grade represents in his or her mind the level of subject mastery attained by the student.

Suggested exercise:

As your school considers its grading process, values, and policies, a useful exercise for a faculty meeting is:  Distribute a hypothetical student’s grade sheet for a given year to all faculty members.  For example, Johnny’s grades are: test 1 = 92, test 2 = 78, test 3 = 94, quiz 1 = 50, quiz 2 = 78, attendance = 175 of 180 days, etc.  Ask each faculty member to calculate a final course grade based on his or her current grading practices.  Chances are that if there are 50 faculty members present, you might receive 50 different final grades for the same hypothetical student.  To the schools that are so consistent on grading policies that all faculty members calculate the same grade, I commend you.  For the schools that arrive at multiple final grades, take the opportunity to rethink your grading policies.

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