According to the Trimble Banner newspaper, Board members in the Trimble County Schools (just up the Ohio River from Louisville) are debating the role of the "D" letter grade in the district high school's grading scale. The school dropped the D in 2007 (making an F a grade of 69 percent and below). Some board members want to bring it back, and want to hear from high school teachers on the issue. From what I can infer, proponents of the current "no D" policy believe that it ensures high expectations for student performance, and opponents worry that it encourages dropping out.
I'm sure the board members and educators on both sides of this discussion are well-intentioned, hard working, and thoroughly dedicated to the students of Trimble County. But these kinds of debates represent outdated thinking about student feedback. Traditional grading systems (and Trimble County's will remain traditional whether they bring back the D or not) actually hamper educators' efforts to help students master the skills and knowledge they need. In fact, it's time for educators to scrap the whole system of letter grades altogether. That's what many elementary schools across the country have already done, and it's time for high schools to follow suit.
Why do we give students grades in the first place? Ideally, we give grades because students and their parents need feedback that will help them improve their learning strategies and become more proficient relative to specific learning targets. The thing is, to give that kind of feedback, you don't need letter grades. Letter grade systems tend not to deliver meaningful, actionable feedback to students. Mostly they just serve as a proxy for a system of rewards and punishments that has little to do with what students have actually learned.
Letter grade systems don't provide much meaningful feedback to students
Letter grade systems don't provide much meaningful feedback to students for several reasons. First, learning needs to be organized around very clear objectives (learning targets that articulate what students should know or be able to do as a result). These learning targets need to be clearly understood by students, guide every stage of the learning process, and provide the precise basis upon which students are assessed. But in many high school classrooms, learning objectives are still not always clear to students (and sometimes teachers), and scores on classroom assessments don't always translate into the specific skills or content knowledge students are still lacking.
Additionally, teachers often figure in variables to students' grades that have nothing to do with their actual progress toward the specific learning objectives of the course. This includes completion of homework, timeliness of assignments, and other subjectively-valued student behaviors. These behaviors aren't necessarily unimportant, but including them in the student's grade distorts the capacity of that letter grade to tell students what they actually know and are able to do.
Furthermore, in many classrooms once an assignment or unit test is complete, the student has no real opportunity to correct their errors and demonstrate further progress toward the learning objectives. This makes grades more like an autopsy report, rather than a check up that would let you know how you can improve your health.
And finally, because there are so many of these subjective elements to teachers' grades, what makes for an "A" in one teacher's class many differ wildly from what it means in another's (even when the teachers teach the same course). For all these reasons, letter grades tend not to give students and their parents the kind of feedback they really need - if what we truly value is whether they learned the knowledge and skills associated the course.
Letter grade systems are a mechanism for rewards and punishments
But in fact, in many schools (especially high schools) letter grades just serve as a kind of mechanism for rewards and punishments that have little to do with student learning, and are often detrimental to real learning. Letter grades determine athletic and (sometimes) extra-curricular eligibility, for example, providing a mechanism to reward or punish students with the privilege of participating in school activities based on how well they play the game of "school."
Likewise, letter grades are used to calculate grade-point averages that determine scholarship eligibility, like the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES), a state program that rewards students with college scholarship money based on their gpa. KEES is a valuable and well-intentioned program, but its effect is to prop up a grading system that is outmoded and ineffective, and actually encourages grade inflation since high school teachers know their students' "KEES money" is on the line every time they assign grades.
And of course letter grades also help determine class rank and figure into the determination of valedictorians. In general I don't have much positive to say about that. Creating a sense of competition among students fosters cheating and academic anxiety and generally undercuts the greater social virtue of learning cooperation and a love of learning for its own sake. But high schools still very much emphasize the competitive effect of the grading system.
There's a better way
It's time for educators to admit all this and seek a better way of delivering student feedback. Many schools have developed straightforward systems of standards-based assessment and reporting that provide students and parents specific feedback on their progress toward learning targets. Students have ample opportunities to continue working on learning targets with which they struggle until they demonstrate mastery. Such systems emphasize learning as an end in itself and give all school stakeholders a clear understanding of what students actually know and are able to do - and a much better system by which teachers and administrators can know the impact of their work (and adjust accordingly).
But what about teaching kids work ethic? And what about athletic eligibility and KEES money and valedictorians? How do we address all of those things without letter grades?
Some of these concerns call for straightforward solutions. If you want to give students feedback about work ethic, timeliness, good behavior, etc., then develop rubrics that would accurately assess these dispositions (good luck with that) and deliver that feedback separately from their actual academic achievement. Regarding valedictorians - how about we just get rid of such outmoded systems of rewarding competition? Who can honestly say that most high school valedictorians have mastered more learning targets than any other student in their class? Or have they just played the game of school better? If you insist on rewarding someone for learning more than someone else, then make sure they actually have.
Regarding athletic eligibility, KEES money, etc., I have to be honest. I don't know what to do about those deeply-rooted (and important) policy-based institutions and practices. But instead of holding on to an outdated and ineffective system of letter grading because of them, let's apply our collective imagination to finding ways to make athletic eligibility and scholarships conform to effective systems of student learning feedback.
Let's stop wasting time arguing over grading scales, whether our scale should include a "D," and other topics that represent a very 20th century way of thinking about school and focus instead on creating systems of feedback that really value and empower student learning.
For Further Reading: