What’s in a grade?

I have this conversation with students all the time when the come to me and ask what it is going to take to “get an A.” The conversation usually goes something like this…

Student: I know the quarter is over tomorrow, but what can I do to get my grade from a B to an A?

Me: Why do you want an A?

Student: Because I worked hard.

Me: But that isn’t what an A means…

Student: Yes it is! I did all my work, turned it in and I deserve a grade that shows that.


What does a grade actually mean?

I’ve been struggling with this. Grades should, in my mind, reflect mastery of a concept but that has been convoluted over time and students conflate grades with effort. Parents have also started to believe that grades are a reflection of a student’s effort not their understanding. Then, they get confused when a child has low test grade because their other grades were all based on compliance.

Stay with me here…I’m working through all of this in my head as I type.

In the past, I’ve assigned a student a 50% if they do not complete or turn in an assignment. (I don’t believe in zeros ever. Too punitive and nearly impossible to recover from). This lead to students grades reflecting whether they had done the work, not whether they had mastered the concept. It is no wonder that students get so upset when they do all the work, but their grades don’t reflect this.

Another problem is that teachers will often grade work on completion. This perpetuates the myth of grades as evidence of hard work instead of concept or skill mastery.

This quarter, I chose to NOT grade on compliance. I stopped giving students any grade when work was not turned in or complete. I simply noted in the gradebook an INC (incomplete), but it was not punitive. The less they did, the less grades they had averaged into their final grade.

I have a student who only completed 4 of the 18 assignments for the quarter. None of these four are completion grades. Her grade for the quarter is a very low B. Is that a fair grade? This is where I am struggling. If the goal is mastery – she has clearly shown mastery on the assessments.

The arguments that came up from teachers were based around accountability. How can we hold the students accountable for their work if we don’t attach punitive consequences to it? Doesn’t that devalue the focus on understanding and mastery? Doesn’t that send the message that the work should be done, not for the love of learning, but for the grade? And doesn’t it reinforce the idea that the grade is based on doing not understanding?

What I’m finding – anecdotally at this time, as I haven’t been able to dig in the data, is that grades are NOT inflated. It appears students are faring no better than they were before. But, the grades actually reflect what they know instead of what they did. And isn’t that the point?

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