By Howard Pitler
Letter grades have been the norm in schools for as long as anyone can remember. The first evidence of a formal A–F system was in 1897 when Mount Holyoke began using a scale whereby A represents 95–100 percent, B represents 90–94 percent, C represents 85–89 percent, D represents 80–84 percent, E represents 75–79 percent, and F represents a failing grade. In the past 119 years, little has changed with that system. The percentages have moved some and the letter E has gone away, but the A–F system remains. To it we have attached a 0–4 grade point average (GPA) scale to better facilitate the creation of charts and graphs. Now a 4.0 equals an A, unless of course you have a weighted system that allows students to earn a higher number if they take AP or other honors classes. In theory, letter grades that can be quantified as numbers should be a perfect way to discriminate between levels of performance. A high school senior who earns a 4.6 weighted GPA has clearly achieved at a higher level than one with a 4.3 or 4.0 GPA, right?
Of the many flaws with this sweeping generalization—the most concerning in my mind—is a total lack of inter-rater reliability. Does an A in Mrs. Smith’s biology class mean the same thing as an A in Mr. Jackson’s biology class? What’s the precise difference between an A and an A-? More to the point, did a student who earned a 3.8 GPA at a high-performing suburban school and one who earned a 3.8 GPA in a struggling urban school learn at the same level? If grades are to have true meaning, there needs to be a high level of inter-rater reliability so they have a clear and accurate meaning that transcends a single classroom or district.
Related to the problem of inter-rater reliability is the rarely discussed secret many teachers reluctantly acknowledge: grading is subjective. A student’s language arts grade might include the work they did on writing assignments, but it might also include a few points for their effort and a few more points for extra credit. Homework can be factored in, though there is no guarantee the student was actually the one who completed the homework. Teachers might also take into account family situations or other at-home factors and grade more leniently based on that. Parental pressure also has a way of influencing a final grade. If a student with very vocal parents is on the borderline between a D and an F, how likely is it the teacher will bump the grade up to passing so she won’t have to deal with the parent?
A third problem I have with letter grades is that they are harmful to students. According to Alfie Kohn, “Kids who are graded—and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades—tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded.” The target becomes the grade rather than the learning. Students take less challenging classes because they want to “protect” their GPAs.
A final issue I have with letter grades is that they conflict with a topic that I have written about in the past: learning often begins with failing. I have argued that “fail” needs to be redefined as first attempt in learning. When students believe the target is a grade, how likely is it that they will be willing to stretch themselves and risk a few failures on the path to success?
Moving away from letter grades is difficult, but it can be done. When I was an elementary school principal, I worked with staff and parents for over two years to move to nongraded assessments and coupled that with student-led conferencing. The expected learning objectives were made clear to students, and they could see where they were in their learning. Even the youngest of our students engaged in student-led conferencing. Kindergarteners sat with their parents and explained to them what they were good at (showing them evidence), what they were working on at the time but hadn’t yet mastered, and what their classmates could do that they wanted to learn as well. And throughout this entire conference, the teacher wasn’t at the table. The first time we did this, I was worried that the next day I would receive 485 phone calls saying, “That was cute, but I really need to talk with the teacher about my child.” Instead, the feedback I received was very supportive. Parents of six-year-olds called to tell me that it was the first time they had ever had a truly adult conversation with their child.
We need to move to a different, more responsive system. We are comfortable with letter grades; after all, they have been with us for over a century. Letter grades are what we know—educators and parents alike—but they are just an artifact of education, not of the wider world. When I decided to get my pilot’s license, I had to demonstrate a mastery of flying, navigating, and regulations. If I didn’t pass my pilot’s exam, I would have practiced more, improved my skills, and tried again. Many other professions have similar testing procedures. Research has shown that grades have a detrimental effect on students. It’s time we realize that and find a better way forward.
Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website.