From the superintendent: Traditional grading systems get an ‘F'
For many years now schools have graded students using traditional A's, B's, and C's. The push toward standards and accountability brings up interesting questions about the worth of continuing that system.
Take for example the meaning of a letter grade. One problem is how that grade compares between schools. If a student transfers from one school to another, there is currently very little chance that the grade represents clearly how much the student knows and is able to do in any given class.
Why not? Should an A in grade 9 science in any other school equate to an A in grade 9 science in Colusa? It should, but it typically does not. Mainly because schools operate under a very different systems to assign that grade. Some schools put more weight on chapter tests, while others place more value on projects. One teacher might give kids grades for classroom participation, and yet another might think that unit tests are the best indicator of student learning. Different teachers, each with valid professional opinions, might well assign the same student a different grade in the same class — for the same work.
What results is a system where the letter grade becomes less precise in its meaning. Did the "A" student really outperform the majority of their peers, or did they have the luck to enroll in a class where the teacher happened to weight grades differently? The inconsistency and inherently unfair outcome of that process is not a pleasant memory for those who were in the unlucky group assigned to the "hard grader."
True, there is a life lesson about preparing kids to work in a world that is likely unfair in many respects. But from a philosophical standpoint, schools should work to constantly improve their systems and become more fair; not just blindly accept and continue what has been done in the past. But how is a letter grade system made to be fair?
Converting a letter grade system to a standards based system is long process which entails a great deal of work. First we need to agree on the meaning of each letter grade. For example: an "A" grade would need to correlate to mastery of a clearly defined set of standards for that class. If the student cannot show deep understanding of all the important concepts, they cannot earn an "A." It also means the student must not only understand, but analyze, apply, extrapolate from, and use the concept in new circumstances.
I often use the analogy of flight school when discussing grades. When I fly, I want a pilot who got a meaningful "A" in every flight class. Certainly I do not want to fly with a pilot who got a "D" in navigation, we might end up in the wrong place. And who would fly with a pilot who earned an "F" in their "landing the aircraft safely" class? I certainly do not want a pilot from a school where the teachers were all "easy graders!"
This is a much deeper conversation than space permits here. What we do know from the educational research is that traditional systems often get an "F" when it comes to clearly and precisely conveying what the student has learned. I encourage parents to begin questioning teachers and administrators about the meaning of their student's grades. Does it reflect the certain teacher preferences, or does it really show what young Johnnie knows and can do?