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Letter Grades Deserve An 'F': A Recommendation For Updating School Report Cards

The truth is that traditional report cards rarely provide accurate assessments of student learning, writes Mike Kalin. (DoDEA Pacific/Flickr)
The truth is that traditional report cards rarely provide accurate assessments of student learning, writes Mike Kalin. (DoDEA Pacific/Flickr)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Rising temperatures, senior proms and graduation ceremonies mark the conclusion of the school year. But one annual ritual usually elicits more dread than excitement in students: the distribution of report cards. Many students, especially those with low grades, experience anxiety and frustration, fearing the punitive consequences imposed by concerned parents or guardians.

Before celebrating or condemning a child’s performance, however, it is worth reflecting on the quality of the report cards themselves. The truth is that traditional report cards rarely provide accurate assessments of student learning.

Early in my career as a high school humanities teacher, I spent endless hours thinking about classroom management, lesson planning and instructional strategies. So I felt relief at the end of each semester when I could take on a much more straightforward task: assigning students a letter grade. Using standard rules, I quickly converted percentages to a final letter grade that would appear on a student’s report card. A 94.67 percent became an A, 88.34 percent became B+ and so forth.

If grades are meant to convey information about academic achievement and promote student growth, we need to reevaluate our grading system.

Years later, many of the initial teaching challenges no longer overwhelm me. But every time I’m confronted with assigning a letter grade to a stellar writer who submits papers days late, a student who struggles on tests but diligently completes his homework or a student who excels on tests but neglects her classwork, I feel increasingly frustrated with my grade book. All three of these students might see the same final grade on their transcript, even though their performances differ in significant ways.

If grades are meant to convey information about academic achievement and promote student growth, we need to reevaluate our grading system.

One major shortcoming of traditional report cards is the use of single letter grades for each course, a format used by the vast majority of school districts that seldom conveys useful feedback about student performance. Research indicates that teachers calculate their final letter grade based on a multitude of factors including tests, projects, work habits, homework completion and class participation. Because teachers, even within the same school, vary their emphasis on these variables, interpreting the meaning of a final letter grade becomes difficult.

Traditional report cards also limit schools’ ability to provide feedback about performance in project-based learning (PBL) courses that schools have increasingly incorporated across their curricula. Report cards usually provide grades only on distinct disciplines, such as English, math and science. But PBL assignments are interdisciplinary. Researchers have provided evidence that PBL assignments equip students with vital 21st century competencies, including collaboration and creativity. Yet conventional reporting systems leave students and parents without formal feedback on the most meaningful academic courses.

Another flaw in most report cards is that they rarely include explicit information about non-cognitive factors, such as grit and resiliency. University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth, among other researchers, emphasizes that the possession or absence of grit serves as a much better predictor of academic achievement than IQ tests, standardized test scores and other traditional measures of intelligence.

To address the flaws inherent in traditional report cards, schools should consider adopting alternative assessment models that provide students with feedback on multiple academic competencies and non-cognitive skills. Several innovative schools have adopted standards-based grading, a system that explicitly evaluates student mastery of a wide range of aptitudes. In an English class, for example, students receive separate grades for writing content, originality, style and mechanics. And to evaluate non-cognitive skills, students receive specific feedback about behavior, effort and responsibility.

(Morag Riddell/Flickr)
(Morag Riddell/Flickr)

Some teachers express legitimate concern that standards-based grading would require too many hours to accurately assess several curricular standards. Yet according to Thomas Guskey, author of "On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting," teachers who use multiple grades for multiple skills report that the system makes grading easier; teachers no longer feel pressured to calculate mastery of numerous skills using a single grade.

Other community members skeptical of standards-based grading argue that because letter grades enable a straightforward calculation of class rank, colleges would have no way to distinguish candidates if districts transitioned away from traditional grading systems. But this perception turns out to be inaccurate; in a recent survey, only 19 percent of colleges and universities gave considerable importance to class rank in the application process. It turns out that systems such as standards-based grading might actually provide more useful information to colleges than traditional report cards.

The entrenched culture of letter grades makes many stakeholders pessimistic about efforts to transform conventional grade reporting. If we concede defeat, however, we miss a critical opportunity to eliminate practices that do not achieve the fundamental purpose of any assessment model — to give students the feedback they need in order to become better learners and better citizens.

So, regardless of the letter grades your child receives at the end of this school year, remember that it might be the traditional report card itself that fails students and parents alike.

Related:

Mike Kalin Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Mike Kalin is a Cambridge-based educator and writer. He is a former Pforzheimer Fellow in the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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