The grades students earn in school bear significant ramifications to their lives in the classroom and beyond. They determine whether students pass and earn credit for a course, matriculate to the next grade, graduate, earn admission to college and qualify for scholarships.
High school graduation is linked to a person’s future earnings, health, possibility of incarceration and even life expectancy. In other words, this is a high-stakes issue.
Despite the ubiquity of letter grades, they receive remarkably little attention from a research and policy perspective. This is troubling, as the literature that does exist highlights the myriad flaws of this system. It is crucial that we consider the negative impact of letter grades on students from a social justice perspective.
Consider this hypothetical: Due to significant family responsibilities outside of school, Cindi is unable to complete a project for a high school history course, making up 35 percent of the grade. She receives a zero, which means the highest grade she can earn is a 65 — a D. Now imagine that, due to the same obligations, Cindi has only turned in half of her homework assignments. Because homework is 20 percent of the grade, the highest grade Cindi can earn is a 55 — an F.
At the same time, the teacher describes Cindi as engaged, eager to learn and demonstrating considerable mastery of the course material. The F she will receive doesn’t reflect her interest in learning or the A grades she earned on quizzes and tests. It also means she will not earn credit for the course. Frustrated and hopeless, Cindi stops attending school, realizing her efforts will be better spent trying to earn money for her family.
Though this scenario is simplistic, it highlights shortcomings of the letter grading system and the ways in which it pushes students out of school.
To start, letter grades are not necessarily a reflection of a student’s mastery of learning standards. A-to-F grades are determined through an accumulation of points, many of which are completed outside the classroom, creating an equity issue for students who don’t have the privilege of completing homework after school. It didn’t matter that Cindi had mastered most of the teacher’s learning targets; she didn’t earn the requisite points and failed.
The second issue with A-to-F grades is their alignment to a 100-point scale. In most schools, A (90-100), B (80-89), C (70-79) and D (60-69) each represent 10 percent of the grading scale, while an F represents 60 percent (0-59). Why does the grade teachers assign to represent failure bear such numerical significance?
Though there may not be a simple answer to this question, the impacts of this practice are clear, particularly when teachers 1) assign zeros to represent missing work and 2) rely on averaging to determine a student’s grade. In Cindi’s case, not only did her grade fail to report her learning, but the teacher’s weighting and averaging practices also meant that it was mathematically impossible for her to pass.
Schools should consider alternative grading practices — such as standards-based grading — that are designed to reflect students’ mastery of learning standards rather than points and work completion. This is critical for our students, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the shortcomings of this system. At the very least, educational leaders who are bound to A-to-F grading can implement “minimum grading practices,” in which the grading scale becomes 50-100, with an F (50-59) bearing the same weight as the other grades. No longer could a failing grade sink a student to a point of no return. Not only is this practice more equitable, but it also more accurately reflects students’ mastery of the standards, leaving students like Cindi feeling acknowledged and motivated.
Annie Barton is an educator and a Ph.D. student in the University of Utah educational leadership and policy program.