The Problem with Traditional Grades

In my first year of teaching I have quickly come to realize that the traditional grading system does not benefit and help my students.  As the end of a grading period comes to an end they are concerned about extra credit and changing their grade.  My students are not concerned with their understanding of the material and what they have learn, but a number, a grade.  I cannot blame my students for this thinking as I was the same was as a student: turning in work on time, doing every extra credit opportunity, all in order to earn as many points as possible that were not related to my understanding of material. Our education system as create a system where school reward the students that know how to “do school” and not necessarily the students that learn.  I will admit I was very good at “doing school” I learned that skill very quickly and adapted it to each and every class.  I learned what I need to do to earn points without regard to my understanding.  I was fortunate in that I did understand most of what I learned in high school and still remember a surprising amount which I attribute to the fantastic teachers I had.

I however want more for my students.  I want them to understand what they do and do not know in relation to content.  I do not want the to simply chase after points, but to chase after understanding.  The traditional grading system that we use of A= 100-93, B = 92-85, C = 84-77 D = 76-70, F <70.  This traditional grading systems is very skewed. The range of failure is 2.33 times larger than the range for passing.  Why is it that every passing grade is on a 7 point scale, yet failure has a possible range of 70 points? The range for failure is 10 times larger than any other passing grade. What does a 0 represent?  It is failure 10 times over?  Yet we use 0s for student who do not turn in assignments, but this does not show us what the student may or may not understand.

I recently had a student not turn in a project for my class.  Her grade in the class was an 85, most people would be happy with this, but this students was one of my brightest student and I knew that this grade did not reflect her true understanding.  I called her over and showed her what would happen if she did the project and turned it in.  Her grade changed to a 95 once I put the correct project grade in.  The truth is I did not need her to show me again that she understood the material.  If I already have evidence of her understanding, why should she have to turn in the project.  In the traditional system she did the project and I gave her full credit.  I will add that she did the best project of all of my classes! My point here is that the 0 dramatically changes a students grade and does not give a clear picture of a student’s understanding.

Another issue I have with traditional grading is that the single grade represents too many variables. Its like using a QB rating to rank QBs. The rating does not show the details of the QBs performance it give one number to describe the many variables: runs, passes, interceptions, sacks, etc.  The QB rating does not show if the QB is better with the run game or the passing game or if their greatest area for turnover is sacks or interceptions. The QB rating is like a traditional grade.  Traditional grades are arbitrary numbers that represent too many variables.  Traditional grades do not show student understanding, but student’s abilities to collect point.  What portion of a grade should be test quizzes, hw (don’t even get me started on this) behavior, promptness?  I ask this because I have tried this.  I even gave students grade on diligence & responsibility based on are they being “good students” but let’s just say this was a failure! Grades should represent want a student knows not if they jump through the hoops we create.

This problem requires a solution.  I think many people can agree with that.  There are a few things we must determine before we move on:

  1. Where are we now with our grading practices?
  2. Is there anything wrong with our grading practices?
  3. What is the purpose of grades?
  4. How do we make our grading practices reflect our purpose of grading?
  5. How are we going to get there?

Essentially we need to know where we are now! If you don’t know where you are you can’t get to where you need to go.  We need to find our current location, our destination and the best route between the two.  We also must remember that there will be roadblocks and delays, we might need to take a detour.  Just because the first option does not work does not mean our destination is not worth the journey.


4 thoughts on “The Problem with Traditional Grades

  1. You raise lots of the important issues about traditional grading but why would ever even consider the possibility of allowing extra credit (which by the way is a uniquely American abomination)?


    1. Ken, thank you for reading and your comment as it helped me to think about extra credit. As a first year teacher I did not spend time thinking about the role of extra credit in my classroom as so much of my experiences in school involved extra credit opportunities. I viewed extra credit as a normal part of grades. This is one of the biggest flaws in my grading practices and from here on out there will be no extra credit in my class. I am hoping to start standards based grading to alleviate the problems with traditional grading.


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