By Keishya Fiore, Educational Advocate
Grades are meant to tell us how a child is doing in school. They are a measure of student learning and success in the classroom, which, in turn, becomes an indicator of potential beyond the classroom.
Parents want to know where their children are academically, and letter grades give them that peace of mind. Parents assume a child with “good grades” is on grade level. A child with “A” s is doing exceptional work and may be capable of things beyond their grade level. The problem is that grades are not objective. They are also not a simple, standardized measurement and aren’t as accurate as we would like to think.
Take the following scenario into account. You are sixteen. You come to class most days but rarely do the classwork for the first quarter. Your actual score is 30%, but district mandates say the lowest a teacher can give is 50%, so that is your grade for Quarter One. Quarter Two comes around, and you have too much going on to worry about your grade. Your actual grade is a 25, but those mandates again give you 50%. It is now Quarter Three, and you know you should do something; after all, you don’t want to retake this class next year, so you scrape by with a 60%. It was hard since you didn’t know the content from the first semester that Quarter Three built on, but it’s okay because a D is still passing. The final quarter arrives, and this is the quarter that matters. To recap, if your grades reflect your work and what you have learned, you would have 30%, 25%, and 60%. When this averages out for your final grade, even a 100% would fail at the end of the year. And really, that makes sense, right? Working hard for one quarter and making minimal effort the third quarter shouldn’t negate that you hadn’t learned anything the first half of the school year. There are subjects you won’t know about and complete skill-building activities you couldn’t utilize. If you only learned to read the letters U-Z, does this count as reading? However, because the lowest grade you can get is 50% (to give you recovery time), you only need 80% for that final quarter and pass for the year. This is still very hard to do, but it gives a passing grade if it is done. In this scenario, do you think this student gained anything from that class even though they passed? Is this student’s performance on grade level? Are they being set up for success in post-secondary education?
This, unfortunately, is a very common example. I use it to make the point that grades do not always measure actual ability- in this case, district mandates influence the measurement of achievement. Parents look at grades as a measure of academic success, but many considerations impact grades. For example, grade inflation due to pressure put on teachers and schools to present as “high performing.”
Moreover, extra credit, participation points, and test retakes can also inflate grades as they don’t necessarily measure student success, academic performance, ability, or learning. Teachers in some schools are also told to lower rigor, so you may have gotten an A in 9th-grade English, but was the class really reading on a 9th-grade level?
Grades are subjective. There are just too many factors that may influence grades- the teacher’s personality and style, the class makeup and how the teacher responds to them, whether the teacher gives bonus points or participation points, whether these points are based on academics or behavior- who is to know what goes into a grade? What pressures are the school under to “prove” their performance? What mandates around grading are enforced? There is also the growing practice of administrators changing grades or pressuring teachers to give certain grades.
These are important questions because parents often look at grades as indicators of academic achievement. Is my child on grade level? Are they successful, and are they being set up for success in the future? What important life skills are they taking away from these classes? This “B” says that they are, but that “B” may not indicate capability. This can work the other way too. A child with high intelligence may have poor grades because they are bored with the material and act out- their grades may indicate behavior and likability more than capability. Again, grades are very subjective. On the other hand, what other means do we have to measure the success of our children?
Standardized testing is one solution; however, this is also flawed. There are many reasons why students don’t do well on standardized tests. Testing hours are long, and many students suffer from test anxiety, causing them to make mistakes they wouldn’t usually make. Furthermore, the structure of standardized tests doesn’t always reflect what they are used to doing in class. For example, many math problems are laid out horizontally in standardized tests, yet most students are taught math vertically; the difference in layout can confuse students. The test format can be confusing- students are suddenly given Chromebooks they have barely used all year and are expected to navigate with them. Even students who use a Chromebook for class (as is becoming more common post-pandemic) will use it differently for testing. There is also the question of prior knowledge and skills being utilized on a test that measures something different entirely. For example, in many ways, the government assessment measures a child’s ability to read more than their knowledge of the government. Cultural differences and norms are another consideration not taken into account when something is standardized. That being said, standardization is significantly less subjective and does give us an altogether more accurate portrayal of how close a child is to their actual grade level.
If you can’t trust grades or standardized tests, what can you trust? Honestly, this is when you need to make a judgment call. What kind of work does your child bring home? What do your child’s teachers say about your child’s capabilities, participation, and knowledge (not just their grades)? Run an analysis on Microsoft Word (Review-> Editor->Insights) to see what level they are writing at (this article is written at an eighth-grade level) or put some of their assigned reading into a website like Readability or Lexile to see what grade level they are reading at. Consider everything: grades and GPA, work, comments, and standardized tests.
Also, remember that academic success is not everything. Social life, work ethic, life skills, healthy outlook, and happiness are all important, and, in many cases, these things also influence grades. A child who is depressed will not study for an upcoming test. A child with anxiety is more likely to make careless mistakes on a test. We want well-rounded and successful children, and grades are just a small piece of that.