What Does a Course Grade Really Mean?

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When a high school student receives a grade of ‘85’ in a course, everyone from college admissions officers to parents, interprets the grade to mean that the student has achieved an 85% mastery of the subject. In theory, that is what the grade represents; yet, rarely is that the case. It is reasonable to wonder if report cards and transcripts border on false advertisement.

Three grading practices commonly adopted by teachers create this ambiguity about what the final grade represents. The first is cumulative grading effect; the second is extra credit points; and the third is effort points. Either alone or in combination, these practices are the biggest culprits in the false representation of final course grades.

The cumulative grading effect refers to the practice of assigning a final grade for the average of grades earned over time. As an example, a math student might struggle early in the year trying to develop conceptual frameworks to digest the subject matter, yet eventually develop a thorough understanding of the subject. This early struggle could result in a series of bad grades on exams and quizzes that, when averaged, would skew the final grade, even if she were to thoroughly master the content by the end of the year.

Conversely another student in the same math class might demonstrate a consistent, yet less than complete, level of mastery across the entire year and have a cumulative grade average higher than that of the first student. Cumulative grading could, and often does, cause a teacher to assign grades that do not truly represent each student’s relative level of mastery at the end of the course.

Extra credit points are another culprit in the false representation of grades. Teachers often try to motivate students to learn by giving extra credit points. Although extra credit points are sometimes based on activities that reflect additional effort in the subject matter, they usually have little or no relation to mastery of the content.

Frequently, extra credit points are given to students for a school or class project without any relation to the subject area mastery. When a student brings canned goods for a school food drive, it might represent good citizenship and caring for others, yet it has no relationship to their level of mastery he achieves in Algebra. When extra credit points are awarded for activities unrelated to subject, it distorts the meaning of the grade earned and serves to undermine the grade’s usefulness as an indicator of subject mastery.

The third culprit distorting the meaning of the final course grade is the practice of awarding effort points. As educators we should do what is necessary to foster a good work ethic within students. However, if the course grade represents a level of mastery in a subject, it is legitimate to question the appropriateness of granting points based solely on effort. Effort points are commonly given for assignments such as additional readings, class participation credit, and attendance points.  Although class participation and attendance usually prove valuable in the learning process, they should not be used in a way that impacts the final course grade.

In an ideal world, students would engage in learning various subject content over a flexible period, with a reliable and valid measure of content mastery at the end of the course. The student’s grade on the final transcript would be an accurate representation of their mastery of the subject. However, in most cases such a measure of content mastery does not exist. Likewise, there is an appropriate resistance by educators for a single high stakes exam to measure content mastery. But, this should not stop educators from attempting to more accurately reflect the course ending mastery in the subject area in the student’s final course grade.

Schools should regularly review grading policies and practices. A correction is in order when grading practices are found to consist of cumulative grading, extra credit, or effort grades. It is then time to creatively develop methods of representing that which is valued, without skewing or distorting the meaning of the final course grade. The one thing of which I am quite certain, anyone who views a student’s transcript interprets the final course grade as representative of the level of subject mastery attained by the student.

In suggesting that final grades should represent mastery of the subject, I am not suggesting that things such as effort, attendance, and participation are unimportant. Indeed, they are representations of other skills that schools should nurture in its students. However, if we are to accurately assess learning, we must disentangle the various components that typically result in final course grades. For those things that are valued enough to measure, create for them a reliable assessment and report them separately. It is possible that we should continue through the high school years, as for the youngest school children, course ending feedback on important areas of the student’s development.

Suggested exercise:

As your school considers its grading process, values, and policies, a useful exercise for a faculty meeting is to distribute a hypothetical student’s grade sheet for a given year to all faculty members. For example, Johnny’s grades are: test 1 = 92, test 2 = 78, test 3 = 94, quiz 1 = 50, quiz 2 = 78, attendance = 175 of 180 days, etc.  Ask each faculty member to calculate a final course grade based on his or her current grading practices.  Chances are there will be a range of final grades for the same hypothetical student. To the schools that are so consistent on grading policies that all faculty members calculate the same grade, I commend you. For the schools that arrive at multiple final grades, I encourage you to take the opportunity to rethink your grading practices.

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