The Inequity of the Traditional Grading System
There are few unchanging elements in education. Trends, fads, and initiatives threaten to overwhelm educators looking for stability in a sea of change. One of the few constants, though, is the standard 100-point grading system. It ranks, rates, and evaluates students on a number system that roughly equates success with the percentage correct on assignments and tests.
Let me take a moment, though, and demolish everything you thought you knew about how grading works.
Take a look at the table below. This represents the scores of three different students over 10 assignments during a grading period. For argument’s sake, let’s assume two things. Each assignment is worth the same and they all took place during a single unit of study.
% Correct on 10 assignments
Each of these student’s assignment trend tells a different story.
Student A learned absolutely nothing. He started the unit knowing roughly 63% of the material and exited with the exact same level of comprehension. He wasted his time.
Student B is frustrating. He obviously knows the material as evidenced by his scores on the first four assignments. What happens then seems to be demotivation from some source. Perhaps it’s merely disinterest in the material, the class, or some other outside factor. He could have done all the work and scored well but instead dropped off at the end.
Student C is a success story. He was way behind at the beginning of the unit but slowly made progress each and every day. Though his knowledge began pitifully, his performance at the end showed that he mastered the material. He’s the type of student that makes teachers satisfied with a hard day’s work.
This is where it gets interesting, though. Each student earned the same average score for the unit: 63%.
Each student got a 63% on the unit using the traditional grading system employed by the vast majority of the schools in America. In short, that system captures a completion grade for every assignment and treats them all equally. In essence, schools have a system in which there are 70 degrees of failure (0-69) and 31 degrees of passing (70-100). Where is the equity in a grading system that has twice as many ways to fail as it does to show mastery?
This, of course, assumes that teachers don’t bring behavioral factors into the grading system. This happens when students lose point if assignment is late, messy, without a name, or written in pen rather than pencil.
In the scenario above, only student A deserves a 63% because that’s about all he knows. Student B knows the material and, should have earned a high average score (most likely near 95%). Student C knew as much as student B by the end of the unit. The inequity lies in the fact that the traditional grading system penalizes him for not coming into the unit with as much background knowledge as student B.
Do you see how this type of grading system destroys motivation? We teach brand-new topics to students and then expect them to learn them good enough to perform satisfactorily on that night’s homework. If students need a little more help, time, or both, that’s problematic. Most teachers only allow students to redo an assignment up to a 70% even if they completely understand the topic when turning in the corrected assignment.
This ends up creating for most students a very controlling environment that grows instead of shrinks the achievement gap. Students must learn and perform according to the district scope and sequence or else face grade book penalization. Student desires and needs are secondary in this antiquated system that values numerical uniformity over assisting students.
How do we honor student diversity by expecting everyone to learn at the exact same rate?
Can we expect to create positive change for students when we penalize each failed attempt at learning?
How do we reflect the various cultures and experiences of our students by assuming that they all begin with the same level of readiness for instruction?
Since GPA plays a major component in secondary schools, how can grade books recognize student diversity?