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Use of Letter Grades for Student School Performance

Recently it occurred to me to ask, “When did K-12 schools start using the grades A, B, C, D, and F to record and disseminate student achievement?” I asked a friend of mine whose first teaching experience was in a one-room school about 65 years ago where he had about 30 students spread over grades 1-8.

He told me that each term he was required to provide a brief written report about a student’s academic progress, deportment, and other relevant topics. This “report card” did not contain letter grades.

Interestingly, he also told me that if a younger student seemed to be falling behind, he would assign an older student to provide the younger student with extra help. Indeed, having the older students help the younger students was a routine aspect of teaching in a one-room school. This idea of older students tutoring younger students has been successfully used for a very long time (Moursund & Albrecht, 2012).

As our conversation continued, we both noted that, during our own long careers as teachers of teachers, we had observed that a disproportionate number of students who had attended one-room schools had gone on to become teachers. For many of these students, the “twig was bent” via their early teaching experiences.

History of Letter Grades.

Since neither my colleague nor I knew an answer for the question of when letter grades started to be used, I decided to make use of the Web. My 6/1/2016 Google search of the expression history of A B C grades in schools produced more than a half-million results. The highest listed result was a news report that the School Board in Olive, New Jersey, was in the process of getting rid of the D grade in an effort to raise the standards for graduation (Palmer, 8/9/2010). Evidently schools in the district used a scale such as 90-100 = A; 80-89 = B; 70-79 = C; 60-69 = D, and anything below that was an F. The decision was to drop the D grade and assign an F for any score below 70.

My reaction to the above information was one of puzzlement. Evidently the School Board believed that education in their community would be improved by failing quite a few more students. I wondered what research evidence led to this conclusion.

My guess is that the actual result was teachers started giving students easier tests and grading easier on assignments, so that grade point averages increased. We know of many ways to improve our educational system, but failing more students does not stand high on the list.

Quoting from Palmer (8/9/2010):

The earliest record of a letter-grade system comes from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 1897. (There is a passing reference in the Harvard archives to a student receiving a B grade in 1883, but no evidence of a complete A-through-F system.) The lowest grade at Mount Holyoke was an E, which represented failure. The rest of the scale was a bit irregular, with A representing scores between 95 and 100, while B and C each stood for 10-point ranges. Students could get a D only with a score of precisely 75, with anything below that receiving the dreaded E.… Over the next two decades, variations on the letter-grade system spread across the country and into primary and secondary schools.

Thom Hartmann: A History of Grading

It is clear that a number of educators and others think that grades are an important component of education. After all, we all grew up with this system, so it must play a good role.

The remainder of this section is based on Thom Hartmann’s article, A Short History of Grading (Hartman, September, 2012). He writes about a time long before letter grades came into use:

Thomas Jefferson was arguably one of the most well educated Americans of his time. He was well read, thoughtful, knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics from the arts to the sciences, and the founder of the University of Virginia. The same could probably be said of Ben Franklin, or James and Dolly Madison. On the larger world stage, we could credibly make such claims for René Descartes, William Shakespeare, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Plato.

But there is one thing unique about the education of all these people, which is different from that of you, me, and our children: none ever were given grades. All attended schools or had teachers who worked entirely on a pass/fail system.

Hartman then introduces William Farish, a tutor (a teacher) at Cambridge University in 1792. In these “good old days,” what mattered from one’s schooling was the reputation of one’s teacher(s). Quoting again from Hartman:

When a student graduated, the most impressive thing she or he could share with a prospective employer was not a Grade Point Average (GPA) or even the name of the institution attended: it was the name of the teacher. Students of the great teachers of history often became famous themselves because of the thoroughness with which their mentors had inculcated knowledge, understanding, skill, and talent in them.

This system doesn’t work well when a teacher has many different students and a student has many different teachers. Hartman explains that, as the Industrial Age led to very large numbers of students being required to go to school. William Farish observed that an individual item being completed by a factory was inspected and determined to be “up to grade.” If an item was not “up to grade,” it either was fixed in some manner or was discarded.

Farish came up with the idea of using the same approach with students. “Inspect” (test) a student. If the student is not good enough (“up to grade”) send the student back for reteaching (i.e., have the student repeat a grade) or perhaps just discard the student. (Don’t bother to come back. You are just not cut out to be a successful student.)

My Personal Thoughts

Nowadays, we recognize that there are huge differences among students, but that all can benefit from many years of education designed to fit their individual needs and interests. However, our educational system still insists on grading students, flunking some out, and making school so unpleasant for others that a significant percentage of students drop out. We have made some progress from the days of William Farish, but we still have a long way to go.

The varying individual capabilities and interests of students present a challenge to schools. We have put a lot of resources into addressing these differences for students who have certain disabilities. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was signed into law on November 29, 1975, by President Gerald Ford (Project IDEAL, n.d.).

All children, regardless of the severity of the disability, must be provided an education appropriate to their unique needs at no cost to the parent(s)/guardian(s). Included in this principle is the concept of related services, which requires that children receive other services as determined educationally necessary to benefit from special education. These related services may include occupational therapy, physical therapy, orientation and mobility instruction, and a host of other support services for the student.

The initial law specified certain disabilities, and subsequent revisions to the law have provided more detail.

Now, think carefully for a minute as to what constitutes a disability. Suppose that a student has an IQ of 170, where an IQ of 100 is considered average. I believe that this student may have a major disability in terms of his or her personal ability to meet the many major challenges involved in trying to fit into and be educated by our current educational system. However, federal funding for talented and gifted (TAG) aspects of education is minuscule. Moreover, there are huge differences among states in the level of funding for TAG students. In my home state, Oregon, we have Oregon Rev. Stat. § 343.395 (Davidson Institute, n.d.):

‘Talented and gifted children’ means those children who require special educational programs or services, or both, beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and society and who demonstrate outstanding ability or potential in one or more of the following areas:

(a) General intellectual ability as commonly measured by measures of intelligence and aptitude.

(b) Unusual academic ability in one or more academic areas.

(c) Creative ability in using original or nontraditional methods of thinking and producing.

(d) Leadership ability in motivating the performance of others either in educational or noneducational settings.

(e) Ability in the visual or performing arts, such as dance, music or art.

Unfortunately, the Oregon Legislature has not funded this special program for TAG students. The Davidson Institute website provides information about the levels of funding for TAG education throughout the United States (Davidson Institute, n.d.).

As another example of a type of individual “disability” or handicapping difference, consider a ninth grader who just happens to be six inches or more taller than an average ninth grader. Think of the pressures on this student to “go out for basketball” whether or not she or he has any aptitude for athletics. Of course, if this student does decide to join a basketball team, a substantial amount of athletic funds are used to help the student to become a better basketball player.

The list of “exceptional” or “special needs” students is easily expanded. In essence, I believe that the high degree of individual differences among students means that every student may have some disabilities/special needs. This leads me to a belief that every student can benefit by individualization of content, pedagogy, assessment, counseling, and other major aspects of schooling.

Our current educational system, with its strong emphasis on a very simpleminded assessment system that assigns a student a letter grade for performance in a course, is totally inadequate to the task of providing every student with an education that includes accommodation to individual differences.

What You Can Do

A student is far more than a letter grade or a more finely tuned numerical score. Moreover, a student is far more than a set of five or six letter grades or numerical scores assigned at the end of each term of schooling. As a parent and/or teacher, you have the knowledge and maturity to help students learn that this is the case.

For example, suppose you are a parent who “rewards” a child for getting “good” grades. Think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish by doing so and what you are actually accomplishing. A good education is far more than—and often quite different from—high grades.

As a parent, think of your daily interactions with your child as opportunities to provide individualized, nuanced, and loving parent-to-child feedback about progress your child is making toward goals that you and others believe are important—such as growing up to be a responsible and caring adult.

Many teachers make a “heroic” effort to provide personal help to and interaction with their students. These teachers may make a huge difference in the lives of these students as they move to individualize evaluation far beyond just assigning letter grades to them. Keep up the good work!

References and Resources

Davidson Institute (n.d.). Oregon. Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Retrieved 6/2/2016 from http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/state_policy_oregon_10038.aspx.

Hartman, T. (September, 2012). For the love of learning: A short history of grading. Retrieved 6/1/2016 from http://www.joebower.org/2012/09/a-short-history-of-grading.html.

Moursund, D. (2016). Self-assessment instruments. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/1/2016 from http://iae-pedia.org/Self-assessment_Instruments.

Moursund, D. (5/12/2016). Building a personal library for children. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/1/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/building-a-library-for-children-1.html.

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/20/2016 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Moursund, D. (2015). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/1/2016 http://iae-pedia.org/Empowering_Learners_and_Teachers.

Moursund, D., & Albrecht, R. (2011). Becoming a better math tutor. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-bob-albrecht/221-becoming-a-better-math-tutor-3/file.html. Download Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-bob-albrecht/220-becoming-a-better-math-tutor-2/file.html.

Palmer, B. (8/9/2010). E is for fail: How come schools assign grades of A, B, C, D, and F—but not E? Slate. Retrieved 6/1/2016 from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2010/08/e_is_for_fail.html.

Project IDEAL (n.d.). Special education public policy. Informing and Designing Education for All Learners. Retrieved 6/2/2016 from http://www.projectidealonline.org/v/special-education-public-policy/.

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