Point Based Grading Systems are Often Unfair!

Years ago while I was still in the classroom, I used a point system for grading that many folks will be familiar with.  100-90=A; 89-80=B; and so on until a 59 where a student scored a failing (F) grade.  Like many of my peers, I also recorded the exact grade a student “earned.”  Meaning if a student scored a 35 on a test or essay, that is what I recorded and then used in calculating the student’s overall grade.  I used this system until a fellow instructor demonstrated to me how this system is unfair and punitive to students.

First though, let’s review what a grade is supposed to communicate.  A grade on any assignment is supposed to be representative of a student’s ability to perform on a given set of standards (usually the Common Core nowadays).  In other words, when I assigned my students to write an essay on how an author uses specific word choices in order to influence our feelings about a character and to provide examples to demonstrate how this has been done, I would score the essay on the writer’s ability to use the writing conventions we’d discussed in order to complete the assigned task.  Students who earned an ‘A’ demonstrated competence well above expectations, a ‘B’ paper would demonstrate above average competence, a C would meet expectations, but no more than that; a ‘D’ had failed in some manner to demonstrate competency; an ‘F’ had failed entirely to fulfill the assigned task.

That’s it.  Clean and simple.  I often used rubrics to more clearly communicate to students what they had done well and where improvement would help them to bring their grade higher (they were also allowed to rewrite, except for on timed essays in A.P.).

I think it is also important to point out that grades are not a reflection of a student’s behavior.  Because our definition of a grade is that it is a measure of competency on a standard, they should never be used as punishment.  Academic competency and behavior are two separate things.

So what is wrong with a points system?  If we look again at the standard point system with its ten point segments we understand that grades below a sixty are rated as F on a letter grading scale.  If an instructor stops at 59 as being the lowest possible score, or 50 as I have conceded to some staffs, then all is well within this system.  Unfortunately, especially for students, when grades of less than fifty are recorded, the logic of the grading scale must also be continued.  Thus 49-40=G; 39-30=H; 29-20=I; 19-10=J; 9-0=K.  No school records grades in such a manner.  After all, what is the point?  If anything below 59 is an ‘F’ and if an ‘F’ means absolute failure to demonstrate competency on a given group of standards, what the heck is an ‘H’?  More failingure?  Is a ‘J’ more failingurest?  And what is being communicated to the student?  You are less than failing?  You have to look up in order to see students who cannot even perform an assigned task?  Ouch!

One thing for sure though, students with grades that are in reality less than failing end up in a hole for a struggling student to climb out of.  I am frequently met with the argument that the instructor wants grades to reflect what the student actually earned.  I offer, well we don’t record H, J, etc. grades so your grade is not accurate.  This usually leads to the assertion that no, the grade is not an H or a J, that anything below 60 is an F and all those numbers are the same grade.

Let’s test that theory.  Remember that we are not talking about kids at the top of the grading scale, we are talking about kids who struggle just to pass a given class.  For this model let’s say our student’s actual scores were: 70, 35, 60, or letter grades of C-, F, D-.  Based on straight points we then have 165/300=55%.  Now let’s calculate with 50 as our lowest possible score: 70, 50, 60=180/300=60%.  Recall that the argument for grades below 50 is that all Fs are somehow the same.  Note that the letter grades are the same in both examples, C-, F, D-, but one student is not failing (barely) and the other is failing and gaining no credit.  What happened?  All Fs are not the same as was claimed.  In order to accept that all Fs are the same we must also accept that 35=50.  Clearly this is not true…unless the world of mathematics is about to be turned on its head!  Because schools do not record a letter grade of less than F (and I am definitely not arguing that they should!), using a score that is in reality less than F is the equivalent of tying an anchor around a student’s academic ankle.

The more grades a student has of less than 50, the harder it will become for the student to pass.  Kids are not stupid.  They understand when things are hopeless.  Recall also that the students we are talking about often struggle anyhow. 

Point based grading scales that allow instructors to record grades of less than 50 (and I am again conceding that as it can reasonably be argued that the lowest score should be 59 based on the logic that 59 is not equal to 50) are unfair, untied to their own reality mathematically, and demoralizing for students.  If a point based grading system is to be allowed, it must be applied fairly.  This means students should not be given grades that are in actuality letter grades below F.  It is long past time for schools to stop allowing grades that are unsound and punitive to students.

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