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Ask Marilyn: Our Grading Practices Need to Change

Kasi Allen at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, writes:

Marilyn: I'm writing regarding your response to a Baltimore teacher. (February 3, 2013) I am concerned that your response inadvertently misrepresents the issues at play with respect to our 0-100 grading system and perpetuates the misconception that we can support the academic success of all students with grading practices that stack the deck against many from the outset.

I began my career as a high school math teacher and have been involved in mathematics education in one form or another for almost 27 years. I currently serve as a professor in a small college where I help prepare pre-service middle school and high school math teachers. In this capacity, I teach a course on quantitative literacy and grading that addresses the issue your reader writes about.

The critical question, as I see it, is not whether teachers should "pad the grades," but how they should handle zeroes. Many teachers give students a "zero" for any form of missing work. This practice ensures a high failure rate for many students because, mathematically speaking, 0 out of 100 is a nearly unrecoverable score. The practice privileges students from backgrounds where there is strong support for completing homework. It further disadvantages students from households that can't offer such support and that often need students to work in order to make ends meet.

Over the last decade, my home state has moved increasingly towards a proficiency-based grading system, whereby students receive grades based on what they know and have learned, rather than on the points they have accumulated. Advocates for proficiency grading often talk about how using a 0-4 grading scale, like the GPA scale, more fairly distributes the range of grades. In a 0-100 scale, the range for F (0-59) is almost 60 percent of the total scale, while the range for all the passing grades combined is just over of 40 percent of the scale. This is a problem.

And what does the grade represent? Most people agree that a course grade communicates how well a student has mastered a particular subject. However, any teacher can tell you about brilliant students who fail classes because of missing assignments (even though they do quite well on tests) and others who receive high grades (despite failing scores on tests) because they have parents who help them complete homework assignments, take advantage of extra credit opportunities, and so on. Who really knows the material? Shouldn't the grade reflect this in some way?

Like many of my colleagues, I believe the 0-100 grading scale is an outdated relic from a time that valued sorting children rather than supporting the success of every child. In my lifetime, I hope to see our grading practices change to better match our nation's educational goals.

Marilyn responds:

Thank you for your helpful contribution to this ongoing dialogue. Yet any grading system is ultimately in the hands of teachers who must tailor it for fairness in their own classrooms. This is necessary for a system to function across such a broad range of educational situations. I see this as part of their jobs, and I trust them to do it well. If a teacher has no sense about how to award grades appropriately, that's a fault of that particular teacher, not teachers in general or the overall grading system.



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