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Why are we still using letter grades?

Back-to-school season is a hard one for me. I so genuinely miss the excitement of returning to colleagues and students, hearing about what they did with the luxurious expanse of summer, and digging in to thoughtful, sticky, work. My own internal calendar is so run by the school year that I often find September is an easier time for me to make a change in habit than January. I think it’s something about not-yet-used notebooks and planners, fresh highlighters, and a pack of pens in every color that makes me feel the year will be filled with progress and achievements that I can clearly see. I’d wager this also has something to do with setting annual professional and student-oriented goals at the start of each school year. In any regard, I find September fruitful. Two Septembers ago, I’d just started at Astra, and my goal was amorphous and a bit vague: Understand my work. Last September, I had an entirely different goal on the brain as my son was due in mid-October. But this year, I’m starting to feel the promise of a new pack of pens (Paper Mate Inkjoy Gel, 0.7, in case anyone’s wondering). I don’t have a new group of students, but I’d like to begin a new habit. One goal of Astra’s in sharing our thinking and work with the world (through Facebook, Twitter, and our website) is to be able to interact more with folks we don’t see every day and build, deepen, and extend those relationships. One way that I want to work on these relationships is by trying to help. I get it. School-based folks are busy all the time, but I also know that you have questions and want to quickly identify good resources to turn to. To help bridge that gap, I’d love to know what you want to know more about. Is there a topic you’ve been curious about, but you’re not sure where to learn more? Is there a question that you’re trying to work through and another perspective could help you reflect differently? Whether it’s specific or broad, I’d love to help. I’ll dedicate one blog post a month to a question or topic that anyone with an interest in education is curious about (parents & students, this includes you!). For the first one, I invited my dear friend and former colleague, to let me know what she was wondering about. Jen Morse, a teacher in Chicago, asked: Why are we still using letter grades?

As in most circumstances, a little history will help answer this. Before the late 19th century, education was much more localized. In 1790, Pennsylvania was the first state that required free education (though that was only true for families in poverty)[i], and Massachusetts was the first state to mandate compulsory education in 1852[ii]. States were involved in schooling, but many particulars were left to individual schools to wrestle with. The idea of giving a grade was not a primary purpose in this endeavor; it was the learning that students were doing that was central. K-12 enrollment exploded (it almost tripled) because of compulsory schooling enforcement and child labor laws in the forty-year span between 1870 and 1910[iii]. With more students in school, the organization and management of these institutions became important in a different way than it had before, and schools started having to think of systemic answers to questions such as what to do when students moved and transferred schools. Schools went from having a high-degree of local autonomy to having much less, and reformers saw a need for standardization to help schools become more efficient. The first, commonly held grading system in the U.S. came from Mount Holyoke in 1897 and used letters to share an assessment of student work[iv]. Education hasn’t always depended on this kind of grade, and it isn’t a forgone conclusion that we must have them. Rather, a particular set of circumstances led to their creation. (This is much like high-stakes testing; education flourished long before standardized tests). So why do letter grades still exist? I’m not my SAT score, my student loan debt, or my tax refund. No singular metric can tell my story, nor would any symbol ever be able to tell the story of a child’s piece of work (just like no GPA will ever tell the whole story of a child). We can get really interesting insights with data, but one letter or number can’t tell us everything. I found a succinct way of explaining the tension that exists in our modern practice of using letter grades (which is also applicable to grades expressed as a percentage). Grading has two audiences, one of “internal communication oriented towards pedagogical concerns… [and one] of external communication oriented towards system-building”[v]. While many teachers use grades as a direct form of communication with a student or a student’s family about what that child can do, they are also used as a broad communication tool, utilized by colleges, policymakers, and some employers. In order to be able to have this broad use, there has to be a common understanding of, or a shorthand for, signifying good work. Our modern grades have become this measure, even as they leave out essential, powerful information that humanizes our students. Here’s my Essential Question: How do we assess work so that it’s academically meaningful to a student and helps other institutions (including other schools) to understand what a child can do? Qualitative records (like narrative transcripts) get the closest to both aims, but they’re incredibly labor intensive. If you’re in a school or system that prioritizes percentages, or the A-F scale, remember that you can also provide your students with feedback that will help them make progress. And more importantly, remember that students should never feel reduced to a grade. The grade isn’t the end; the person learning is the end. Do you have a question about education? Leave us one on our Facebook page or tweet us @AstraInnovate. [i] From: by Dustin Horbeck, Ph.D. [ii] From: [iii] From: by Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt [iv] From: by Jay Mathews [v] From: by Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt


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