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How Important Are Grades?

How Important Are Grades?

Laura Owen |

Report cards have been a part of the educational experience for decades. They are essential to informing parents of student progress and traditionally serve as the overall measure of assessment of a child’s success in school. Currently, the teachers and administrators at my elementary school are taking a closer look at our report cards. Elementary school report cards often include a list of subjects, work habits, and conduct areas followed by the letter grade the child earned in each area. Schools may require a teacher to attach comments, but these comments typically vary in length and thoroughness.

Some schools have moved away from using letter grades, instead reporting progress through teacher composed narratives. These schools often have specific guidelines for teachers to assure that all areas are addressed in the narrative. In trying to determine what format best fits my school’s philosophy and population, we have begun to analyze the necessity of letter grades. This process has sparked a conversation about what we truly believe about assessment. In many current education models, assessment is part of a cyclical model serving as part of the learning process.

According to leaders in the field, the true purpose of assessment is to evaluate a student’s level of understanding, and should be used to provide appropriate feedback and guidance in planning future instruction. I agree with these views, and use day-to-day assessments in this way in my own classroom. However, I have never stopped to consider whether traditional letter grades on a report card would conflict with the notion of assessment.

In my reflections, I have found myself getting stuck on a couple of questions that challenge the traditions of report cards to which I have grown accustomed: Should we be reporting letter grades and what do they really mean? If a child receives and “A” on his report card, what does that tell me? Does an “A” indicate that the child has mastery of everything covered during the grading period? Maybe. Does the child have strengths that brought the grade up and areas of weakness that a parent may benefit from knowing?

What about a “C”? Does that mean that the child partially understands the concepts or does the child have mastery of some concepts and not others? If that is the case, what doesn’t the child understand? Or, if we actually looked in the teacher’s grade book, would a “C” instead mean that the child bombed a few tests or failed to turn in some assignments? And, to complicate matters further, we all know that an “A” in one class could mean something totally different than an “A” in another. How far does subjectivity encroach upon the grades that children take home on their report cards? I pose all of these questions without answers. However, I think it is something worth exploring more closely.

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I have always struggled with the theory that we need to do away with traditional grades in order to lessen competitiveness and protect a child’s self-esteem. I believe that children and parents need honest feedback on school performance. However, I question whether letter grades should be used as the primary method of communication. I also believe that because our society is accustomed to letter grades, parents and students have a general understanding of what each grade means. However, I wonder if just a general understanding is acceptable.

Although I understand the benefits of omitting letter grades, I can’t help but consider how I would feel as a parent if my child brought home a report card with only a long narrative of teacher comments. I know that I would appreciate the insight and the effort of the teacher, but ultimately I may be left wondering what letter grade my child actually earned.

What do you think about grades? Share your comments below.

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