Why do we have letter grades?

Have you ever wondered about this? Why do we have letter grades in so many schools? Or, why do we find it necessary to assign a numeric value to student performance in a learning experience? Some might respond by explaining that we do it to measure student learning, to determine the extent to which students have met one or more of the stated outcomes or goals in a unit of instruction or a course. Yet, if you browse syllabi of college courses around the United States, you find evidence that seems to challenge that answer. Consider the following.

How many syllabi note that student grades will be decreased if an assignment is submitted late?

What does the timeliness of a learner’s performance have to do with student mastery of course objectives or goals, unless the true purpose of the course is indeed to teach timeliness?

How many syllabi make reference to grades associated with student attendance or participation?

Even when they do not explicitly state this, attendance and/or participation grades are commonplace in a variety of courses.

How many syllabi note that certain formative assessments (perhaps incremental quizzes or other checks for understanding along the way) make up a certain percentage of the overall course grade?

This part of the course grade may show how students are doing with regard to the course goals at a specific point in time, but what if some learners just need a bit more time and practice, and they are able to perform well on the same questions or assessments by the end of the course? Perhaps they end the course knowing what they are expected to know, but their grade does not necessarily show that. This is common in courses where the first few assignments make up a significant percentage of the overall course grade. Once more, it is measuring not just what students have learned, but whether they are able to do it quickly. So many grades have “time” measures hidden beneath the surface.

When we consider these sorts of questions and then look at a final grade in a course, it challenges us to reconsider what that grade really means. It certainly is not a simple measure of what students do or do not know about that subject. It includes much more than that. Some might not have a problem with this, but I have growing concern about it. G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, is talking about a completely different subject, but he discusses how many people seek to quantify things that are not inclined toward quantification. They are pictures, not diagrams. Consider your favorite piece of art, song, or sunset. Would you agree that a careful quantitative analysis and report on any of those would give an accurate picture of why it is your favorite? Would you be satisfied with a quantitative analysis in place of a picture or the real thing? Suppose you went to an art museum and discovered that every painting and sculpture was replaced with a chart or diagram that represents the same concepts or ideas that were previously illustrated in the work of art. I contend that letter grades too often do a similar thing.

There are alternatives. Letter grades are a technology that is less than two-hundred years old, and plenty of people learned plenty of things prior to that. There are many who are reconsidering these things, and yet others would consider this work of the radical and unrealistic. I regard it a pursuit of the realistic in lieu of an educational paradigm that values diagrams over pictures.

2 comments

  1. [...] Have you ever wondered about this? Why do we have letter grades in so many schools? Or, why do we find it necessary to assign a numeric value to student  [...]

  2. Rob says:

    Great insight regarding the purpose of grades. Having dealt mostly with Middle School and Elementary students, I’ve seen grades more as motivator rather than a quantitative representations of learning…or at least the fallacy that a grade is the accurate representation (diagram).

    Thanks for forcing the conversation.