Letter Grades in 5 Contexts: What do Students Have in Common with Beef & Bonds?

Letter grades remain the dominant technology for documenting “quality” in multiple contexts today. Comparing those contexts might offer a few insight about their benefits and limitations in schools. Below is a short description of each followed by a few questions for discussion and reflection. Feel free to post your thoughts in a comment, or perhaps you will want to share and discuss with colleagues on the web or locally.

what do these have in commonUnited States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Beef Quality – Combining a rating of “maturity and marbling”, one determines a “final quality grade” of the meat, resulting in Grade A, B, or C. The criteria are standard in the assessment of all beef evaluated by the USDA, and there is strong inter-rater reliability. In other words, there is a high likelihood that ratings from different inspectors would be similar or the same. The purpose of the rating is to communicate quality of the product for consumers.

Milk – Milk is rated either Grade A or Grade B, based upon standards for sanitation. Grade A can be sold to drink, but Grade B is limited to use for products like cheese and butter. This is a common standard used throughout the United States. The purpose of the grading is to maintain health and safety standards for the public.

Restaurants – Some cities have food inspectors who use letter grades to rate restaurants. Not all cities use a letter grade system, but those who do use it largely to assess things like what they do in New York City, “food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene, facility and equipment maintenance and vermin control.” A restaurant can get a rating of A, B, or C. It is a consistent standard within a given community, but varies from one city to another. Questions about inter-rater reliability likely vary from one location to another, even as some communities might have suspicions due to public cases of food inspectors taking bribes. The purpose of the grading is to maintain health and sanitation standards for potential customers.

Credit Ratings of BondsAccording to this article, these are ratings intended to measure the quality of a bond by looking at things like, “the financial stability of the issuer, its other outstanding debt (if any), its growth potential, the state of the economy, and how well similar entities -companies in the same line of business or municipal governments in the same condition – are doing.” There is not a universal standard for bond ratings. Rather, different credit agencies like Moody’s or S&P use different rating systems. The purpose of the rating is to provide guidance and information about risk factors for potential investors. 

Students – In a majority of upper elementary, secondary and tertiary schools in the United States, individual teachers establish varied systems for assigning letter grades. Some base the grade largely upon student performance in high-stakes tests. Others base the grade on a combination of factors including one more of the following: participation; ability to follow instructions; ability to recall information for surprise quizzes; timeliness of homework submissions; meeting stated criteria for essays (some related to content understanding, others related to things like formatting and the ability to write using academic discourse without an accent); and mastery of content as based on quizzes, tests, projects and other assignments. Even within the same school, there are often widely varied measures and methods for determining a student’s grade. Across schools, there is often little to no consistency. Nonetheless, respect and trust in this grading system is widespread. An “A” student is consistently perceived as demonstrating superior quality and potential compared to a “C” student. The purpose of these grades is to ______________?

Questions for Discussion and/or Reflection

  • What do you think? As we compare the use of grading system in five distinct contexts, what insights does this offer about grading in schools?
  • What are the potential benefits of letter grading in schools?
  • What are the limitations of letter grading in schools?
  • What do students have in common with the other four items currently rated with letter grades?
  • What is distinct about students compared to the other four items currently ralted with letter grades?
  • Why do you think letter grades are valued and trusted by many people despite the massive variance of measures, methods and meaning of a letter grade from one course or school to another?
  • Looking at the purpose of grading systems in the other four contexts, what do you think is the purpose of letter grades in schools?
  • If you were going to build the American schools system from scratch, would you keep a letter grading system, or would you opt for something else? If you would keep it, how might you refine or improve it? If you would not use it, what (if anything) would you use in its place?
  • How might you compare the benefits and limitations of the dominant letter grade system with systems like competency-based education, criterion-based digital badges, narrative assessments, or scores on standardized tests?
Posted in assessment, blog, education, educational technology, letter grades

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.