10 Must Read Books About Letter Grades in School

I don’t like letter grades. I’m convinced that we can do better by students with new and different perspectives on assessment, grading, and measurement in education. I start out with this strong statement because I want to be honest about my bias (I think it is a carefully considered and thoughtful bias, but it is a bias nonetheless). However, I consistently advocate for being well-informed about the benefits, limitations, and possibilities; and this applies to letter grades too. And since many educators and schools don’t agree with throwing out grades, I offer ways that we can at least improve our use of grades. As such, and at the request of readers, I put together this suggested reading list on letter grades. You will find different philosophies and approaches represented in these books, but working through this list will give you a well-rounded examination of the topic.

Also, stay tuned because I’m working on a documentary on the letter grade system and have a rough draft manuscript called Learning Beyond Letter Grades that I hope to eventually publish.

Rethinking Grading

Standards-based grading has been growing in popularity over the last decade, and this book does a fine job introducing readers to that possibility.

Formative Assessment and Standards-based Grading

Another book on standards-based grading, this one also does a fine job describing the important role of formative assessment (what I and others call the checkup instead of the autopsy). This is a helpful book in clarifying the purpose of grading.

Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School

Are you skeptical about letter grades but you find yourself in a school where people remain committed to the traditional approach to letter grades? If so, this is the book for you. It will give you practical tips on how to de-grade your classroom.

Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade book and Inspire Learning

Mark Barnes, the author of this book, is one who is inspiring a movement in going beyond letter grades. His book is simple, practical, but substantive; and it definitely worth the few hours that it takes to read it. Then wander over to the growing Facebook Group that he launched for more discussion.

Grading Smarter Not Harder

Maybe you are not ready to let go of letter grades, but you think we can do a better job in our use of letter grades. If that is you, then this is a great book to help with that cause. It helps readers think through the purpose of grades and how we can actually turn grades into something that is more closely tied to student learning.

On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting

Better than most, this book makes a solid case for the inadequacies of the modern letter grading system, but draws from research to do it.

A Repair Kit for Grading

Is the grading system broken in your classroom or school? This book is the toolkit to help you pull up your sleeves, get to work, and repair it. It is not a throw out the grades treatise, but instead offers suggested important but incremental changes.

Schooling Beyond Measure

Alfie Kohn is the most outspoken critic today on modern testing and assessment in school, and this book (which is largely a collection of blog posts and other essays) will challenge what many of us think and believe about grades in schools. Some might not agree with Kohn or see him as extreme, but I contend that his position, especially when you see it represented in real-world school contexts, can be quite compelling.

On Grades and Grading

Quinn isn’t trying to get rid of grades. He’s writing to promote a more thoughtful and transparent use of grades in school. Coming from his direct work and experience in K-12 schools, this is a good and useful perspective to add to your intellectual toolbox.

Learning Beyond Letter Grades

This is a shameless plug for my yet-to-be-published book on the subject. The first part of the book is a careful analysis of letter grades, especially their limitations, but then offers a series of ways to leverage different types of feedback to enrich classes, even if your school wants to stay with a traditional grading system. I haven’t published this yet, but I’ll be sure to update this page when it is available. In the meantime, you have the first nine books to enjoy!

Do Students and Parents Care More About Grades than Learning?

Do students and parents care more about grades than learning? What about teachers and administrators? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

“We know that grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in.”

In his article, Richardson illustrates this with a quote from a student about her generation being more interested in grades than learning. He explains that, when he shares this with audiences, the group nods in agreement. Yet, what are we doing about it? This is not good. When schools are about something other than learning, that is a problem. Grades are not the purpose of schooling and if they don’t help us achieve our core goals and live out our core mission, then we must act swiftly to address it in some way.

I realize that many schools do not think they are in the position to remove grades altogether. That is fine. Yet, what are we doing to have a deep and substantive conversation about the limitations of letter grades? What are we doing to minimize their negative impact? I don’t see many of us inviting students, parents and community members into such a conversation. More often we just accept them as essential and unquestionable elements of the system despite the fact that they do nothing to nurture curiosity, a love of learning, or other similar values.

Critics respond by explaining that I (and others) are being idealistic. People would not do the work if they did not have grades. I see two issues with that position. First, the reason that people would not do the work without grades is because we created a culture that nurtures such a mindset. It doesn’t have to be that way. Plenty of schools have faced this challenge, creating practices that better nurture a focus upon actual personal growth and learning. Second, this is a misinterpretation. Most of us are not arguing against accountability or high standards. Grades are not the only way to hold people accountability. If we think that is the case, then it is time for us to broaden our awareness of the research on motivation and just the grander array of possibilities for student engagement. These abstractions called grades are diverting attention away from the work and learning itself. There are other options. We can downplay the role of grades. We can amp up our use of more authentic, frequent and substantive formative feedback. We can focus on coaching and mentoring toward learning goals. We can gather to collectively brainstorm ways to make school about growth, mastery and learning.

Feedback and grading are completely different. Grading is summative in nature. It doesn’t care about growth and improvement. It decreases risk-taking, muffles learning by mistakes and through failures. It is a blunt tool that, overly reductionist, missing many important nuances.

How can we shift this? When a student comes home, how do we turn the conversation with parents from what grades they are getting to what they are learning? How do we change the discourse in a classroom from “Do we need to know this for the test?” to questions infused with curiosity and a love of learning? Teachers and other leaders in our schools would be wise to devote more time and attention to such questions. The answers are not quick or easy. Implementation is even more challenging. Yet, it is worth it…for the sake of the students, the credibility of formal schooling, and our communities.

The Ill-Defined Alphabet Soup of Letter Grades in Schools

What does a letter grade mean? Scan a dozen school handbooks or University course catalogs and you will find a largely consistent definition for letter grades.

A = Superior

B = Above Average

C = Average

D = Below Average

F = Your are at the bottom of the heap, among the worst performing in the comparative group.

Admittedly, I have not found any handbooks or catalogs that put it as bluntly as I just did for “F”, but if you ask people about what it means to get an “F”, the word failure is usually the first thing they say.

While this is the extent of the explanation given by many schools or teachers, it doesn’t adequately answer our question about the meaning of those letter grades. This is enough to tell us that a grade is relative to something, but we have not defined that something. If I get an “A”, does that mean that I am superior compared to everyone in that class, everyone who has ever taken that class with a given teacher, everyone who has taken it at that school, every high school or college student who sought to learn that subject, or maybe everyone in the world who sought to learn something about that subject? Few explain the answer to such questions, and unless their answer is focused on the hyper-local, chances are they are not actually analyzing a massive pool of performance data, refining categories of performances (A, B, C, D), and then carefully designing objective assessments to compare one’s performance to that larger pool of people. As such, we still don’t know how an “A” in Harvard compares to an “A” at the local community college. We have assumptions and biases, but we do not know unless we carefully analyze both contexts and student performance in those contexts. Even then, we still may not know if a student at the community college earned an “A” but demonstrated a level of expertise that was far superior to every student with an “A” in the comparable class at Harvard.

The only thing that is almost universally consistent in the use of letter grades (at least historically) is that they are comparative. As such, they are designed to rank people as winners and losers, superior, average, and at the bottom. At least that is consistent with historic uses of letter grades. Look at the different ways people use letter grades today and we begin to discover more of the challenges. Consider the following four approaches to letter grades. This is far from exhaustive, but it illustrates the varies of meanings assigned to grades.

The Curve

Yes, there are some teachers and professors who continue to use this approach. They do define the group to which you are being compared. It is usually others in the same class or all the sections of that class taught by a single teacher. In a few instances, it might be all the sections of a course taught by all teachers in a given year. With this approach, regardless of the objective performance according to some consistent standard, there will be winners and losers; although many use an adjusted curve. With a true and complete curve, your grade speaks first to how you compared to others and second to evidence of meeting certain course objectives. You might get a “D” in that class, but your performance is actually better than others who received a “B” in a similar class at another school.

The Scholar’s Sense

A second approach to using letter grades is largely unstated. They use grades because that is how the school does it. Yet, the meaning of the grade largely resides with the discernment of the teacher in that course. The teacher compares the work of each student to a sense of some standard in his/her mind about what constitutes good writing, adequate knowledge, acceptable levels of skill. So, the instructor assigns grade by comparing students to a sense of what should be the standard in a given discipline, content area, etc. One teacher “grades” more harshly because she is comparing students to the standard that she recalls from her professors years before. Another might compare to what she thinks is high quality, a sentiment cultivate over years of student and immersion in the discipline.

By the Numbers

Some teachers create their own tests, quizzes and assignments. They assign point values and weights to each of these. Students perform on each assignment and earn a score. The scores are added up to equal an overall grade. As such, the grade, even while it may be defined as superior, average, etc., really means that students earned a certain number of points on a collection of assignments and assessments that the teacher deems an effective means of measuring student learning. Note that this approach is using a comparative letter grade system, but they are not really using it to compare one student to another. Or, sometimes the teacher blends the curve and numbers approach, meaning that the grade is really about comparative performance on a subjective teacher-generated set of assessments; making the grade even less comparable to such a grade beyond that classroom or school.

The Standard

This is becoming more common in K-12 schools and professional programs in the University level; where there is a set of outside standards upon which everyone is assessed. Sometimes the teachers are designing or using assessments intended to measure progress toward these standards (or what is considered appropriate at a given age or stage). With this approach, the letter grades (while still listed by the school as meaning superior, above average, average, or below average) are no longer used to rank students according to other people. The grades have a stated meaning, but they are really being used to measure progress toward a standard. In such a context, a teacher might assign an “A” for meeting all the standards, a “B” for meeting almost all, a “C” for meeting many of the standards, a “D” for meeting few standards, and an “F” for meaning fewer or none. Note that the letter grade system, in this case, is essentially being redefined, but none of that may be clearly explained on the report card or transcript. People from the outside just see an “A” and they don’t know whether it was assigned by comparing to others or if they created a new definition for “A” as in this example. In these contexts, it is possible for everyone in the class to get an “A” or for everyone to get an “F”, depending upon whether they met the standard. This, I suspect, is where we get some critiques of grade inflation. When using grades for what is actually a standards-based assessment approach, outsiders assuming a comparative usage may well assume that we are observing a classic case of grade inflation. In reality, we might just be seeing a modern case of grade re-definition.

Where do we go from here?

When I look into the actual grading practices of teachers and professors today, I am left with little doubt that we have an ill-defined system. Consider the fact that we use grade point average (based upon this ill-defined system) partly for admission criteria, for access to certain awards and scholarships, and more generally as a measure of student success and learning. There are certainly better ways of documenting student learning, leading me back to my previous comments about the need to consider whether it is time to set aside this out-dated and ill-defined system for something that better aligns with our vision and mission in most schools. As I hope to represent in a half-written manuscript that might eventually turn into a book, it seems increasingly clear to me that it is time to move beyond letter grades.

Resources & Prompts for the #TxEduChat on “Learning Beyond Letter Grades”

I’m excited to guest host the #TxEduChat tonight at 8:00 PM CST (2/15/15) on the topic of “Learning Beyond Letter Grades.” For those who are participating, I’ve put together a collection of articles that I’ve written on related topics and included them below. I also listed the discussion prompts below, just in case a few people wanted a peek preview.

Where did I get this topic? I’ve been fascinated with educational innovation, student-centered learning environments, and alternative education for two decades. However, over the last several years, I started to notice that grading systems, testing, and assessment practices often seemed to get in the way of many promising innovations. So, I started to look into the subject further. I studied the history of letter grades to find out how we got this system in the first place. I was amazed at what I discovered. Then I started looking at many alternatives to letter grades along with ways to supplement, bolster or enhance the existing system. That eventually led me to sharing some of my discoveries in 2013.

I led a Massive Open Online Course on the subject in 2013 where we explored the limitations of letter grades, the important role of formative versus summative assessment, narrative feedback, peer assessment, self-assessment, competency-based education, digital badges for learning and more. It was a wonderfully engaging learning community of around 1000 participants from  more than a dozen countries. It included k12 educators, University faculty, school and University administrators, instructional designers, along with leaders and innovators in education startups, non-profit organizations, and successful education companies. I’m happy to be offering that MOOC again this spring. While all are welcome, it will have a bit more of a higher education focus this time around. I hope to able to soon announce an exciting potential partnership with a well-known organization for Learning Beyond Letter Grades 2.0.

The purpose of the course was to challenge us to consider the possible of learning beyond letter grades. We explored what it might look like for schools to be less driven by a culture of earning [grades] and more focused upon a genuine culture of learning. Is it possible, I suggested, that the letter grade system is outdated, and that there are worthwhile alternatives today? Or, even if we don’t set aside letter grades, might these alternatives serve as valuable supplements and enhancements to how we think about and use feedback and the documentation of student learning? This is what I mean by learning beyond letter grades. I’m looking forward to what I hope an expect to be a lively and rewarding chat!

Tentative Prompts / Questions for the #TxEduChat Twitter Chat at 8:00 PM CST on 2/15/15

  • Q1 What role do letter grades currently play in your classroom/school? Good, bad, neutral? #txeduchat
  • Q2 What are the strongest arguments for or against the role of letter grades in school? #txeduchatPossible
    • Q2 sub-prompts to keep things lively.
      • Q2.1 Letter grades keep the unmotivated students motivated? Good or bad argument? #txeduchat
      • Q2.2 Letter grades prepare students for the “real world” Good or bad argument? #txeduchat
      • Q2.3 The next level of education uses grades, so we need to do it too. Good or bad argument?
  • Q3 To what extent might letter grades be an outdated 17th century technology? #txeduchat
  • Q4 Not that all our schools will abandon grades, but what alternatives have you explored? What are their benefits/limitations? #txeduchat
    • Possible Q4 sub-prompts to keep things lively.Q4.1.
      • Thoughts about these options? standards-based, #gamification, #openbadges, #cbe #txeduchatQ4.2
      • Thoughts about these options? #portfolios, self-assessment, peer-assessment. #txeduchat
  • Q5 How might some of the A4 alternatives enhance or supplement (not replace) the use of letter grades in your classroom/school? #txeduchat
  • Q6 Grades are more summative. What are creative ways for students to get more formative “How am I doing?” feedback? #txeduchat
  • Q7 Regardless of letter grades, what can we do to foster a culture of learning more than a culture of earning grades? #txeduchat
  • Q8 Final Question: As a result of this chat, what is one thing that you want to do or explore within the next week? #TxEduChat

Related Articles from Etale That Might be of Interest

 Shameless Plug: Did I mention that I work at Concordia University Wisconsin where we offer a fully online Master of Science in Educational Design and Technology that is built around competency-based digital badges? You can learn more or inquire here.