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!

A Tale of a Great Teacher and the Grade Awakening

Karen set high standards for her high school biology students and she expected them to meet those standards. Little did she know that this would be the year of her grade awakening. As a great teacher, Karen went out of her way to help students improve. Everybody knew this about her. Teachers and administrators respected her as a consummate professional. Students described her as one of the toughest teachers in the school, but also fair. Parents saw her this way too. They knew that she would push their son or daughter, and they also knew that Karen didn’t tolerate parent complaints that were really just cloaked tactics to manipulate the teacher into lowering the academic bar or giving their child an unfair advantage.

Yet, Karen wasn’t the sort of teacher who graded on a curve. She was happiest when every student earned an “A”, although that never happened. She wanted every student to succeed. It was just that she was not about to create some sort of false sense of success by adjusting the bar for each student so that everyone could experience the joy of success.

Every day in class, Karen restated her expectations, driving students to work as hard as possible for the next major test, paper or project. It was a relentless focus on improved performance and progress toward earning the highest possible grade on the test or assignment. There were no surprises. She told them exactly when they had to know and be able to do if they wanted to earn the highest grade. Then she worked with students individually and in groups to progress toward that goal.

For Karen, the best measure and motivator was the grade. A high grade means high performance and a job well done. As such, she put a great deal of emphasis upon earning high grades in her class and she took great care to clearly explain what goes into earning the best grades. If you wanted an “A” in her class, then you had to earn “A”s consistently throughout the class, from the graded assignments in the first weeks all the way through the final exam. You had to follow the instructions carefully, turn things in on time, make positive contributions to the class and much more. She carefully designed a grading system in her class to make sure that students did all of these things to earn a top grade. Again, she went out of her way to help students, but she was not about to lower or adjust her standards for anyone.

Because she believed so strongly in the grade as a measure of high performance, she spent lots of time finding the research to support this. She consistently shared this research about letter grades with the students. Students with high grade point averages in high school are more successful in college. They are more likely to get good grades in college and to persist through graduation. She found that grade point average correlated with happiness in life, positive habits and behaviors, even higher annual income after college. She shared these data with students and put posters of these facts on one wall in her classroom.

One year, two students left a lasting impression on Karen that challenged her to rethink her approach to grading and led to her personal grade awakening. It was Michelle and Michaela. Both arrived on the first day of class ready and excited to learn. Yet, they had some major differences in their backgrounds.

Michaela came from a family that loved science. Her mother was a well-respected brain surgeon and her dad was a professor of biology at the nearby state University. Since she was born, family vacations were a blend of recreation and research that took them around the world. She’d swam with the dolphins, gone scuba diving at the great barrier reef, helped her dad collect samples to protect endangered species of birds in the Midwest (he was an ornithologist), and much more. While her parents made sure that she was able to read and do basic math before even starting school, they also treated human anatomy and biology in a similar way since she could speak. Michaela had an impressive collection of knowledge by the time she arrived in this first day of high school biology class. In many other schools, she would have jumped to AP biology, but despite Karen’s lobbying for it, this high school didn’t have it.

Michelle grew up on the poor side of town. Her father passed away when she was eleven from a rare illness, and her mom worked as a waitress in the evenings and on weekends, and for a cleaning service during the weekdays. Michelle’s mom made sure the two of them had everything they needed to get by, but there wasn’t that much more. In face, Michelle had been working a part-time job every since she could legally do so, but her mom insisted that all of that money go into a savings account to help pay for college.

Michelle wanted to be a doctor one day. Initially inspired by seeing the healthcare workers care for her father, she wanted to be there for future families in such circumstances. In fact, for the past year, she worked at the local hospital in the cafeteria. While Michelle and Michaela didn’t know each other well, Michelle saw Michaela’s mom fairly often at work, and looked up to her. Michelle wasn’t always a straight-A student, but she worked incredibly hard, especially since she set her mind on becoming a doctor. Every “A” took maximum effort and focus for Michelle. She didn’t have the same sort of upbringing as Michaela, but both of them were excited for this biology class.

So, when it came to the first day of Karen’s biology class, these two young women were excited and ready to get to work. Yet, as the first couple of weeks developed, it was clear that they had different backgrounds. For Michaela, pretty much everything was a review for the first several weeks. This was easy and familiar, and she didn’t need to do much to earn that “A”. This was far from the common experience in Karen’s class, but it certainly elevated Michaela’s confidence even more, and she finished the first unit in the class with a perfect score. This is something that never happened in Karen’s class.

Michelle devoted hours studying those first weeks. She loved what she was learning and was fascinated with all of the key ideas. Yet, the weekly quizzes and graded assignments were not easy for her, at least not at first. In fact, her grades were not nearly what she wanted or needed to accomplish her life goals in those first weeks. After the first unit test, Michelle had a “C+” and started to doubt her ability to become a doctor one day, but she was not going to give up this easily. She set up a meeting with her teacher after school, explained the situation, and while holding back the tears, asked for advice.

Karen knew just what to do. She spent a couple of hours after school working with Michelle over the next week. It didn’t take long for her to figure out the few misunderstandings and gaps in Michelle’s prior knowledge that kept holding her back. Once they got these figured out, things started to work out much better for Michelle. She still spent three times as much time studying for this class as Michaela, but by the middle of semester, Michaela and Michelle were competing for the top spot in class on each new unit test.

Of course, those first weeks continued to taint Michelle’s grade. She knew that, with a perfect score on everything else in the class, her absolute best grade in the class was a “B+”, but she was committed to making that bets outcome a reality, and she did just that. When it came time for the cumulative final examination, Michaela was the most prepared student in class. In fact, when the grading was finished, she did something that no other student had ever accomplished in Karen’s course. She earned a perfect score, with Michaela earning a 95%, a very respectable second highest grade in the class.

As Karen reflected on the year, she could say with confidence that Michelle was the hardest working and most focused student that she had ever had go through this class. She also demonstrated the greatest level of mastery in the course. Yet, she finished the class with a “B+” because of those early grades. Michaela, on the other hand, was a very good student as well, but just didn’t put in the effort to achieve the level of mastery demonstrated by Michelle. Regardless, Michaela finished the class with a sold “A+” while Michelle did not.

This bothered Karen because she took the upmost pride in two key traits. She wanted to be a tough teacher with very high standards. She also wanted to be supremely fair. For her, this meant that the hardest working students with the highest level of mastery should be the ones with the highest grades, but this was clearly not the case when she looked at these two students. Something was not fair about this to Karen.

Neither Michelle nor Michaela seemed to mind the arrangement. In fact, they both seemed quite happy with it. After all, they’d been through years of a school system where what they just experienced was the norm. They both learned to work within the system and it generally served both of them well.

While your average teacher might have mused about this for a little bit and moved on, Karen could not let go of this. She saw this as a professional failure and began to carefully examine the performance of other students in the class as well. She consistently found that students with lots of prior knowledge coming into the class did better than others, even when those others earned higher grades during the second half of the class and on the final exam. In other words, according to Karen, her class grading system favored the more advantaged students and penalized the students who needed the full timespan of the course to perform at their best.

When the school year ended, Karen dedicated her summer to solving this problem. She read countless journal articles, reached out to assessment experts around the country, and built her own assessment expertise. When it came down to the end, she decided that a key to solving this problem in her class was learning to make better use of ungraded and low stakes formative feedback during the first half of the semester. As the class progressed, she would then add more graded and higher stakes assessments. She also decided to experiment more with standards-based grading, which would allow both her and the students to focus more on mastery of key concepts and less upon simply earning a specific grade. The standard-based approach, as Karen came to believe, had a much better chance of focusing students on what mattered most, the learning.

She spent the entire summer rebuilding her assessment plan for the class, and was excited to test it out during the first semester of the new school year. As she reflected on the summer and her past years of teaching, Karen looked back with pride but also a measure of humility. She was a veteran teacher and had this deep sadness that some of her past students might have finished her class with a false sense of their abilities based upon a grading system that she now considered unfair. At the same time, she was so happy to have made these new adjustments and looked forward to this new year.

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.