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.