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!

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.

5 Common Reasons for the Importance of Letter Grades

If this article captured your interest, you might want to listen to my MoonShotEdu Show episode devoted to this topic. You can listen to it through the embedded player at the bottom of the article, or you can check it out on the MoonshotEdu Show website, iTunes, or Soundcloud. Or, you might be interested in this article on 10 Must Read Books on Letter Grades in Education.

Given the wide variety of assessment possibilities today, why do so many educational institutions remain committed to using letter grades?  I spent the last several months asking people this question and exploring books, journals and online articles about letter grades.  The majority of responses fit into five responses.  People refer to other reasons as well, but it seems as if most of the conversations end up focusing upon one of these five. Each of these reasons are important and worth consideration, but there are counterpoints, and I provided some of them below.  What do you think? Should other reasons be added to this list?  What counterpoints would you add?

1) Letter grades motivate students.

Yes, letter grades motivate many students. The goal of earning an  “A” or avoiding an “F” is often enough to help students study and prepare for that next exam.  Such goals are not enough to help students develop a growing and persistent interest in the subject, one that will empower them to continue learning beyond the tests, or even to use or remember what they learned. While letter grades motivate, they also demotivate students, some of the same students that they motivate.  In Drive, Daniel Pink points out the danger of using carrot and stick tactics to keep people motivated.  He points out that this works, sometimes quite well, in the short-term, but not as well in the long-term. In the long-term, he argues that they can…

  1. extinguish intrinsic motivation,
  2. diminish performance,
  3. crush creativity,
  4. crowd out good behavior,
  5. encourage cheating shortcuts and unethical behavior,
  6. become addictive, and
  7. foster short?term thinking.

Letters grades don’t have to be carrot and stick motivators.  I’ve seen many educators cultivate an environment that minimizes the role of grades as motivators while still using them. Ultimately, a teacher that depends upon letter grades as the sole or primary motivator risks missing out on the experience of cultivating a high-impact learning community of purpose and possibility.  It is one thing to learn alongside a group that wants to get a good grade.  It is a completely different experience to learn with a group of people who develop a drive to learn for other reasons (maybe because of the possibilities that it opens for them, to meet a larger goal in life, because of a love of the subject, because of curiosity, etc.).  I have participated in far too many learning communities without grades to think that they are necessary to motivate students. There are many and better ways to help students stay engaged.  Of course, the best teachers may still use grades, but they don’t use them as the primary motivator.  That is a recipe for a culture of drudgery and compliance.

2) The next “level” of education uses them.  Unless they change, we can’t.  

This is hard to ignore.  Educators in elementary school prepare students for high school.  College prep high schools prepare students for higher education.  This argument comes in a couple of forms.  One is the idea that students need to experience letter grades so that they are better prepared for grades on the next level.  The other angle to this is that students coming from a school without letter grades may be at a disadvantage in the admission process at the next level (this is usually in reference to going from high school to college).

Interestingly, when we look at the University level, most individual classes typically have far fewer grades. It is rare to have a college class with more than ten graded assignments, although there are exceptions depending upon the content area. In fact, in the United States, there are still a good number of college courses where one’s grade is based largely or entirely upon a couple of tests and a couple of major papers or projects.  With this in mind, a key to success in college courses is for students to learn to stay motivated in the short-term by something other than the next grade, as poor performance on the first grade in the class may be enough to prevent any chance of the highest letter grade.  If preparing students for the next level is the main reason for maintaining the use of letter grades, then it might be worthwhile to gradually work toward students having fewer grades in each class.  By the way, I’m not arguing that fewer opportunities for feedback is necessarily good instructional design.  From a pure teaching and learning perspective, we know that providing frequent and meaningful feedback (which doesn’t need to be in the form of a grade) is a key to improved student learning.

Are students coming from schools without letter grades at a disadvantage when they apply to the next level of education?  Grade point average is only one of many factors that are considered when a student applies to a University. If we review the admissions processes at some of the elite Universities in the United States, we see that SAT/ACT, an essay, an interview, and letters of recommendation are more significant.  This is largely because GPA does not tell us much.  At best, it is simply a comparison of one’s performance with other students at the same school.  These other parts of the application play a much more important role in admissions.  One group that conducts a great deal of research on this topic is the Home School Legal Defense Association.  Their pages on admission to college should offer plenty of assurance that students are not at a disadvantage if they come from a school without letter grades (or even traditional transcripts).

3) Moving away from letter grades is a sign of decreasing academic rigor.

A response to this concern requires that we better understand what is meant by academic rigor.  Is this about holding students to a high standard of academic performance?  If so, do letter grades do this better than alternative documentation?  Other forms of documentation often provide much more detail about what students learned in a given lesson, unit, or entire course of study.  This fact certainly makes it possible to maintain high standards.  Ultimately, it is up to the teacher to maintain academic rigor, and this can happen regardless of whether or not one uses letter grades.

In some cases, others seem to define rigor by the distribution of student performance in the class.  If everyone received an “A”, then they might conclude that the class lacked academic rigor, that it must have been too easy.  While I do not agree with this perspective, it is worth our attention.  We all know that some teachers grade harder than others.  An “A” in one class does not equate the same level of effort or learning in another class, sometimes even when it is just a different section of the same class, but with a different instructor.  For such reasons, the standards of the teacher typically determines rigor, not use of letter grades.

4) Letter grades allow us to compare student performance across different institutions or organizations.

Unless every teacher in every school is using the same standards and assessments, letter grades do not provide data that is comparable across schools.  Letter grades are not standardized.  They allow one to compare student performance in an individual class, and sometimes across classes in the same school.  That is about the comparative limit of grades as they are currently used.

5) They work fine, so why change?

In some ways, this is the most compelling argument to me. Out of all the changes and improvements that we can make to enhance student engagement and learning, are letter grades the most important factor?  There are many great schools and classrooms that use letter grades.  However, the most engaging classes are just that…engaging, regardless of grades or no grades.  Yet, letter grades have limitations, and for that reason, a growing number of schools are supplementing or replacing grades on report cards and transcripts with other types of documentation.  This might be a more detailed description of student performance on individual course goals, a rich narrative assessment about student performance, a separate “report card” that focuses upon 21st century skills, student self-assessments, and/or a collection of student products that show each student’s best work in the course.  These efforts get to the heart of the matter, providing quality, substantive and meaningful documentation of student learning.