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Debunking the Myth of the 'A' Grade

May 4, 2012
By Keely Camden , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

"What do I need to do in order to get an A?"

These are the words spoken every day in high schools and colleges across the country. Teachers and professors will lament that "children only care about the grade, not about learning."

Yet, we, as an educational community, have created this insatiable desire to make "good" grades without much regard for what the grades represent, how much was learned or what thinking has transpired.

For those students with perfectionist thought patterns, the quest for straight A's becomes an obsession of point counting and requests for assignment revisions.

Grades are notoriously poor indicators of learning. Two students, both college freshmen, both earn a B in a world history course. All that will be reflected on the college transcript will be this letter grade. No other evidence is required to communicate the level of understanding obtained by each student, the specific course outcomes mastered, or the performance-based assessment that were completed. In fact, both of these students could have had a very different experience throughout the course; however, that experience will never be captured in the letter grade.

In the book, "Academically Adrift," authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, argue that colleges and universities are failing to demonstrate outcomes in critical thinking and enhanced higher-order skills. Because these skills are not measured by end-of-semester course grades, assessments like the Collegiate Learning Assessment are indicative that little "value-added" can be demonstrated by even successful completion of college courses.

Would you rather know that your third-grade child earned a B in math for the year, or would it be more meaningful to know what math objectives had been mastered and which math objectives were still progressing? A B grade in math for third grade will not tell you if your child mastered all of the multiplication tables through 12 with a level of automaticity required for more complex math operations. It won't tell you if your child can read a number into the trillions, if your child can identify 15 geometric shapes, and if your child can multiply and divide with two digit numbers with renaming. It certainly won't tell you if your child can use math to solve real-world problems and think critically about the application of math.

If those objectives were delineated, with an accounting of specific progress and overall student strengths and weaknesses in math, it would not only give parents great feedback but also would help educators preparing for the next school year.

Some educators do not agree on the narrative equivalent of letter grades. Does an A mean "outstanding" and "well beyond average" or does it mean that mastery was accomplished? It was once generally agreed upon that a C was average; but, today, a quick anecdotal accounting from students in elementary, middle or high school will reveal that, typically, a C means that he or she did poorly and failed to master the content knowledge and that only an A or B is "good."

It's not just content knowledge being reflected in grades. In many college syllabi and middle or high school grading policies, student behaviors constitute approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of the final course "grade."

Consider this scenario: You are taking an English course. While you will have several traditional means of assessment - quizzes, projects, tests and papers - the rest of your "grade" will include other factors unrelated to course objectives. Your attendance, tardy behavior, completion of homework, organized desk/planner/notebook, general class participation and late work will be factored into your overall course grade. Even if you earned excellent scores on all tests and papers, if your behaviors caused you to be tardy or absent for several classes, and if your notebook wasn't organized, and if you failed to complete two homework assignments, then your course "grade" could be mathematically lower than a student with perfect behaviors but deficient test/quiz/paper scores.

Class behaviors are often used to justify lowering a student's grade as well. Even if a student has an A average, he or she might receive a grade reduction for poor attendance or an accumulation of three or more late arrivals. Missing or incomplete homework is also given zero points. These zeros are then factored into the final course grade. Alternatively, many teachers or professors use "extra credit" assignments to bolster overall course averages. While extra credit sometimes directly relates to the course content, it doesn't always.

The use of grades as a motivating factor, or as punishment, employs the belief that operant conditioning needs to be utilized in order to ensure student compliance and learning. While using grades as a "reward" or "punishment" may initially change behavior, over time it is likely to erode intrinsic motivation.

Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of grades and author of "Punished by Rewards," writes that grades are essentially rewards. "Rewards are often successful at increasing the probability that we will do something. However, it will also change the way we do something, the reason for doing it and the attitude we take towards activity."

If we are only learning for the grade, then are we really learning?

- Dr. Keely Camden is the dean of the College of Education at West Liberty University and an associate professor of education. She is a former special education teacher.

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