Is There Really a Difference Between an A Student and C Student?

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When considering letter grades, most people believe there is a big difference between an A student and a C student. While these marks may suggest that students are excellent and average, respectively, I would argue that, in terms of achievement, the two students could be remarkably similar. Moreover, they might be reversed in their abilities – the C student being excellent and the A student being average. In reality, both measures are entirely subjective.
How is it possible, you may wonder, for grades to be subjective, if they are based on an accumulation of points and percentages? Consider this logic.

Most traditional grading systems work like this

  • The teacher creates an activity. The teacher assigns an arbitrary point value to the activity (10, 20, 100 or even 1,000); these values are typically a derivative of the overall points a student can amass in a grading period, also prescribed by the teacher.
  • The teacher decides how points are acquired on particular tasks – a rubric, points per item within the activity, or gut feeling.
  • Based on step 3, the activity receives a final score.
  • The final score is translated to a percentage and a corresponding letter grade.
This seems like a fair, scientific approach to assessment, right? Actually, there are far too many variables in this formula to truly assess learning, if such a thing can ever really be accomplished.

Consider number 1. Was the student given the opportunity to select how she might demonstrate learning? There’s plenty of research that suggests that people want to do things when they’re given choices.Point values may seem fair – a student answers 8 our of 10 math problems, she scores 8/10 for a B. (Of course, in some systems, 80% is a B- or even a C+, another issue with grades.)

The teacher chose to measure learning with 10 problems. The student missed two that are most likely quite similar to the other eight? Could it be that after 40 minutes of concentration, the student lost focus on the task and made two careless mistakes? Mental fatigue should never play a role in how we assess learning, yet teachers routinely create a state of fatigue with lengthy summative assessments that often take 45-90 minutes for students to complete.

When contemplating this math example, the subjectivity involved in grading activities in the social sciences is even more salient. No matter how specific a rubric may be, much of grading written work comes down to a teacher’s preconceived notions of the student and/or comparisons to other model papers, which, of course, the teacher selects as the “best” work samples within a group.

Any letter grade, A or C, based in full or in part on these elements is a poor assessment of a student’s abilities and one more in a long line of reasons that we need to eliminate traditional grades from school.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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