The True Meaning of Grades

“What do grades actually mean?”

I wonder what the answer would be if we were to pose this question to other faculty here and elsewhere… Are grades snapshots of work? Are they benchmarks that relate to content mastery and understanding? Or are grades simply antiquated measurements of knowledge that have little to no bearing on the digital world we currently live in?

I personally think that the overwhelming response would be that there is no clear idea as to what grades actually mean, regardless of location or level of education being taught.

Personally, I would like to think that grades represent a metric by which a teacher (or evaluator) can use to measure the level of mastery that an individual has gained in a particular course/subject. Translation –> the better the grade, the better you know whatever it is you were studying.

This rant has its’ beginning in two recent projects given in my Environmental Science class. Specifically, the students were told to evaluate the others in class. They were to provide several comments of a constructive nature (what was good, what was bad, what could be improved, etc), AND they were to also propose a grade for the projects. That was where I began to see a “disconnect” in my students.  On my most recent project, one student was given comments of “[presenter] spoke too fast, didn’t seem familiar with information, and needs much more eye contact, not very passionate about topic.” The students that wrote the above comments also felt that a grade of B+/A- was deserved. Now as some background, the assignment in question was to produce a persuasive presentation that would work to encourage interest in the chosen topic/subject. The comments my students have given as feedback on these projects are, in my opinion, very insightful and are also full of very constructive criticism. But the grades that accompany those same projects do not seem to match the evaluations. To me it seems that these students seem to honestly feel that they are “entitled” to high grades for simply COMPLETING the assignment and doing only the minimum asked of them.

So I want to ask for your help… What do you think is meant by an “A”? What about a “C”? If we were to put this question into the vernacular of Dave Monaco, “Should a grade of “A” represent work that is “remarkable” in its’ excellence?” Now, I would also like to clarify, that I am not against all of my students earning high marks (A’s), but I am concerned about a perceived failure in understanding what “Excellence” actually means.

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3 Responses to The True Meaning of Grades

  1. A. Cohen says:

    Ok,I agree with you Marc — but now I want to add a further point to consider… If we follow the idea that “The signifigance of a grade is not derived from individual interpretation but from its’ relation to the group,” then are we only going to compare student within a single class as “the group”? Or perhaps a single cohort (grade classification)?

    Or is it possible to create a comprehensive metric that allows us as educators to set a standard of expectation that can transcend the individual class and be usable from year-to-year to allow for the “grade” to actually be used to denote mastery and integration of subject material?

  2. Marc Addington says:

    I love this topic which has been in my mind since I was a student. What do they mean? The problem I think stems from, as Ostroff puts it, “10 different points of view.” The issue is not which point-of-view is better, much less the point of view of the student who sets his or her own benchmark, but rather how the system works. I think a useful ideological tool is to look at Levi-Strauss’ and de Saussure’s structural systems. The significance of a grade is not derived from individual interpretation but from its relation to the group. Without a consistent view of grades at Parish there cannot be any real significance.

    Some colleges/universities have now begun to address this issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/education/26grades.html?_r=1&ref=education.

  3. DaveOstroff says:

    This is a powerful set of observations and questions, Adam – thanks for your post! I think grades are meant to offer students useful feedback as to their levels of both effort and achievement. I think therein lies the quandry: do we too often confuse effort and achievement? I like for my courses to have a healthy combination of both effort (daily) grades and achievement (tests, quizzes, essay) grades, and I find that students’ effort grades are higher – and they balance the (hopefully) honest feedback I give on tests and quizzes.

    In the end, I think students receive mixed messages here at school when teachers in different parts of the building (and even within the same departments) use grades in different ways… if we asked 10 teachers, I’d bet we’d hear 10 different points-of-view; maybe this is an area where discussion, followed by a collaborative process to write a clear policy, might serve students well…

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