On the relative lunacy of grading

August 25, 2023

I have read about the Cape Henlopen grading kerfuffle with interest because I was an educator for over 40 years. In the beginning, I developed my class grading policies – formulas that are used to generate grades – like everyone else, but by the time I became an administrator, I began to understand that using grades as a means of communication was a profound manifestation of lunacy. What does a 50 mean, anyway? Or a 73? Or an A or a D, for that matter?

The purpose of grading is to use a single symbol – a letter grade or a number grade – to summarize and communicate everything of importance a student has done over a period of time to parents and colleges. (Note: Teachers should be communicating to each student all along what the grade allegedly summarizes.) In order for a single symbol to convey anything, all users must understand exactly what that symbol means. My extensive but nonscientific sample of one reveals that a mutual understanding of what a grade means to users seldom, if ever, exists.

The origin of the lunacy comes from the colossal insanity of believing a single symbol can convey everything of importance that a student does over a long period of time. Your Aug. 18 editorial emphasizes the importance of work and effort, but there is no mention of mastery, the degree to which course objectives have been mastered, which is the most important thing a grade should communicate. If things like measures of work and effort are included in a grade, a single symbol cannot convey an accurate message.

Consider this omnipresent scenario: Mary masters every course objective, but fails to do some homework assignments and receives an 89, while Juan does not master every objective but does every assignment and receives an 89. What does each student’s 89 convey to a parent or a college? Which student has the greatest mastery of the subject matter? Which student has shown the greatest effort?

Further compounding the disconnect are differences among teachers' grading policies. It is rare for policies to be completely alike because individual teachers tweak their policies by uniquely weighting the importance of, say, quizzes and homework and/or by giving bonus points as rewards. Dissimilar policies means that two biology students with different teachers could demonstrate mastery to the same degree but end up with different grades depending upon the degree to which each teacher weights homework or gives bonus points.

If grades were generated with universally applied and understood protocols, they could accurately communicate the degree to which students were mastering course objectives (which are the most important outcomes), and policymakers could use the grading distributions of teachers, schools and school districts to monitor accountability. The fact that this does not happen is tacit proof of the relative lunacy of grading. Regarding the current kerfuffle, I’d like to know if members of the school and editorial boards have a uniform understanding of what 50 or any other grade actually means. I sure don’t.

Jeff Byrem

  • A letter to the editor expresses a reader's opinion and, as such, is not reflective of the editorial opinions of this newspaper.

    To submit a letter to the editor for publishing, send an email to Letters must be signed and include a telephone number and address for verification. Please keep letters to 500 words or fewer. We reserve the right to edit for content and length. Letters should be responsive to issues addressed in the Cape Gazette rather than content from other publications or media. Only one letter per author will be published every 30 days. Letters restating information and opinions already offered by the same author will not be used. Letters must focus on issues of general, local concern, not personalities or specific businesses.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter