In Hot Pursuit of the Wrong Question
I received a question from a school that was contemplating a change in its grading scale from 60 percent to 70 percent in order for students to earn a passing grade. The school asked for my opinion on how such a change might impact learning. Here is my response:
I got your question about raising the grading scale for passing from 60 percent to 70 percent and its potential impact on student achievement. Before considering that change, the faculty should first consider a number of more important questions.
- Is each teacher clear on exactly what students must know and be able to do as a result of the course they are teaching, as well as each unit of the course?
- If two or more teachers are teaching the same course, have they established a guaranteed and viable curriculum in which they have agreed on the essential learnings and the pacing of each unit? Is one teacher devoting weeks to a skill that a colleague devotes days to?
- Have the teachers been able to translate the essential curriculum into student-friendly, "I can" language?
- If two or more teachers are teaching the same course, have they created common assessments?
- Is there consistency on the rigor of assessments within and across departments?
- Is there consistency on the standards students must achieve on an assessment in order to be deemed proficient?
- If an assessment is focused on more that one skill or concept and a student meets the standard on three of four skills, will you average the grades for each skill and deem the student proficient or will you site the fact he or she is not yet proficient on the one skill? What is the grade in this instance?
- Have teachers agreed on the criteria they will use in judging the quality of student work (such as speeches, essays, labs, and projects)?
- Is there evidence that teachers apply the agreed-upon criteria consistently?
- Have teachers agreed on the purpose of grading? What is it intended to do? Who benefits?
What does a grade represent? Is it the achievement of an agreed-upon, clearly defined standard?
- Is it how a student compares with other students?
- Is improvement taken into account? If a student struggles at the beginning of the semester but demonstrates by the end of the semester that he or she is highly proficient, will the lower grades be averaged into the final grade? If so, does the grade represent an accurate reflection of the student’s achievement of a standard?
- Is effort taken into account? If a student tries really hard but is unable to demonstrate proficiency, what will the grade be?
- Is participation taken into account? What if an eager student cannot demonstrate proficiency but a lethargic one can?
- Are behavior, promptness, and compliance taken into account? What if a student routinely fails to turn in homework but demonstrates high proficiency on each assessment?
Will all teachers agree on such matters as:
- Will students be allowed or required to retake a test?
- Will students be allowed or required to keep working on an assignment until it is satisfactory?
- How much will homework be factored into the final grade?
- How much will quizzes, unit tests, and final exams be factored into the final grade?
- If a student fails to turn in work on time, do we have a standard practice? If we simply give students a zero and don’t allow them to turn in work after it was due, won’t some students happily take the zero rather than do the work? How does allowing this irresponsible behavior encourage students to act responsibly?
- What is a failing grade? If you move a passing grade to 70 and a student gets a zero on an assignment, you are not giving him an F, you are giving him the equivalent of six Fs. You can’t have a grading scale with 10-point intervals between A and B, B and C, and a 69-point interval between passing and failing if your grading is to be statistically valid!
In short, your school is asking the wrong question, perhaps because it is much easier to address than the ones I have listed. Until you address the questions I have listed, changing your grading scale will probably have very little impact on student learning.