Grades…What Do They Really Say About a Student?

Let’s say life is like school…In order to move on in life (buy a house, get a new car, have kids, etc) you must do well in all that you do.  You must do really well.  If you want a nice house and good kids you must be the best of the best.  You have to get at least a 4.3.  Are you getting a 4.3 in life? Would your GPA in life really be an indicator of how good, how successful, or how talented of a person you are?


Lets say in the span of nine months you must master the following things (this is a list of things in life that may be as irrelevant to you as some of our subjects are to students).

  • Learn how to drive a big rig
  • Bake red velvet cupcakes from scratch
  • Hit 20 home runs out of 30 pitches
  • “Close” read and analyze the Affordable Care Act

That’s your schedule for the next nine months. At the end you will be given a grade based on how well you do those things.  That grade will help determine your next step in life.  Do well, you get awesome opportunities; Do poorly, and your opportunities will be a little more limited.

Also, there’s no extra credit in life…Can you bring your boss a ream of paper and some kleenex and in return you get a raise and now you can get a Porsche instead of a Nissan?  Can you get a bonus for not going to bathroom more than 4 times? That bonus might be the difference between you getting your first house or not. House or bladder infection? Hmmm?  Do they give pay raises to employees that go to the company softball games? Doubt it.

I understand that we must assess students and give them grades.  But what do those grades really mean in the long run?  What are we actually grading? Knowledge? Behavior and compliance? Skill? Growth? What if (insert subject here) just isn’t their thing? We are giving a grade that determines a lot of what will happen in their future.  Their path in life is affected by the grades we give.  So what do we value? What should we reward?

Just because I couldn’t hit 20 home runs out of 30 pitches (which would be a 66% if it was test), does not mean that I’m not deserving of opportunities in the future.  I really tried! I worked on my swing, but it just didn’t happen.  It’s hard to get that good at baseball when I had to bake cupcakes until I got it right, and then take lessons on driving a big rig.  Parking those big things is tough!  Don’t even get me started on that Obamacare document.  That thing was pretty confusing.  And how come my karate skills weren’t tested.  I’m a black belt, but that didn’t get assessed.  I would’ve really impressed them if they asked me to do a roundhouse kick.  So now I rent a small apartment and drive a ‘94 Nissan Maxima because I wasn’t good at a few things.  But I am good at a lot of other things.  I wish my teachers in the school of life would’ve recognized that.  Now I kind of feel like a failure.

Grades are tricky. As long as colleges continue to look at GPAs, I guess we have to give grades. I hope one day that their formula for determining who gets in changes.  I hope companies like Google, who don’t care about GPA when hiring, influence other companies and eventually colleges to make some changes.  Our value as students, employers, and humans can’t be accurately summed up in points and letter grades.

We have to make sure we see students as individuals and not just an ID number and a name on a class roster.
We have to make sure we see students as individuals and not just an ID number and a name on a class roster.

Another flaw in grades are that they are very subjective.  A student who has me and earns an A might have earned a C if they had been in another teacher’s class.  It all comes down to how a teacher grades and what they value. That differs from teacher to teacher.  This means students are just learning how to play the game of school.  I could go on about the subjectivity of grades, but I’d rather just throw it out there as another thinking point when reflecting on your grading policy.

As you start preparing for next year, look at your grading policy and at least think about what you are grading, why you are grading it, and if it really determines the value of that student.  Just because grades have always been done a certain way and we’ve always been told that a 92% is an A and a 62% is a D doesn’t mean that it’s the right way or the only way.

Where did this come from? Why do we follow it? Are students in your classes you earned a 79% really that much worse than one who got 90%.
Where did this come from? Why do you follow it? Are students in your classes who earned a 79% really that much worse than one who got 90%? Do you have a student who got a 79% that you know is brighter than one who got a 90%? If the answer is Yes…is that right?

Let’s not deprive students of opportunities because their cupcakes suck.  Let them do a few roundhouses and kick that cupcake right off the top of your head.  I’d say that’s just as impressive.

*I’ve been wanting to write a post about grades for a while now. It’s a topic/flaw in education that I feel gets largely ignored when talking about reform efforts. After watching/reading David Theriault’s (@davidtedu) vlog/blog I was inspired to start writing. Check his post out here.

6 thoughts on “Grades…What Do They Really Say About a Student?

  1. Great post, Tim!

    Geez, you really had a quick turn around from David’s post! This might be the final push I need to write the song parody I started thinking about after reading his post.

    I love the point you make about extra credit. The way you describe it is hilarious and sad. You are joking, but you are not really kidding. It actually happens! Crazy.

    I could respond all night to this post but I need time to formulate my own take on it. Being in AltEd the GPA means virtually nothing, there is no A-G, and for most, not even the opportunity to attend junior college. I struggle with grades tremendously and still have not found my true north in terms of what it really means and what I am actually grading.

    I just don’t think 12 years of a kid’s life should be graded, and therefore pigeonholing that kid to what he/she can or can’t do. Imagine if we were getting graded in our professional and personal lives…it makes no sense.

    I need to stop replying to your post and start writing my own!

    Thanks for sharing this, I appreciate your point of view and humor.


  2. By what other metric would you judge students?

    Also, the SAT exists to measure general aptitude. This can weed out people who got inflated grades from easier teachers.

  3. The only reason students need to be judged is for colleges. Other forms of feedback are better for students and parents. Colleges need to rethink their acceptance criteria. Much more weight should be placed on letters of recommendation from the teachers, not grades. In addition, students should be sending in video submissions, digital portfolios, and having to be interviewed if colleges really want to determine the best students. I realize this will cost time and money, but looking at GPA, SAT scores, and a personal statement is not a true reflection of a students ability and character.

  4. Thank you for adding to my considerations ( ) of the topic of grades!!! I’m a huge believer in student-created portfolios (ideally e-portfolios). I also believe it so valuable for peers to consider and then provide feedback. Most importantly, however, just as is beginning to happen with homework, the open discussion of grades must grow!!! Again, thank you.

  5. I agree that grades do not accurately summarized a student’s ability or potential. Our system is flawed because it does not focus on individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. Standardization is not necessarily a good thing. On a light note, I realized I already know how to drive a big rig and make red velvet cupcakes from scratch – but I don’t want to be graded on it.

  6. I also agree grades do not accurately show how bright a student is because everyone is not the same by how they learn. Though others may make “good” grades it really doesn’t show how smart, creative, or bright they can be.

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