Letter grades leave students in the numbers game

March 2, 2006, midnight | By Jason Meer | 18 years, 2 months ago

County needs percentage grading to better define student achievement

A student brings home a perfect report card. It is an ideal situation: Parents and child are happy, and MCPS is patting itself on the back for successfully educating another pupil. But, this situation also illustrates one of the main tools MCPS uses to maintain its reputation for stellar academics: grade inflation through letter grading.

From 2000 to 2002, average GPA jumped in MCPS at twice the rate of average SAT scores according to MCPS, exposing an inconsistency in countywide student achievement: Grades are rapidly on the rise, but test scores are not increasing enough to reflect such exponential growth.

The culprit in the GPA-SAT gap is grade compression, which occurs in letter-grade systems that allow students with as much as a 10 percent variance in percentages to receive the same final marks. Such inflation allows undeserving students to remain among MCPS's upper echelons and lowers the standards to which we hold students.

Currently, quarter grades are determined on a letter system consisting of A, B, C, D and E. Each letter represents a 10-percent range of scores, with anything below a 60 percent equaling a failing grade. Semester grades are then calculated by weighting quarter grades 37.5 percent each and exam grades 25 percent.

To throw open the educational deception of grade compression, MCPS needs a new grading system that replaces unrepresentative letter grades with percentage grades.

Under a percentage grading policy, number grades would never be
converted to letters. Instead, report cards would reflect percentages out of 100, and semester grades would follow the same weighting system as letter grades.

By allowing students to get away with doing just enough to make the desired letter grade or failing to complete assignments once a certain grade has been guaranteed, MCPS is doing a disservice to those it is committed to educating while, intentionally or unintentionally, greatly helping itself.

Letter grades seem to benefit only those who do not receive them: administrators, teachers and parents, producing higher average grades countywide and allowing school officials to bask in the praise of parents who care more about the appearance of success for their children than the learning to back up such success. The students, however, will find that the façade of accomplishment dissipates in the real world, where "just enough" is never enough.

Difference makes perfect

Another advantage of a percentage-based policy is the increased level of differentiation between grades. Though number grades of 89 and 80 are both recorded as Bs under the current system, they represent vastly different levels of achievement — one grade is on the threshold of an A, while the other languishes near a C.

Letter grades can also exacerbate differences of mere percentage points between students. If a student goes A-A-C with percentage grades of 90, 90 and 70, respectively, his or her final grade would be an A under letter grades and 85 percent under percentage grades. Conversely, a student who went A-B-C would receive a final grade of B, even with percentage grades of 90, 89 and 70, respectively. Though letter grading greatly distinguishes between the two relatively similar academic profiles, percentage grades for the two students would differ only by about two-fifths of one percent.

Diligently lazy

Percentage grades pose a problem for those worried that students with more stringent teachers would be disadvantaged under a percentage system. Although letter grades blur the gaps between assessment strategies, this discussion has become mostly obsolete in light of the county's reassessment policy, which allows students to make up unsatisfactory work to the standards of any teacher. While more stringent teachers are likely to have higher reassessment standards, the new grading policy calls for teachers to "grade to standard," ordering all students enrolled in a class countywide to be graded based on their ability to perform according to the standardized course expectations — eliminating teacher subjectivity.

The revised grading policy has made a few strides in regulating grade compression and inflation. By preventing teachers from giving credit for participation and limiting credit for completion to 10 percent of the quarter grade, the county has begun to hold students accountable for their work and effort. However, no objective grading system can operate with letter grades because of their inherent tendency towards compression and manipulation. At some point, education must be more about students learning than students making the highest grades. MCPS should focus on holding students responsible for all of their work instead of creating an environment in which students feel that "just enough" is satisfactory.

Jason Meer. Jason Meer is a RISING SENIOR who needs to get more sleep. When awake, he finds time to facebook, watch SportsCenter and World Poker Tour, and listen to varied musicians from Chamillionaire to Sigur Ros to Kelly Clarkson. If you see a red-haired guy walking … More »

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