Student Achievement From Our Research Center

Who’s the Real Audience for A-F and Numeric Grades? Hint: It’s Not the Students

By Alyson Klein — December 05, 2023 2 min read
Happy African American elementary boy showing his family exam results with the red letter A.
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Most educators think that A through F or numeric grades aren’t a “very effective” way to reflect what students know and can do.

So, what is the benefit of those systems? Why are these systems still in place?

More than anything, traditional grading systems help parents—as well as colleges and universities—get a sense of how students are doing academically, educators say, according to a survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center earlier this year.

About two thirds of district leaders, school leaders, and teachers who responded said that the main advantage of A through F or numeric grades is that “parents understand them because they also received them.”

Another 35 percent said that the grades are helpful because “colleges understand what they convey about applicants.”

Grades also make it clear whether a student has passed a course, two in five educators surveyed said. They send students a clear message about their work and are an easier lift for teachers than narrative feedback, according to about a quarter of teachers surveyed.

It’s not particularly surprising that many teachers see traditional grades as being primarily for parents, said Maia Goodman Young, a research assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who has studied grading.

Particularly at the secondary level, “most parents are getting their communication about the school through their child’s grades,” she said. Teachers who have tried to revamp their own grading systems have told Goodman Young that it’s tough to pull off in part because “it’s very confusing to parents.”

That was Goodman Young’s own experience too, when she taught high school English. She revamped her grading system to offer more nuanced feedback. The changes were easier—though still difficult—to explain to her students since she saw them every day.

But parents were another story. “You have so few touch points with parents,” Goodman Young said.

Parent confusion over student progress isn’t good for students or for teachers, she added. “We want clear communication, and grades can be one way to do that,” she said.

Traditional grading still dominates

But traditional grades can also stigmatize some students in the eyes of parents—even other people’s, said Laura Jeanne Penrod, a Las Vegas teacher.

At one point in her career, she worked at a school that emphasized project-based learning, which called for students to frequently work in groups. Penrod told her students that “as long as everybody’s fulfilling their roles in the project, then there shouldn’t be an issue grade-wise,” she recalled.

But some parents “would get super fixated on the grade and say their student was an A student and they can’t be with B or C or D students, because that’s not their kid’s friend group, that’s not the people that they should be hanging out with or working with,” Penrod said. “And I’m like, well, actually, probably they should be working with, because that’s how it’s gonna be in life.”

Despite some educators’ misgivings, traditional grading systems appear to remain the norm across the country, the survey found.

More than three-quarters—77 percent—of educators surveyed said that their districts use either the A through F grading system, a numerical grading system, or a combination of the two. Just 11 percent of educators said their districts use another type of system. The EdWeek Research Center nationally representative survey of 863 educators was conducted from March 29 to April 11.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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