Traditional grading systems aren’t getting an A-plus from most educators.
In fact, fewer than 1 in 6 educators—13 percent—surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center earlier this year say that A through F or numeric grades are a “very effective way” to give feedback to students.
Still, educators clearly see the system as having some merit. Nearly half—42 percent—of the teachers, principals, and district leaders find A through F or numeric grades at least “somewhat effective.” About a quarter find them “somewhat ineffective,” while more than 1 in 5—21 percent—find them “very ineffective.”
Despite those mixed reviews, traditional 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.
Still, some teachers worry that these systems aren’t nearly nuanced enough to capture student progress, and that students with a succession of low grades may get discouraged and give up on trying to master the material.
“The traditional 0-100, A-F grading system does not communicate learning,” wrote Jonathon Medeiros, a language arts teacher at Kauaʻi High School in Hawaii, in an email. “It communicates behavior, privilege, and positionality. Worse than that, the A-F scale promotes giving up and cheating to get the grade, moving students away from the desire to grow and learn.”
Micah Miner, the district administrator for instructional technology and social studies for the Maywood, Melrose Park, Broadview school district outside Chicago, agreed that the A through F system doesn’t give students and their parents enough of a picture of which material they’ve mastered and what they are still struggling with.
Over the past four years, Miner’s district has moved to a standards-based system, where students are given a 1 through 5 rating to show how close they’ve come to grasping a particular skill or concept.
For instance, a social studies teacher might tell a student that they have a good understanding of how the American Revolution influenced civics by giving them a 5 on that standard. But the student may still struggle with some of the historical specifics, meaning they would only get a 3 on the history standard for that unit, Miner explained.
That kind of system can give students a more detailed understanding of their progress, strengths, and areas for improvement, Miner said. However, he acknowledged that teachers may struggle to make the transition to this type of grading.
“It’s a harder thing to do,” said Miner, who helped his district move to the standards-based system. “It’s more objective, and you’re giving more specific feedback and that requires more time.”
Parents may have an even more challenging time making the switch, others argued.
Zack Kleypas, the superintendent of Texas’ Thorndale school district and a former principal, said that while A through F and traditional numeric systems aren’t perfect, they offer an easy-to-grasp metric for families.
“It easily communicates to most parents whether a kid’s doing really good, kind of good, not so good, or bad,” Kleypas said. “For that reason, I like it, because if you change that paradigm too much, then you have to spend a lot of your energy training parents to comprehend a completely different system.”
The system though, could be tweaked to give students and families more information about how students performed on each of the standards that make up that overall letter grade, Kleypas said.