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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

WHAT DO LETTER GRADES REALLY MEAN

Teachers face a dilemma when forced to give students  letter

grades: A,B,C,D,F.  When an average student receives the  average

grade  of C does this mean he mastered the content of the  course

in a satisfactory way given his potential?  Or  does it mean that

an above average student did not accomplish what was expected  of

him and received an unsatisfactory grade of C.  Who is to know if

there is this distinction when un-commented grades are given  and

posted in records?

 
Also what is the range of accomplishment between an A and  a

B  grade?   Did  one student do work  that  would  be  considered

outstanding  and receive the same A as another student  who  just

barely  made  the A grade?   Or does the A grade  mean  that  the

student  showed great improvement and is being rewarded  for  his

effort?   Are the grades given to reflect only the  mastering  of

the  course content?  Do they reflect effort and  improvement  on

the  part  of  the student?  Are they  based   on  completion  of

homework  assignments and attendance at class?  In  these  latter

cases, a student presumably could show mastery of the subject  on

a test, but still receive a low grade because of poor attendance,

missed homework or a “poor attitude.”   

 
Elementary schools seem to have less difficulty with  grades

than high schools.  In elementary schools teachers tend to confer

more  often with each other and with parents.   Students  usually

know where they stand in relation to the rest of the class.  Also


programs  and the placement of students do not depend  wholly  on

the  grades in the folder.  Teachers use other criteria  and  are

more  flexible  in  making adjustments to  programs  to  fit  the

students’  needs.   They also get to know each  individual  child

and can be more responsive to his or her needs.  

 
This  is not true in high school.  Teachers  make  judgments

about  many more students whom they see for less time  and  these

judgments  can  affect  students’  futures.   College   placement

offices  have always had problems with letter grades because  one

teacher’s   A  means  something  quite  different  from   another

teacher’s.   Colleges  solve this problem, in  part,  by  keeping

track  of the students from a particular school  and  correlating

their  high school grades with subsequent performance.  In  other

words, they find out what an A from that school really means.

 
Recently, in New Jersey, it was discovered that after taking

the  placement  exam,  73 percent of  all  entering  freshmen  at

Middlesex  County  College needed to take a  remedial  course  in

either math, reading or writing before taking the regular college

curriculum.   That  should not be surprising given  the  national

trend.   What  is  surprising  is that  some  of  these  students

apparently  did  not  know  they  were  candidates  for  remedial

courses.   Madan  Capoor, Middlesex County  College  director  of

research  and planning, is quoted as saying that  some  freshmen,

who  failed the test, were shocked at their low placement  scores

because  they had gotten C’s, B’s and a few A’s in  high  school.

Some wept.


 
Perhaps  it is time for school systems to re-evaluate  their

reporting  procedures.   Instead of giving  letter  grades  which

either  have  no  meaning or which have  different  meanings  for

different  people, students should be told exactly what they  can

do  and  cannot do and what programs will be available  to  them.

Letter  grades  do  not  give this  information.   This  type  of

reporting also has the potential of being used punitively or as a

reward  and  can  be  very discouraging.   Students  need  to  be

encouraged  to take the next step in learning, letter  grades  do

not assist in this process.

 

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