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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/16/2009

SPOTLIGHT: How Unfair Are Grades?

By Valerie Strauss

If you have ever rolled your eyes in disbelief when your child tells you a teacher gave him or her an unfair grade, you may want to think again.

Your child might be right.

Douglas B. Reeves, an expert on grading systems, conducted an experiment with more than 10,000 educators that he says proves just how subjective grades can be. Reeves asked teachers and administrators in the United States, Australia, Canada and South America to determine a final semester grade for a student who received the following grades for assignments--in this order:

C,C, MA (Missing Assignment), D, C, B, MA, MA, B, A.

He was given final semester grades from A to F, Reeves said.

Why? Because, he said, teachers use different criteria for grading. Some average only letter grades, while others take into consideration effort (which in this case seemed to be picking up toward the end), and attendance.

“If you went to a Redskins game, the thing society takes really, really seriously, and one official says a goal was scored and another official says no goal and a third official scratches his head, there would be hell to pay,” said Reeves, founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, a Colorado company that provides professional development, research and solutions to educators and others.

“But for some reason, we let grades be all over the map," he said.

The consequences, say Reeves and other experts on grading systems, are more than just a few students who are unhappy with their grade in a particular class. Reeves said that ineffective grading can lead to widespread student failure--and that good systems can help kids achieve.

Grading regimes that work, he said, offer accurate, precise and timely feedback that is aimed at helping students improve--not penalizing them--and is only one type of response.

“You don’t give grades to adjudicate a result. You give it to give kids ..... to help them get better,” he said.

Grades have long been a source of controversy in school systems around the country.

Most systems--including those in Montgomery and Arlington counties, use a modified 10-point system, in which 90 percent above is an A, 80 percent is a B, and so on. Fairfax County schools moved to that system this fall--leaving behind a policy in which 94 percent was an A--after a year of parent lobbying.

But Reeves supports more wholesale change, such as the overhaul undertaken in the past few years in the Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska.

These schools overhauled the grading system, in part to make sure that students taking the same classes got the same scores. Some of the changes included:

--Setting learning targets and linking grades to the achievement of those targets.
--Giving grades based solely on achievement and separately reporting attendance, effort and participation.
--Grading only individual achievement, not group work.
--Giving scores only to certain assignments and choosing carefully which scores should be included in the final grade.
--Making sure students understand how their grades are being determined.

But most students are still graded on old models. The first step toward change, Reeves said, is eliminating “dumb errors.”

Giving kids no credit for not turning in work, or failing them in some other way, defeats the purpose of education he said. A better result would be forcing the child to do the work, before school, during recess or after school.

“It is really time that people feel a sense of urgency to change grading policies that give students very different results for the same work in the same class,” he said.

Readers: Do you agree with Reeves’ assessment of grading policies? How fair are the grading systems in the schools your children attend? Teachers, tell us your grading philosophy.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 16, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Grades  | Tags:  Douglas Reeves, Fairfax County Public Schools, Grades  
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Certainly there will always be an element of subjectivity in grading. But grading criteria does exist in the schools to limit teacher subjectivity. For example, in Fairfax County the teachers are given grading rubrics. If the teacher follows the rubrics correctly, a student should receive the most accurate grade possible. And thanks to FAIRGRADE, FCPS students will now be on a level-playing field with surrounding school districts and the top performing national high schools in terms of the 10-point grading scale.

Posted by: abcxyz2 | September 16, 2009 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Maybe this is why we need standardized tests? Less chances of subjectivity? Less chances of teachers being accused of being sexist, racist, or otherwise unfair in their grading. Not a perfect system, but there's balance if we use both grades and standardized tests.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 16, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I definitely agree with focusing more on individual work rather than group work. I think we all have stories about being in groups with slackers who wouldn't pull their weight at all, but who were rewarded with good grades because everyone else picked up for them (and if you don't have at least one of those stories, you were probably the slacker).

Posted by: dkp01 | September 16, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

For example, in Fairfax County the teachers are given grading rubrics. If the teacher follows the rubrics correctly, a student should receive the most accurate grade possible.

I'm a high school teacher in Fairfax County and have been for nearly ten years, and I've never even heard of this.

Posted by: Rob63 | September 16, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Giving kids no credit for not turning in work, or failing them in some other way, defeats the purpose of education he said. A better result would be forcing the child to do the work, before school, during recess or after school.
and what happens when they never show up before school, after school or during recess (?)

Posted by: someguy100 | September 16, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Parents need to get over worrying about their kids' grades so much. It isn't life or death. As long as you encourage your child to make a strong effort, the grade does not matter. The MA is much more troubling than the C. The US still is rich enough to offer many second chances. That lower grade, fair or not, does not mean the child's life is ruined.

Posted by: edbyronadams | September 16, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

The example given at the beginning is too ambiguous. If you asked three referees just as ambiguous a question, for example "if a receiver has the ball in his hands, is it a catch", you could easily get three different answers (yes, maybe or no - he could be out of bounds or the the ball could have hit the ground first). As for different grading policies, I don't see a problem, as long as the policy is spelled out at the beginning of the year. People talk about school trying to be more like 'real-life'. In life, people are always being evaluated by different criteria based on their job, the company they work for, etc..

Posted by: williamhorkan | September 16, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

The example given at the beginning is also misrepresentative and inappropriate -- mostly because it assumes that the child's performance is an absolute vacuum. That is never the case. The child receives guidance from the teacher throughout the term (and probably detailed specifically on a rubric the first day of class) on 1) whether improvement/effort/performance matter most and on 2) the implications of missing assignments, which are the main issues at play here. The teacher's approach to grading is more or less clear from the beginning. As a result, I find it hard to believe that a single student could expect anything from an A to an F from *a particular teacher* given those grades. The student is much more likely to be expecting a D/F from Teacher A for those grades, and an A/B from Teacher B for those same grades. There is still leeway in grading of course, but it's substantially less than what the article implies. (Also, each of five checkboxes was checked at least once given TEN THOUSAND educators? Total shock, never would have suspected that from that sample size...) Misleading use of a useless and misleading study, at least as the study is presented here. Shame.

Posted by: quatsch | September 16, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Bah. The basic question of C,C, MA (Missing Assignment), D, C, B, MA, MA, B, A. is just bogus. The way I compute grades (college) that would almost certainly be a failing grade. But it depends on what I told them I'd do. I grade the way I advertise and those letter grades mean nothing...

Posted by: bobtom222 | September 16, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Moving from a system with A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc. to a system where 90-100 is an A and 80 to 89 is a B deserves an F! A kid with 4 grades of 89 would have a lower grade point average than a kid with 3 grades of 80 and one grade of 90. There is no reward for an 89 or a 79 and getting a number of those makes a big difference.

Posted by: GOPDAD | September 16, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

GOPDAD, I certainly hope you're not a math teacher. Or any kind of teacher. Because you apparently have no basic math skills.

You said, "A kid with 4 grades of 89 would have a lower grade point average than a kid with 3 grades of 80 and one grade of 90." Huh? A kid with 80, 80, 80, and 90 would have an average of 82.5; the kid with four 89s would have an 89 average. Perhaps instead of worrying about how students are being graded, you should go back to elementary school and relearn how to do averages.

Posted by: 7900rmc | September 16, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

@7900rmc - No, GOPDAD was right.

90 = A (4.0)
80 = B (3.0)

Hence, 3 80s and a 90 gives a GPA of 3.25 (assuming no +/-)

The student with 4 89s would have a 3.0 average (all Bs).

I think someone else isn't smarter than a 5th grader.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | September 16, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

As an educator I can tell you that the information is correct on many levels but that a system without flexibility is not doing a service to its clients. It is true that each teacher in my building tends to vary philosophically with regard to grading policies.But it is also true that most students are prone to similar grade results despite the teacher and the particular grading system being utilized. Good students do well no matter the system and bad students struggle throughout the buidling, no matter how much of an accomdation is considered regarding effort etc.. My school and the school system do set, or attempt to set, certain parameters, but many teachers use them only as a guide. I believe this does serve a positive purpose, and that any cut and dried system is doomed to failure, due to the inability of the teaching professional to consider extenuating circumstances that arise so frequently that a set system would forever be a detriment to the student being assessed.

Posted by: Albie1 | September 16, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Oh swell. We've just read articles about the SAT stating that it is not a good measure of student aptitude, that grades are better. Now grades are not that good either. So, how do you judge students' abilities and aptitudes, anyway?

Posted by: catherine3 | September 16, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

In my child's school, the focus is not just on learning the subject material, but following the rules. Not that this is good or bad, but my son is a bit disorganized and frequently neglects putting his homework in the box in the morning - and the teacher flat refused last year to remind anyone. That defeats the purpose she said. If homework is late, it gets a zero. So even though he knows the subject matter forward and backward and gets high A's on all the tests, he ran a C or D all last year due to late homework. Is this a reasonable reflection of his mastery of the subject? I think not. I'm not saying late homework shouldn't be marked down, but a Zero if it's a day late????

Posted by: singlemom | September 16, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

The comments of 7900rmc and fairlingtonblade illustrate what I see as a problem with grades in general. Taking a range of numbers and transposing them into a letter grade dilutes the information. Just using a number scale makes more sense to me. Any exam can be represented as a percentage (number of correct answers divided by the total number of questions or points possible.) So an 89 always means generally the same thing. However, two students with B averages can be very different performers. There is a big difference between a B student who consistently scores an 89 and one who consistently scores an 81. But they both end up getting "B"s and are ranked side by side by anyone outside that particular classroom. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

Posted by: singlemom | September 16, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Oh great! Another reason for the spoiled little brats to complain. The damn parents are no better, always taking the kid's side.

Kids had better get used to things being "unfair". Life as a whole is unfair, and the sooner they learn that the more chances they will have to be successful.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | September 16, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Spoiled little brats? Hostile much? How many school children do you know? While there are bad apples in every group, the majority are nice young people who try to do their best and don't deserve to be called ugly names.

Posted by: singlemom | September 16, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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