Op-Ed: Grading With No Purpose

When I was a sophomore at Texas A&M I remember taking an Organic Chemistry class from a new professor who, I became convinced, had never taught a class before.

When the first test came around, she handed them back out to the class and then broke down in tears about how poorly we all had done. How poorly WE had done. The average score, she informed us, was a 5. Out of 100. A five. We stared at our papers.

How could I have gotten a seven? (At least I beat the average!)

Apparently, this new professor decide to grade papers in away I had never heard of before: Instead of starting at 100 and deducting for each incorrect answer, she started at 0, and gave points for each correct answer or deducted for each incorrect one. So, if you got the first question wrong, you were already in negative numbers and trying to struggle back to positive numbers. Got the first two out of three wrong and you were set up to fail.

To say the least, not many passed that semester. Trying to overcome that first test disaster was simply too much for many of us. Inspiring a love for Organic Chemistry was not in her repertoire at the time.

Recently, your may have read about a teacher was taken to task for giving a grade to a student that was less than 50. In the teacher’s school district, she thought, the policy for a failure was to give no score less than 50.

Even if the student turned in nothing, a 50 would be the lowest possible score. The district denied that kind of policy even existed, but there is some decent reasoning for having a policy like that. The logic behind that type of policy is that on a typical scale of 0-100, it becomes a Sisyphean task for students to overcome a grade of 0.

Consider this simple example: If a teacher gave 3 grades and a student received a score of 100, 100, and 0, the average of those three grades is 66.7 or failing (assuming less than 70 is failing). So a student could be PERFECT on two out of three grades and still fail. If four scores were all perfect except one, the highest grade a student could get would be a 75, or “C” in many cases. Average.

Would you consider a student that received three perfect scores out of four “average?” In sports terms, that would be the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run 3 times for every strikeout. Would you keep that player? Or a quarterback that completed two out of every three passes. Would you consider that quarterback a failure?

Of course not, yet in schools across the nation, students are put into this situation.

Most teachers grade on a scale of 0 to 100. 100 being “perfect” and 0 being no effort. Failure typically is a score of 60 or less (some places 50, some 70 or less). You probably went to school in the 0-100 grade scale.

Consider this: If you are at a school where less than 70 is failure, then that means you have to master 70% of a possibly completely new topic for you to even be considered “Below Average.”

Of course this is before grades are “weighted” based on some arbitrary idea that some work is more important than other work.

All of this is based on the idea of the “average student.” The “average student” should know 70% or 60%, Or 50% (see how silly it is already?) of the material. However , there is much evidence that the idea of “average” is a myth. In his book “The End of Average” Todd Rose argues that there is no such thing as an “average student” and that our grades should not be based on some kind of made up averaging system, which by the way, was developed like much of our current educational system, during the Industrial Revolution.

He stated in an interview with The 74

“The “end of average” for education means that it is unacceptable to design learning environments assuming most kids are like an average kid, because it turns out scientifically, mathematically, there actually isn’t such a person. It’s just an empty middle. They don’t exist, and so you’ve designed textbooks and curricular materials and assessments that fit actually nobody at all, and then kids muddle through and then we reward the ones who muddle through the best with better grades. All the while thinking we’re actually nurturing their potential, and we’re not.

So it means flexible design of environments. Every other industry decides education designs flexibly and we still pay for average-based products. We call it “age-appropriate,” but it’s actually just like you buy an age-based textbook; it’s just what does the average kid of that age know and can do, and it’s absolutely creating artificial barriers for kids.

The second thing, the biggest one for me, is right now we’re fixated on a set amount of time to learn and then we give you a grade and then really at best you’re going to know how you compare to the kid sitting next to you, but based on this new science and based on the ideas of “end of average,”

The argument of course is that students that don’t do work should not be rewarded in any way, and by giving them a “50” rewards them for doing nothing. Okay, maybe, but in my experience, students are very good at calculating their averages and what they need to do to get a good or poor grade.

Many students will simply give up if they see it is an impossible task to get back to passing. Then, more 0’s show up, making it impossible to overcome. Are we grading to punish, or are we grading to inform? Or, are we grading for no purpose other than we have to grade something and have numbers in a spreadsheet?

If we are grading to inform, what message does giving a 0 send, other than you are being punished?

What would happen if the scale was changed? What if A was 100-80, B was 79-60, C was 59-40, D was 39-20 and F was 19-0? That way, a 0 would not become impossible to overcome. A student that got 2 100’s and a 0 would have an “average” still of 67, but now that would be a “B” instead of an “F.” More fair, and more representative of the work.

An even better way, one that is gathering traction in education circles around the world is the idea of “Competency Based Grading,” where students must show mastery of a topic before moving forward to the next topic.

All students have to show mastery, all students pass, just at different times, since not all students will master each topic at the same time. Medical schools operate on that premise, as do dental, and architectural schools.

Even many of our trade schools use mastery as the divider between passing and failing.

There are many ways to measure student success. Some are fair, some are not. Our current 0-100 system, developed more than a century ago, should be relegated to the educational history books.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.