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Making The Grade: How Does a Grade Become a Grade? A 3 Part Series

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

What’s in a grade? Are all As equal? What about Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs? In grade schools and high schools across America GPAs are used to determine who is/are the “smartest” in the class. That person or persons are then given the accolades of being Valedictorian or Salutatorian of their class. The definition of valedictorian is “ a student, typically having the highest academic achievements of the class” and a salutatorian as “the student who ranks second highest in a graduating class.”

We’ve all heard a parent bragging about their child who has straight As. Many of you reading this have been that parent, but what does it mean? Does it mean your child knows everything there is to know about a particular subject or grade level? Does it mean your child has great behaviors? Does it mean your child turned in all their assignments and homework and on time? If your child graduated high school with all As and was in the top of their class, did those grades make them ready for the real world? Did those As guarantee them a job, a happy life, a successful career, acceptance to the college of their choice, a spouse who treats them well, friends, etc?

Before I get started into what goes into the scoring, let's talk about the grades themselves. A letter grade is given based on a percentage (%). That percentage is developed by dividing the number of correct answers the student gave by the number of total correct answers possible. For example, getting 7 right answers out of 9 correct answers equals 77.7% out of a possible 100%. That letter grade is given points and then a grade point average (GPA) of all the letter grades is figured. A final GPA is the sum of all your course grades throughout your high school career divided by the total number of credits. Most GPAs are set on a 4.0 scale.

Universities use those GPAs (along with other measures) to determine who they accept, who gets scholarships, and the amount of the scholarship. Many great colleges and universities will accept students with a GPA of 2.0 or higher, however many more will only accept a GPA of 2.5. However to be considered for an Ivy league college the pinnacle, according to some, of the options for furthering one's education in the United States the lowest GPA accepted is 3.85 on a 4.0. The average GPA of a Harvard student who is accepted is a 4.18 on a 4.0 scale.

Now that we have discussed why grades are important and how they are used in American schools, let's get into the title question...How does a grade become a grade? Grades are truly a combination of many things and most of them aren’t about application of skills or knowledge learned. Starting as early as Kindergarten (average age is 6) students get assignments to complete in class, take tests, and some have scored homework. As the students get older there are projects, definitely scored homework, quizzes, and extras that play into the grades. Some of the extras that get scored are participation, attendance, reading books outside of the required curriculum, and behaviors. I will get into the extras in another blog titled, Grades: Behind the Scenes. Even with the extras mentioned this still does not tell the whole story of how grades are earned.

Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not blaming teachers or saying they are doing anything wrong. I am simply sharing what really goes into grades. Teachers are human and teach individuals that develop at different rates. Every teacher goes into their classrooms with different ideas based on their experiences and what they were taught in college.

When I taught and most definitely now that I help parents and teachers all across the country, I’ve learned much of the “behind the scenes” of what goes into those scores that equate to letter grades that equate to points that determine how “smart” a person is. From early on, scoring is subjective. Everyone thinks it is objective because for most questions there is only one right answer.

What makes an answer “right” though depends on the teacher. For example, in the early stages of teaching writing many teachers will give leeway for how a letter is written or whether the punctuation sits on the line or is above the line, but others do not. As children are expected to write full sentences or paragraphs or remember words to fill in the blank answers, some teachers count the answer wrong or partially wrong if it is misspelled, while others do not. As students get into even higher grades and are expected to write essays and papers, the number of words, formatting, references, sources of references, and so on count toward the grade for some teachers and for others it does not. In grading the essays of hundreds of students who have written on the same topic, the early ones are graded differently than the later ones. The essays that are graded first are graded based upon the teacher’s expectations of what the essay should represent. However, without realizing it, at some point the teacher begins comparing essays to earlier ones and the expectation shifts.

Okay, I know what you are thinking, you can see how it would happen in writing, but you’re betting it doesn’t happen in the other subjects. Writing is part of every subject and does play a factor but that is not all that affects the score. I’ll address math first. Again, in the early stages of writing some teachers will accept backwards numbers as correct but others will not. In the early grades, being able to answer a certain number of math facts correctly in a set amount of time is part of the students' grade in many classrooms while in others it is not. As the math level increases in difficulty, some teachers require all work be shown as part of the scoring process while others do not. Even amongst those who do require all work be shown, some teachers take off full points if one step is wrong or missed, while others only take partial. If you look at the walls of some classrooms you will see posters with formulas, strategies, definitions, and “How To…” steps that will support students in figuring out the answers, while other classrooms do not have those and the students have to know or remember everything on their own.

As I look at the sciences, social studies, history, etc., I see the same patterns. In those subjects some teachers take off for grammar and spelling while others do not. Some rooms have posters, maps, and help, while others do not. Many times in these types of subjects there are group projects where a person’s score depends on others as well as themselves.

As mentioned the percentage is what equates to the letter grade. One more difference that I have seen is that some teachers will round the percentage up to the next whole number if the partial percentage is above .5, while others will not. For example, some will say 79.7% is a 79% while others will say it is 80%. There are more “behind the scenes” aspects of a percentage that I will detail in a later blog. For now, let’s focus on the letter grade that is assigned to a percentage. Surely, that is equal across the country, right?

I did a little research around my area thinking that at least in one 20 mile radius the percentages for each letter grade would be the same. As you can see from the graphics, that is not the case. I looked at 3 high schools and two elementary schools’ websites to find the grading scales. The blue represents a school system that has the same grading scale from Kindergarten through high school. The red represents a Kindergarten through eighth grade school, however at grades below fifth, the children receive skills reports instead of grades per subject. Yellow and green are high schools only and orange represents the green schools weighted class scores associated with grades. The percentages associated with each letter grade are listed below. A weighted GPA scale gives more points (greater "weight") to grades in accelerated courses like Honors or Advanced Placement (AP). The AP is a program of classes developed by the college board to give high school students an introduction to college-level classes and also gain college credit before even graduating high school.

I asked questions in the beginning of this article that I will answer for you now, although I’m sure you have answered them already. The answer to Are All Grades Equal? is a resounding No. Just comparing the few schools in a 20 mile radius shows major differences. I also used the Internet to check schools in other states and surrounding counties and the results were all similar as far as the discrepancies.

The next graph shows how a GPA is figured on a 4.0 scale. The scale on which all of the schools in the above graphs know and follow. The scale on which most, if not all, colleges use to determine a student’s GPA.

The GPA scale that is used by almost all colleges is a 10 point scale. What I mean by that is the letter grade changes every 10 points. A score of 90 or above is in the A range, a B is in the 80’s, a C in the 70’s, a D in the 60’s, and 59 to 0 is an F. If all schools around the country would adhere to the 10 point scale, grades would still not be equal but they would be closer. My next blog will go more into the 'behind the scenes' of grading.

Shelley Kenow

Special Education Consultant

Master IEP Coach®

Shelley can be found on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

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