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Making the Grade: How Does A Grade Become A Grade? Part 3

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

In the first of this series, I shared how grades are not equal from one classroom to the next. I mentioned extras that go into grades such as attendance, reading books outside the curriculum, extra credit, weighted classes, homework, behavior and participation play roles in getting a letter grade. In the second post I broke down attendance, behavior, and participation. In this, the last and final installment of ‘Making the Grade:How Does A Grade Become A Grade,’ I am writing about weighted classes, reading books outside the curriculum, and homework. Before you read further, I want you to understand, I am not saying anything is better or worse, right or wrong. My intention is to shed light on all that really goes into a student's grade.

Weighted grades are assigned to public high school classes in the United States based on the academic difficulty level of the class. Many classes with weighted grades are called Advanced Placement (AP) courses. From my research and understanding what this means is that an accommodation is given to those students who take classes that have been determined by some to be more academically challenging than the development level of the average student of that age. These weighted grades are looked at by some colleges and universities to help them determine the nature of the prospective students’ drive and skill for academia. These advanced placement classes are not offered in the trades or vocational classes. Depending on the school there could be just one or two AP classes to dozens to choose from. There seems to be no set guideline across the country for what exactly qualifies a class to have a weighted grade or which classes get it. The only commonality that I could find was that dual credit college courses that are offered at the high school level were weighted. The other thing that is important to note is that most of these weighted classes are not offered through private high schools as weighted classes. I’m sure there are exceptions across the country, however.

As I stated above, weighted grades are accommodations given to those students who are taking classes that someone has deemed to be more academically challenging than what is typical of someone of that age. In the first post of this series I shared this chart to show the differences between the letter grade percentages. For this post, focus on the difference in percentage for a high school grading scale for AP classes, 4A (orange) compared to all other course grades.

As I look at the graph, I see a discrepancy between the high schools grading systems. I see that 2 of the high schools don’t offer a different grading system for their weighted classes. So, if I understand this correctly, even though they offer the AP and dual credit classes, the score to get an A in those classes is the same as those not taking AP or dual credit. However, in the third high school, a student taking AP or dual credit can earn a lower percentage than their peers in regular classes, but still get the same letter. So even though all 3 high schools have weighted classes the measurement still isn’t the same for getting the same letter grade.

Another area that can go into the extras of grades is reading material outside the curriculum. There is a program called Accelerated Reader (AR) that was designed to accelerate or improve reading skills. This is a statement from the company website “Accelerated Reader puts students in the driver’s seat. You guide students, while engaging quizzes and activities help hone students’ reading skills with authentic practice—encouraging growth.” This program is designed with wonderful intentions and does improve students' reading skills. The program clearly was designed to put students more in charge of what they were reading and school districts were advised to give incentives or rewards for the readings the student completed. This was not intended to be part of a grade and many schools are using the program as designed, however many are not.

The program is designed with a starting assessment called STAR. This gives the level range of the books a student should choose from in order to get the most from their reading. Each book in the system is given a reading level and a number of points that will be given if the child earns a 100% on the quiz about the book. The website boasts over 220,000 book titles from which to choose. The point system is intended for students to want to read more challenging material and therefore earn more points to get particular rewards. This system was wildly successful and probably still is in the schools that use it strictly as an incentives based program. However, there are classrooms and school districts that are now using this system as part of a student’s reading grade. This is the system that I worked with, however it is quite possible there are other programs like this or other types of systems like this set in place in many classrooms around the country.

While this may not seem like a big deal and that it is just part of a school’s choice for a reading curriculum there are many flaws in the logic behind using the system this way. First, for those students who have difficulty reading even the regular assignments’ materials, adding to their stress by forcing them to “read for pleasure” is not helping them learn to read any better. Second, while 220,000 titles is a lot of titles, it still doesn’t cover every possible book, magazine, article, or other material a student might be interested in reading. So for the schools saying the child gets to choose what they are interested in reading, that isn’t always the case. Third, I’ve seen schools determine whole class rewards rather than individual ones and for those who don’t make their points, they have to sit and read while the rest of their classmates get a grand prize. All of this can take a toll on a student’s desire to learn and can in turn then affect their effort which affects their grade.

The last pieces that I am discussing for what makes a grade a grade is extra credit and homework. I’m combining these because they have many similarities. As most people know homework is work that was assigned during school hours to be completed at home. What many people don’t associate with homework is studying for tests and quizzes, working on long term projects, and being prepared for school. I’m including this chart of when certain skills develop in children in order for you to see the ages. These are called executive functioning skills. These are the skills that help us carry out day to day activities. Executive functions help us make plans, set goals, and change our behavior. I want you to see and understand that oftentimes we are asking, no, requiring children to function and perform beyond their executive functioning abilities. There are exceptions to these general rules of development of course, but we need to realize that the majority of our children will develop very closely to how this graphic lays it out.

At age five is when many students begin their formal education in the United States. Some have been in school earlier than this, but it was more of a play based learning experience rather than a formal one. As you can see by the chart, ages five through seven are just the beginning of learning to inhibit or regulate responses. This is the age where “thinking before acting” starts developing; however, with this and just about every executive function, it isn’t fully developed until the early to mid twenties. Between the ages of six to eight a child’s ability to easily move from one task to another (flexibility), remembering directions long enough to complete a task (working memory) and being able to focus attention to a task (attention) begin to develop. Somewhere around ages nine through eleven inattention, impulsivity, and distractibility start to decrease, however they don’t disappear at these ages.

The middle wording on the chart says from around fifteen years old, working memory, shifting attention, and inhibitory control are relatively stable and close to adult level. Still not fully developed, but much closer at this age. Around fifteen or sixteen planning skills are reaching maturity in the average, typically developing teen. (If you would like to learn more about EF, click on the graphic)

So what does all this mean in day to day life? It means that children don’t have many of the skills required of them until about age fifteen or sixteen to carry out homework independently. Homework requires planning, inhibition, working memory, goal setting, attention, and self-initiation. No matter the age, these skills are required. As mentioned in an earlier post, some students as young as kindergarten are getting homework and most, if not all students across the country are getting homework by first or second grade. If the child goes home to a parent who can’t or doesn’t help them with the skills needed, it is likely the homework won’t make it back, the child won’t have all the necessary tools to complete the homework, and/or won’t understand or take the time to do the homework. Homework usually plays some role in a child’s grade, so if the child doesn’t have a parent/guardian, older sibling, etc at home to help, we are actually grading them on their development level of executive functioning rather than their knowledge of concepts.

When the word homework is used, most people think of individual assignments like reading a passage, doing a worksheet, completing math problems, definitions, etc., but as I mentioned, homework is also studying for quizzes and tests as well as long term projects. Again, when educators give tests, even the weekly spelling test that many give as young as first grade, someone needs to help the child realize they need to practice the words. So once again, we are grading on developmental level as much if not more so than on skill. Long term projects require planning, have deadlines, etc, again, not until a child is around fifteen or sixteen are they even close to being developmentally ready unless an adult is there to help them along the way. There is also the idea by some parents that homework has to be perfect before it can go back to school, so they will do the homework for the child or make sure the child corrects any mistakes before turning it in. This doesn’t give a clear picture of what the child knows and can apply on their own as well as it is another discrepancy in how grades are developed.

Extra credit is like homework in that a child would need to know that extra credit is needed, would need to know to ask a teacher for an assignment to earn extra credit, and then would need the skills necessary to complete said assignment and all of that is only if the teacher allows extra credit as some do not.

I hope now that you have read this blog post and hopefully for the full picture, have read the other two, you have a better understanding of how a grade becomes a grade. I also hope you have realized that all grades are not equal, grades do not show what a student knows or does not know necessarily, and that grades are not the only thing that should be considered when thinking about how intelligent or ready for life a child is. Grades are just one part of who a person is.

They don’t showcase the person’s work ethic, how much effort was put into an assignment, the person’s character, if they are a problem solver, or really in my opinion, anything that should be used to determine a person’s worth. I’ve seen far too many posters on teachers’ walls, heard far too many parents put immense pressure on a child to get an A, and seen far too many (myself once included) students agonizing over lower than A grades.

I’m not saying to do away with grades or that grades are inherently bad, what I want is for people to have a better understanding of what makes a grade. I hope then that people will stop behaving as if a person with A and B grades makes them something more or better than a person with C or D grades. Think about all the adults you have met when they were adults, did you assess their worth based on the grades they had in school? Did you pick a spouse based on their grades from years before? Do you base whether you think an adult is “smart” because of the grades they received in school or do you base it on other factors? I can say for myself and everyone I know well, we have never based our opinions on adults we know by the grades they received in school. In fact, I can’t tell you what grades any of the adults I have met as adults had in school, can you? You might know me and follow me on social media pages, if you do, did you do that based on grades I earned as a child or did you do that for other reasons?

Sadly, what I do know about many adults is that they carry a belief about themselves (both positive and negative), their intelligence, and abilities based on grades they earned as a child and young adult. I hope that after reading this and the other posts related to this one you have a different perspective about grades and what they truly represent and therefore will change the way you view how much importance grades have on a person’s value and worth.

Shelley Kenow IEP Consultant

Master IEP Coach®

Special Educator with 25+ years experience

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