Grades Part One

Let’s think about grades.  At first glance, grades are pretty straightforward – they show how much of the material the student has mastered.  So if a child takes a 20-word spelling test and spells 12 words correctly, he earns a 60 on the test because he has spelled 60% of the words correctly.  If another child takes a math test with 50 problems on it and gets 40 of them right, she earns an 80 because she has correctly answered 80% of the problems.  Sounds easy, right?  So what are some of the factors that parents need to understand?

  • How letter grades are assigned: 7 point scale or 10 point scale.
  • How zeroes are factored in.
  • The difference between a 100-point scale and a 40-point scale when students earn failing grades.
  • How schools grade students who are being instructed below grade level.
The letter grade that is assigned (A,B,C,D,F) depends on the numerical point scale the school system uses.  A student’s Grade Point Average (GPA) is based on letter grades, not numerical ones.  For example, my local school system uses a 7-point scale, so 93 to100 is an A, 85 to 92 is a B, and so on.  Using the 7-point scale, any numerical score below a 70 is an F.  Many school systems use a 10-point scale, where 90 to100 is an A, 80 to 89 is a B, and so on.  Using the 10-point scale, any numerical score below a 60 is an F.

For example, here are the grades for two students, one at River High School and one at Lake High School:

River High School                    Lake High School
English    90                                  English    82
Biology    92                                  Biology    80
History    91                                  History    84
Algebra    90                                 Algebra    83

If River High School uses a 10-point scale, our student has earned all A’s and has a 4.0 GPA.  If the school uses a 7-point scale, he has earned all B’s and has a 3.0 GPA.  If Lake High School uses a 10-point scale, our student has earned all B’s and has a 3.0 GPA.  If the school uses a 7-point scale, he has earned all C’s and has a 2.0 GPA.

It really makes a difference!  In this example, the student from River High School, using a 7-point scale, would have the same GPA as the student from Lake High School, using a 10-point scale. If you have a child who struggles in school, the point scale used by your school system can make the difference between passing and failing, earning a diploma or dropping out.

Your child’s GPA can also determine whether or not she gets into the college of her choice or earns a scholarship, so it’s important to understand how grades are calculated in your local school system.

And then there is the problem of zeroes.  When a teacher tells me that a child has an F in her class, I always ask, “What kind of F?”  The point value of an F can range from 0 to 60 or 70.  Does this make sense?  It sure makes a big difference when grades are averaged.

Grades are often a reflection of a student’s behavior rather than his academic skills.  If a student frequently fails to turn in homework and the teacher puts a zero in her grade book every time an assignment is missing, that student will almost certainly have an F in the class even if he has mastered the material.  In this case, what is being graded is behavior – failure to turn in homework is a behavior – rather than academic skills.

Here’s an example of two students in an Algebra class.  The test average is worth 50% of the final grade, homework is 25%, and quizzes are 25%.

John                     Judy
Test 1              90                         80
Quiz 1            91                         79
Homework 1   0                        81
Homework 2   0                         78
Test 2                93                         82
Quiz 2              89                         78
Homework 3    0                         80

Grade in class: 68                         80

Clearly, John has mastered the material.  He does well on tests and quizzes in class.  He has mastered the material to a much greater extent than Judy.  But John is failing the class because he does not do homework.  And he is failing even though the average of his tests and quizzes is a 91.  So that 68 on his report card doesn’t really have anything to do with academic skills.  It has only to do with his failure to turn in homework.

Now am I saying there should be no consequences for failing to complete homework?  Of course not.  Having the self-discipline and organizational skills necessary to complete assignments and turn them in is an important life skill and a lesson that needs to be learned in school.  But giving a student a zero for failing to complete an assignment is like giving the death penalty for stealing a loaf of bread.

In our example above, if John was given a 60 for his homework grade (still an F), he would earn an 83 in the class – a passing grade.

Grades like John’s 68 are often used to make academic placement decisions.  In most school systems, John would have to repeat algebra rather than going on to geometry because he “failed” the class.  If John were an elementary or middle school student and earned failing grades in core classes because he didn’t do his homework, he would stand a good chance of failing the grade and having to do the entire year over again.

Next week we’ll finish up our discussion of grades with some suggestions about the questions that parents can ask and steps they can take.  Stay tuned!

This article is excerpted from The Savvy Parent’s Guide to Public School.

The Savvy Parent’s Guide to Public School is an invaluable resource for parents of school-age children.  Alice Wellborn offers a practical guide to help parents navigate the frustrating world of public education.  Designed to empower parents to work effectively with teachers and school administrators, the book provides parents with the information and tools they need to become strong partners in their child’s school community.

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