Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

I Used to Think Grades Were Stupid; Then I Found Out I Was Right

By Bill Page

Bill Page’s book, At-Risk Students; Feeling Their Pain is available through

As you review the year, offer a final exam, determine final grades, and issue report cards, this letter I wrote to Marc might help clarify your grading and especially, I hope, your attitude toward grading.

I Used to Think Grades Were Stupid;

Then I Found Out I Was Right


Dear Bill:  We are starting a study-group on grades and would appreciate your input.   We are using your article “Improving Classroom Grading Procedures” from Teachers.Net…very interesting, particularly your comment on no grade below 50.  (See article:  – Marc B.

Dear Marc:  Grades are a beautiful example of the postulate:  “If the premise is stupid, everything based on that premise is stupid.”  The premises of grading are stupid and while teachers have no voice in grading decisions emanating from on high, they do have a responsibility for considerable wiggle room in determining students’ grades.   

The Basic Concept of Grading

I consider grades to be totally arbitrary, subjective, emotional, and unnecessary.  Unfortunately they are also traditional, pervasive, pernicious, and an integral part of everyone’s school experience.  So, you cannot expect to reach even a rudimentary level of consensus in your group regarding grading procedures, but going back to grading basics could reduce some of the hassle.  Most teachers cannot possibly imagine teaching without grades; but they might consider the following grading fundamentals:

Three steps to grading:

1) Measurement of skill level retained, missed, incorrect, lacking proficiency; 2) evaluation, meaning, or significance of that measurement; 3) Grading: a symbol to represent or report the evaluation. For example; measurement “That orange is as big as a volleyball.”  Evaluation: “Wow!”  Grade: SHX (Standing for Super-duper, humongous, XXXLarge.) Or:

     1. Measurement: 

He missed 6 of the 10 fraction problems; or

She got every question right; or,

He doesn’t know his times tables.


    2. Evaluation:

That is not an acceptable level of competency

That’s perfect.

He needs to memorize his multiplication tables.


    3. Grade: 

“F”; “A;” “Incomplete,” Symbol representing evaluation): or,

Letter grade, Number, Word, or Comment (Values are arbitrarily

predetermined individually, consensually, or set by school policy.


Reasons for Grading

Generally there are six purposes for grading: 1.) Feedback for the learner; 2.) A record of achievement; 3.) Diagnostic information for the teacher; 4)  Feedback for others including parents, other teachers, administrators, colleges, employers or the student’s permanent record. 5.) As motivation in the form of rewards and punishments, for behavior control, or to satisfy bureaucratic mandates.

Usually the disagreements among teachers are a result of confusion over purpose, they are ineffective for the designated purpose; or there is an attempt to use the same grades for several incompatible purposes.

Grades Ave Inadequate

If the purpose of the feedback is to help the kid learn—acquire proficiency, than most of the grading techniques we use in school are worthless, or inadequate, and generally counterproductive. No grades are given on the driver’s license test, the bar exam for lawyers, or registered nurse license; either you pass or you study some more and retake it.  You can fail the driver’s exam 15 times (The record is a lady in Pennsylvania who has taken it 86 times and still didn’t pass – yet.)  When you pass you get your license and permission to drive.  The license does not include a note to your Mother saying, “S/He took the exam 15 times,” or “S/He made the minimum score,” or “It took him/her two years,” or s/he ranked third from the bottom.

Should Grades Include Non-Academic Factors

Why or to what extent would affective or peripheral factors influence the grades? Does getting assignments in “on time” count?  For what? As an inconvenience to the teacher who wants to correct the paper or assign a new task? To teach punctuality and speed as well as task proficiency? Because everyone must move on to the next task at the same time? Students are not allowed to work at different speeds? As perceived motivation?


Marc, if the teachers in your school want to discuss or debate the grading scale, they should first deal with their purposes.  If it is acceptable for a kid to learn only 70 or 80 percent of the four basic math computation processes, a letter D or C might be useful; but if accurate math computation is necessary for him/her to move to the next level or to achieve designated standards, than s/he must learn 100% and, therefore, must either learn it or continue the process.  Grades are of no value.

Evaluation Is Important; Grades Are Not

What is the value or purpose of a grade other than to determine: 1) “S/He has learned it to the desired level of proficiency; 2) S/he is still in the process of becoming proficient; 3) S/he needs help with the learning process; or 4) S/he needs a diagnostic evaluation or analysis.   While it may be important to anyone helping the student reach the goal to know where s/he is in the learning process, grades are useless.  Is there some point at which we give up on crucial learning and accept only partial learning?  Should s/he learn 96% of the required material, or is 90% sufficient? Does the unlearned portion matter?

Why Not Teach All of the Material

Personally, I see my job as teaching 100% of the kids, 100% of the material to 100% proficiency.  Anything offered in school that one kid can learn, every kid can learn. And, when every kid learns it, every kid gets an A. Which kids need not learn it?  Your kid or someone else’s kid?  Which kids need not understand fractions?  Which kids leaving 8th grade, need to read at only 2nd grade level? Or is it okay that they can’t read a newspaper? (Usually written at a 4th grade level.) Why would we want to talk about the grades they get or the criterion for a grade of “C?” If the kids can learn it, we need to teach them.  If they can’t learn it we need to acknowledge that; as the old bumper sticker said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

What Really Matters

Schools have kids who value grades, kids who value learning, kids who value both grades and learning, and kids who value neither.  Too often, learning in school is defined as, “doing what you are told. If you learned something not assigned, it doesn’t count.”  Some teachers think all kids should value grades and school learning in the same way as they do and grade on that basis. Your teaching staff needs to talk about diagnosis, prerequisite knowledge, or teaching-learning procedures, which have nothing to do with grades, student ability, number scales, or methods of determining grades.  Rather, they have to do with teaching-learning procedures and objectives, for which the teachers are responsible.


How is it possible for a kid to spend nine years in aK-8 school and not learn to read? Or not learn his/her multiplication tables, or not write at an acceptable level?  How is it possible for a kid to spend 9000 hours in our classrooms and not learn to read, write and compute an elementary level?  Every kid can learn to read, totally blind kids (even before computers) learned to read and write; not by the look-say method or the grunt-groan method, but by Braille. Why would a kid fail to learn something important? The answer is simple — it is because of the way in which we go about developing attitudes and crushing motivation.  Arguing about grading scales will not improve teaching in your school.

Lock-Step Procedures

Kids begin schooling on the basis of chronological age, not readiness for what we have predetermined we will offer. Although individual teachers,especially in the primary grades individualize, school policies, curriculum, scheduling, and grading do not.  Every student at every grade level and in every high school course starts at the same time, at the same level.  Our procedures start all students learning course content the same day, studying the same material and units for the same length of time, taking the same tests over the same material to be scored on the same scale.  During the school year students are spread on an A to F scale on their content learning.  Then they move to the next grade to start at a common point again — the same kids getting the A’s and F’s year after year.

We tell kids, some kids every day, in every way that they are inadequate,

non-readers, poor students, and even failures all the way through school,

until they dropout.  Schools put pressure on them to perform.  When they don’t or can’t, we put more pressure, further stigmatize them and repeat the failing procedures,

rather than move to prerequisite knowledge, meaningfulness and additional information.

When the curriculum or assigned material is inappropriate, for whatever reasons, kids are disengaged and cannot learn what is being taught. We need to change the curriculum not fail the kids or bribe them to be engaged.

Some Research on Grades

In answer to your specific questions about grading scales, I know of no significant research that deals with number score span relating to letter grades or scales starting at 50.  I can give yourstudy group some references on grading:

Degrading the Grading Myths: A Primer of Alternatives to Grades and Marks. A compilation of 19 articles edited by Simon and Ballanca, ASCD 1976.

Someone Has to Fail, Zero-sum Game of Schooling, David Laboree, 2010, Harvard Univ Press.  “. . .teachers need to build up a store of practical professional knowledge out of their own clinical experience in the classroom.”

Grading in the Post-Process Classroom; From Theory to Practice, A Collection of articles mostly on grading written work in college. Articles give hundreds of references. 1997 Heinneman Publishing.

Wadjaget by Howard Kirschenbaum is a comprehensive, basic grading book with lots of grading history information; but it is in story form.

Improving Marking and Reporting in Classroom Instruction, Norman Gronlund, McMillan Publishing, 1974


Follow-up Response


Dear Bill:Thanks for your response.  You’ll be pleased to know that we decided in the K-2 level, the only grades are, Mastered and Progressing.  There are about 25 skills for which kids receive this kind of feedback.  Kids are either doing what they are supposed to do or are learning it.  If I understand you correctly, that’s about all you need for any grade level.

Dear Marc:You got it! You said in one brief paragraph what it took me six pages to say. Once the goal of teaching is for kids to learn, neither you nor they need grades and report cards.  I prefer student-parent-teacher conferences for evaluation.  Kids not only attend, but conduct the conferences, and I communicate with parents through the kids, not grades or report cards. At the end of a conference, I usually say, “We are not here to grade, punish or reward you. We are here to gather information, coordinate our efforts, andutilize information enabling you to continue effective learning, and for us to help you do that.” 

Each Student Must Know His or Her Goals

Kids need to know, in terms that are meaningful to them, what they are learning, why they are learning it, what constitutes proficiency, what comes next, how to approach it, how it fits with other learning, and how it is or may become useful.  When a kid understands and accepts the learning goals and sees the big picture, s/he can be an independent learner, accepting responsibility for learning and utilizing many resources.

As parents want to know how their kids are doing, all they have to do is ask the kid — s/he knows.  (Of course, there may be times when the kids or their parents want to know how I, as a professional, evaluate the learning progress. I am pleased to do that – one-on-one only.)  These are important procedures that will enable any teacher to move from a task-master role to a real resource, helping each kid learn and using evaluation for learning purposes.

In My Own Classes

When the class begins each day, my kids come in and start learning. I zero in on any who appear not to be engaged; or I initiate help for any who seem not to know what to do. By having long-range tasks and many things to do, the kids can alternate tasks if they need to wait for help. Each is concerned with his/her own learning.  Basically, kids tell me how they are doing, make their own diagnoses, and request tests themselves to determine their achievement and help one another. It is in fact a community of learners.  Kids would just as soon ask the kid next to them how to do a problem as they would me because the goal is to learn not to impress me or get “credit” for their effort.

Kids Are Responsible for Their Own Learning

When kids take responsibility for their learning, they also make their own study material, write and evaluate their own tests, and keep their own records, with my participation as needed either by them or me.  I use the word “learning” not “working.”  I want them to learn, work is a collateral activity.   I want them to see a direct relationship between learning and whatever effort they are putting forth.  I discourage busy work or unnecessary repetition, “If you have learned it, move on, you can’t learn something you already know.”  I define learning as moving from inability to do a task to ability to do that task.

It’s Your Class!

As your colleagues fail to understand your teaching, just remember that in your class(s) you are in charge.  You can give practice tests, review tests, and you can choose not to record or average tests.  You can have individual kids study what they each need instead of what you assign as a group.  You can individualize and personalize tests, grades, or anything else within your classroom procedures.  You can make, grade and use measurement, evaluation, and grading as you see fit.  And, when all of your kids get A’s, and the other teachers or administrators question you, tell them it’s because all of them learned and invite the doubters to check out your kids learning for themselves.  That’s what I did that enabled me to be different and to circumvent inappropriate school policy.

When Kids Have Responsibility, They Learn

All kids learn naturally all their lives. In their first five years, they probably learn more than they will in any other period of their lives.  They do so without needs assessment, curriculum guides, letter grades, report cards, honor rolls, national achievement tests or certified personnel.  Kids do not need the punitive, comparative, competitive, reward-punishment methods foisted on them in the name of excellence. So, what are grades for anyway?

With Joy in sharing,



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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 and is filed under *ISSUES, Bill Page, May 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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