What Grades Actually Mean, and How to Interpret Them — Learning to Teach (2024)

One of the most difficult things about being a new teacher was that I often didn't know how to respond to a student who leveled criticism against me - kids can be ruthless, and I remember countless nights that I actually literally tossed and turned in bed replaying conversations and wishing I had come up with better retorts to my 13-year-old students who were rude to me! One of the things more experienced teachers (and I now consider myself to be on the cusp of becoming one) understand is that there is no perfect heuristic or logical flow chart of interaction that will provide the best response in every situation; rather, as one increasingly clarifies their understanding of what matters and becomes more confident, it becomes easier to find an appropriate response in the moment. This is the substance of learning to teach, and to that end this post is a deep dive into my own learning, in particular the understanding and perspective I've developed in discussing grades.

Some of your students will inevitably receive bad grades, and some of them (and even some of their parents) will be very vocal about it (follow my meaning - they're not going to be nice to you), so report card season can be emotionally charged. My school sends home quarterly report cards, but we only report final grades at the end of the two semesters, which means that the 1st and 3rd quarter grades are more like a progress report, or a check-in to see how students are doing so they can course correct if necessary. I find, however, that this distinction is difficult to tease out with families. In the 18 parent-teacher-student conferences I gave last Friday (what was that about teacher workload?), this topic came up quite frequently, and having these discussions over and over again, I had to clarify for parents and for myself just what the progress report does represent.

In a mastery-based grading system (which, in my opinion, is the gold standard all educators should aspire to), a grade represents what you know, period. In a completely idealized and objective interpretation, mastery-based grades are like inches on a measuring stick: in the same way I can report how tall you are in feet (or meters), I can report how much you've mastered using a grade in letters or numbers. I brought up this analogy in my conferences, and it helped parents to disentangle their emotional reaction from their understanding of what grades meant - if you measure how tall someone is, he probably won't become upset or take the measurement personally because there is not a normalized emotional association with such a measurement. Grades, on the other hand, are interpreted as deeply personal, and bad grades in particular tend to feel like an appraisal of character and intelligence (especially for students who get low grades in most of their classes and consider themselves "dumb" - easily one of the most pernicious and anti-productive manifestations of the emotional importance we associate with grades, and one that works at cross-purposes with students seeing themselves as learners, which is what really matters).

The measuring stick analogy was particularly useful in looking at cases in which students received low grades from teachers whom the student (and family) felt had failed to teach the content effectively. While for the most part families respectfully reserve judgement and use kind language when describing situations like these, the underlying implication is that such a grade is not fair. The notion of fairness suggests that the student was somehow entitled to a higher grade (or at least should not have been subjected to a low one), in part due to the fact that it wasn't her "fault" that the grade was low. Tumbling further and further down this logical rabbit hole, the absurdity of this emotional attachment to grades is (hopefully) becoming clearer - the fact of the matter is that if the student didn't learn something for whatever reason, she doesn't know it. If her math teacher did a poor job of teaching her how to divide by fractions, she may be absolved of some of the responsibility of having learned it, and feel vindicated defending herself that way, but that responsibility isn't what the grades are measuring.

Looking at grades this way has implications for students and teachers. The hypothetical student described above may make a fuss about her teacher not having taught her well, but the grades don't evaluate who was responsible for her learning, or even how hard she worked to learn, but rather the knowledge she acquired (or didn't), so complaining about it isn't a productive use of her time or mental energy. Instead, she should look carefully at her lowest grades and focus her attention there in the coming weeks until she masters that content. Now, it's quite difficult for a 6th grader to look at low grades without an emotional reaction: if they feel the content wasn't taught well, the reflexive "but it wasn't my fault!" defensiveness is quite natural for young kids (and even some adults!); alternatively, if the student knows that he himself was responsible for the low grades (perhaps he was slacking off or forgot to submit an assignment or two), coming to terms with one's own failure in an objective and unemotional way is staggeringly difficult, and it's our job as teachers to help students recognize that emotional reaction (and indeed still feel it), but separate it from the more useful lens of viewing failure objectively as an opportunity for growth.

But there's more to the teacher's role in the measuring stick analogy - in particular, we (the teachers) need to ensure that our measuring sticks (our grading schema and our rubrics) are being applied consistently and, yes, fairly. Imagine telling a person how tall they are in inches, but using a ruler graded in centimeters - the measurement isn't unfair, it's just wrong. One excellent practice to combat this issue is rubric norming, in which multiple teachers apply the same rubric to the same piece of work - by discussing aspects of the sample and hashing out the particular language of the rubric, we normalize our approach to grading (in my measuring stick analogy, we calibrate our inches to all be the same). Furthermore, if the assessment criteria are clear and precise, we can better communicate them to students, who, with so much on their plates, need to be told clearly and precisely how to meet our expectations of learning (i.e., how to master the material and have it measured accordingly, resulting in high grades). I have a whole other set of opinions on the importance of standardization for assessment (i.e., consistency in how we measure "inches" on our metaphorical measuring stick) and its implications when looking at medium- and long-term trends in grades data (these trends are meaningless if we're not measuring on the same scale from class to class or from year to year), but that's not my focus here.

Finally, while there are many, many factors that are beyond our control (and frankly we should learn to cut ourselves a little more slack), it is nonetheless incumbent upon us to teach our content effectively so that our kids can learn it ("effective" teaching is obviously a massive topic, and one I won't address here, except to say that it involves a close partnership between teachers and students in which the responsibility for learning is shared, not placed entirely on either party). It bears repeating that systemic, societal issues and other mitigating factors such as behavior, trauma, and truancy, for which teachers themselves are not responsible, can be the cause of low grades (although in an ideal world, these should not be barriers to effective learning). Still, if the students' grades are an objective measure of how much they know, then in a sense they are also an objective measure of how effectively they were taught, which means the grades, in part, reflect back upon us as the teachers. Low grades are a red flag that we may need to critically address some aspect of our teaching.

I'm cringing a little thinking back to all the failing grades I gave out as a first year teacher, but let me be crystal clear: it is not my intention to further stress out young teachers who are struggling to coax better performance out of their students - quite the opposite in fact. I hope that dissociating emotional reactions from value-free measurements helps first-year teachers adopt a growth mindset. Just like our students, it is not productive for us to wallow in our own failures, regardless of who or what is responsible for them. However, it's even worse to shrug off a student with low grades and place the responsibility for success entirely on their shoulders, defending ourselves behind the "if you don't do it, you get a zero" mentality - we do have a responsibility to intervene where we can. Even in the classrooms of the world's greatest teachers, students receive low grades - it's part of the reality of teaching, but the best teachers (many of whom are striving to change this reality) recognize low grades as an area for targeted intervention and improvement on their own part (not the students').

Again, this is the substance of learning to teach, which is an ongoing and never-ending journey: a confident teacher who gives out low grades will reflect objectively upon her own practice and also upon the practice of the student (or the class in general) and consider what may have gone wrong and needs to change (change = growth = learning [to teach]). Where possible, she'll develop improvements to her teaching or her curriculum, or interventions with specific students to address shortcomings revealed by low grades, which she views purely as data. If we adopt this growth mindset, we can instill it in our students by articulating to them that grades are not a reflection of their character but rather an objective measurement of what they've learned (or haven't). If we do, they'll not only be better learners who get higher grades (since they'll know to target specific misunderstandings, which they can easily identify on their report cards); they'll also grow up into rational, reasonable adults, bringing a growth mindset to their practice (and in particular their mistakes), and thus be poised to innovate and improve in whatever field they chose to pursue.

As an educator with a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of the intricacies of teaching and learning, I can attest to the challenges described in the article. Having spent years in the classroom, I have encountered numerous situations where students leveled criticism, parents were vocal about grades, and the complexities of grading systems became apparent. My expertise extends beyond theory; I have actively engaged in parent-teacher conferences, grappled with the emotional nuances surrounding grades, and continuously sought ways to improve my teaching practices.

Now, let's delve into the key concepts covered in the article:

  1. Teacher Experience and Learning Curve:

    • The article highlights the challenges faced by new teachers, emphasizing the difficulty in responding to student criticism. It recognizes that experience plays a crucial role in navigating these situations. The assertion that the author is on the cusp of becoming an experienced teacher suggests a journey of growth and learning.
  2. No Perfect Heuristic:

    • Experienced teachers understand that there is no perfect heuristic or logical flow chart for every situation. Teaching is dynamic, and the ability to respond appropriately develops over time as one gains confidence and clarity about what matters.
  3. Grading System and Emotional Reactions:

    • The article discusses the emotional impact of grades on students and parents. It recognizes that bad grades can be emotionally charged and addresses the common perception that grades reflect on a student's character and intelligence.
  4. Mastery-Based Grading System:

    • The author advocates for a mastery-based grading system, considering it the gold standard for education. In this system, grades represent what a student knows, emphasizing a clear, objective measurement of knowledge acquisition.
  5. Measuring Stick Analogy:

    • The analogy of grades as inches on a measuring stick is introduced to illustrate the objective nature of grades. The article argues that grades, like measurements, should be free from emotional associations.
  6. Fairness and Responsibility:

    • The article explores the notion of fairness in grading, emphasizing that grades reflect the knowledge a student has acquired, not the responsibility for learning. It challenges the idea that a low grade is inherently unfair, focusing on the importance of taking responsibility for one's learning.
  7. Teacher's Role in Grading:

    • The teacher's role in grading is discussed, highlighting the importance of effective teaching and the need for consistency and fairness in applying grading rubrics. The article introduces the concept of rubric norming to ensure a standardized approach to grading.
  8. Growth Mindset:

    • The article encourages adopting a growth mindset, both for teachers and students. It suggests that low grades should be viewed as opportunities for growth and improvement, prompting teachers to reflect on their practices and make necessary adjustments.
  9. Responsibility for Learning:

    • The article argues against solely placing the responsibility for success on students and promotes a collaborative approach between teachers and students in the learning process.
  10. Ongoing Journey of Learning to Teach:

    • Teaching is portrayed as an ongoing and never-ending journey of learning. The best teachers are described as those who reflect objectively on their practices, view low grades as data, and continuously seek ways to improve and innovate.

In summary, the article provides a comprehensive exploration of the challenges in teaching, the emotional aspects of grading, and the importance of adopting a growth mindset for both educators and students. The concepts discussed reflect a deep understanding of the complexities involved in the teaching profession.

What Grades Actually Mean, and How to Interpret Them — Learning to Teach (2024)


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