Ask a Teacher: Why Aren't Letter Grade Percents More Reasonable?

Ask a Teacher: Why Aren't Letter Grade Percents More Reasonable?

By Mr. Jung

A reader recently posed another excellent grading-related question, which I snatched it up like a crazy Black Friday shopper. The question in question was, why are grading scales organized with ten percentage points between full-letter grades (A = 90-100, B = 80-90, etc.), until the bottom drops out after the grade of “D?” That is, why use a system where anything from 0-60 is considered failing, instead of something more reasonable, like 20 percentage points between letter grades, all the way down the line?

First off, great question! I am happy to talk about grading, and very happy to make it a running discussion. Grades are one of those things where there is a “norm,” and no one is satisfied with it, but there isn’t much room to experiment, and policy discussions never seem to make the leap to actual policy. For example, everyone knows grade inflation is a crippling problem, but these conversations usually end after stating the obvious.

To answer your question, I suspect (on a general level) that things are divided in this manner because in grading, there needs to be a fail-point: a point that signifies when an individual, for whatever reason, has not acquired the skills to advance beyond the class in question. If I have a student, for example, who is not good enough at writing to send to upper-level classes in good faith, it doesn’t make sense for me to pass him, even if he has, as in your proposal, acquired thirty percent of the total class points. This is in no one’s best interest. After all, you can get thirty percent just by attending and turning in papers, but that does not mean that you have gained any control over the material, and it does not mean you have the proper tools for future work.

That being said, it is important to recognize that this grading system only makes sense when explored from a pragmatic, educator-side perspective. After all, if this explanation is correct, wouldn’t it make just as much sense to work from a pass-fail system? I am not advocating this; I am just playing devil's advocate. IF this explanation is correct, THEN, why even bother making tiny distinctions between students, all of which have, according to this system, acquired the necessary skills from the course? But the devil's advocate's advocate (is that right?) would say that these "tiny" distinctions are necessary to tell students apart, both to reward those who truly excel, and also to provide some way for colleges and the like to distinguish between applicants. I think this is fair. However, this position does not address the original question of why the percentages are so skewed, and leaves us back where we began.

Confused? I am too. Perhaps that is not becoming of an authority figure, but I not a policy expert on grading. Also, I should note that  things are done ever-so-differently at all levels and locations. Remember, too, that I teach college, which has its own agendas as ideas about grading. In addition, I teach writing, which is far more difficult to grade on a statistical model than, say, math or science, especially when you get down to minute percentage differences. However, all caveats aside, I am an instructor who confronts these issues, and pragmatic considerations alone are not enough to convince me of the justifications for such percentage-based arrangements. In other words, I am bothered by the same logical inconsistencies and ethical problems in the system that you are, even if it makes practical sense on my end.

What do your teachers think of the grading scale?

Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.

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Related post: Ask a Teacher: Are Grades Only a Means to an End?

Topics: teachers, percentages, fairness, ask a teacher, grading

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