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Making the Grade: When Do Kids Deserve A's?

Flawed Logic
School teaching illustration
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Illustration by William Duke

Just what makes an A student? The answer has changed over time. Historically, American schools were charged with creating citizens who could reason, read and do arithmetic well enough to hold a job and to function responsibly in a democratic society. In the last 20 years, though, educators have sought to measure achievement as well as nonacademic factors like attitude, responsibility, respect and work habits—while maintaining a tradition that allows teachers to assign only a single mark per subject. That has given rise to what Thomas Guskey, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, calls "the hodgepodge grade." At present, most teachers hand out marks based on test performance and, at least in part, on homework assignments. But in many classes, other factors come into play—attendance, extra-credit projects, whether a student brings sharpened pencils to class or remembers to get permission slips signed—and the exact formula is left up to individual instructors. "Hodgepodge grades combine so many diverse elements of performance," says Guskey. "Problem is, they make it impossible to determine how well a student is learning the course material."

They can also lead to rampant grade inflation. Earning top marks for being an eager beaver can seem harmless in early elementary school, but middle and high school students getting B's for C-minus work often hit rough waters once they enter college. "They play by the rules, move ahead each year and eventually graduate, only to find they're not prepared to do freshman-level work," says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. According to ACT, which administers standardized college admissions tests, only 25% of high schoolers scored well enough to achieve a B in college in math, science, reading and English. Currently, nearly one in three college students require remedial instruction to relearn what they should have mastered in high school. "Hodgepodge grading becomes a devastating and potentially costly problem for college freshmen," says Nassirian.

Equally tragic, the inverse is also true. Smart kids who are chronically disorganized, don't participate in class or hand in homework late—but who actually are learning a great deal—are given poor grades. Over time, their view of themselves begins to dim, and they shut the door to higher education by not applying for college. "They don't think it's for them," says Nassirian. "That's because their report cards have told them they're not college material."