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In this article, Alicia LaMagdeleine discusses two myths about grades, what each grade range means, and how to use grades as feedback in the learning process.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a Community Meeting about two common myths about grades that I heard during the early weeks of school. As we approach midterm conferences, I want to share some of that information with the broad community so that we have some shared language around grades and their meaning.

Myth #1 – One ‘bad grade’ will ruin my life.

While it feels like this is the truth when we fail a quiz or score worse on a project than we thought we would, it is unlikely that one grade on one assignment in one class will have a tremendous impact. A final course grade is composed of several scores, sometimes with varying weights. At the beginning of the semester, when there aren’t a lot of graded assignments, one lower score can make the overall average come down, but over time, improved performance on subsequent assignments can lessen the effect of one ‘bad grade.’ This is why it is more important to focus on understanding how to improve from assignment to assignment than it is to dwell on one ‘bad grade.’ Patterns in performance and learning are more important than one outlier score. 

Myth #2 – I did the work, so I should get 100%.

Maybe, but also maybe not. A grade on an assignment reflects performance on measurable objectives. For example, an assignment in Biology might be assessing a student’s ability to name 10 parts of a cell. If they can only correctly identify 8 of 10 parts, they’ve shown they know 80% of the material. Now, sometimes the objective can be to complete something or to make an attempt. In English, a student may be asked to journal each day. If the objective of journaling is to get students in the habit of daily writing, then they may receive 100% just for completing the work. Note that in this case, there may be no retesting or makeup. You either are journaling daily or you are not. Students should refer to assignment instructions and rubrics to make sure they understand what the assignment is assessing. 

Grades Provide Feedback on Learning

In debunking each of these myths, students must remember that the major purpose of grades is to provide feedback on learning. They aren’t judgments on character or predictors of ultimate success. They are markers to help you understand how well you are demonstrating your knowledge of the material and skills in a course.

What Do A, B, C, and F Mean?

Work in the ‘A’ range demonstrates a thorough mastery of course content and outstanding performance of course requirements. It shows the ability to explain and apply content and skills, and make connections beyond those explicitly covered in the course. It tells a student they are clearly prepared for next-level work, and may consider that work at a more advanced level (i.e. move to an AP-level class).

Work in the ‘B’ range demonstrates understanding of a great majority of factual / skill work, but still misses some things. It makes good attempts at explanations, sometimes making the connections, sometimes missing them. It tells a student they are approaching mastery in the course, and that they are prepared for next-level work; however. next-level work at a more advanced level (like an AP-level class) may require more effort.

Work in the ‘Crange demonstrates proficiency, but not mastery, in aspects of the course. It shows a general understanding of course content, but may have several errors or stick to mostly concrete or brief explanations. It may not consistently fulfill course requirements. It tells a student they are prepared for the next level of work, but not for a higher level of work (i.e. they should not move on to the AP-level), and that they may benefit from additional support or review as they move on.

Work that receives an F does not demonstrate proficiency. It tells students that they are not ready to move on to next-level work without significant remediation. Within a course, this may mean completing extra review on a topic and re-assessing. As a final course grade, this means the student will need to retake and pass the course before moving on.

Use Midterm Grades to Inform Future Performance

Next week’s grades are a snapshot taken at the halfway point of the semester. As parents, students, and mentors look at grades and comments next week, I encourage them to discuss what patterns they see. Are there places where the grades indicate more attention is needed? Or places where more challenge could be taken on? What things might help improve or maintain performance in certain classes? And how might this feedback help inform future progress?

Remember, if you don’t understand a grade on an assignment or in a course, don’t be afraid to ask about it. Our faculty wants to help you do your best!

Have great conferences and wonderful Fall Break!