How can it be that, three hours into my first day after a two week Christmas break (no war on Christmas here, FOX news), I was already ready for a vacation?  It’s certainly not lack of enthusiasm for the job, as I spent time in the office more days than not during the “break.”  It could be age, my default excuse these days for everything that’s wrong with me, or it could be the shock of reverting to my “normal” sleep schedule after a holiday schedule that seems to fit my system much better. 

The most likely explanation is that I returned to school yesterday morning to face the reality that grades are due.  Grading has always been my least favorite part of being a teacher, but I take it seriously even though the course I teach (Public Speaking) is not an academic core course.  I am unwilling to give all A’s like some non-academic courses do.  I would describe my philosophy of grades for my course as “graduate school grading.”  Similar to graduate school, an A should be hard to get and a sign of excellence, a B should be easy to earn, and a C or below should be a sign that the student has gone out of his way to prove to me how little care and energy he has put into my class. I recognize that there is a good bit of subjectivity in giving grades, so I worry about consistency, about treating like cases alike.  I try to grade in comparison both with the other students in the class and also with my Platonic ideal of what a good speech is.

There is an argument to be made that grades can be an impediment to education, and I tell students that if they focus on learning grades will take care of themselves. Nearly 20 years ago I served as chair of the conference planning committee for the Virginia Association of Independent Schools.  During my tenure we brought one of the original “edutainers,” Alfie Kohn, to the conference as keynote speaker soon after publication of his book, Punished by Rewards, in which he argues that giving grades hurts intrinsic motivation and love of learning.

If the goal of being a keynote speaker is being provocative, Kohn was a hit. Many of those attending the conference found his presentation refreshing and inspirational, the best keynote in years.  At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers were so provoked by his message that they suggested that the organization show support for his opposition to rewards by refusing to pay him.  His message about intrinsic motivation struck a chord in me, but I also suspect that love of learning may be developmental, a rest stop on the road to self-actualization. The need for grades may be best explained by psychologists such as Piaget and Maslow.

I’ve found myself thinking about grades more than usual recently.  The public school system in the county where I live is considering changing its grading scale from a six-point scale to a ten-point scale, a change that several other localities in Virginia have recently made.  In addition, I have had recent conversations with colleagues from two good independent schools that are changing their grading scales.

What all three have in common are concerns related to college admission.  One of the independent schools is making the change in response to a state university for which it is a feeder school saying it will no longer admit out-of-state applicants with a GPA below 2.5.  The other school believes that it may be hurting its students because it has less grade inflation than other schools.  And the primary argument for changing public school grading scale is that it puts students at a disadvantage in the college admissions process compared with students with a ten-point scale.

I am skeptical about how much benefit will accrue from changing a grading scale.  The hidden assumption seems to be that changing the scale will produce a rising tide of GPA’s, resulting in greatly improved college admissions results.  That might work for a short time, but over the long run it begins to feel like the academic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme.

That is not the only questionable assumption.  Another is that grades are hard data and purely objective, but grading requires both discretion and judgment, and it is not clear that teachers will not recalibrate what they consider to be an A or a B to fit the new scale.  The grade scale argument also assumes that college admissions officers look at a transcript without taking context into account.  I hope and believe that’s not the case, but I worry that many admissions officer do not have the experience, training, or time to evaluate a student’s academic record.  I know I didn’t as a young admissions officer.  The 10-point scale argument assumes that admissions officers are too busy, too lazy, or concerned about the appearance of the freshman class profile to evaluate a student’s record at a deeper than superficial level.  While in my career I have had the rare admissions officer say things like, “We think all high schools are exactly alike,” I believe those are outliers.    

I have always felt that what’s more important than grade scale is grade distribution, how easy it is to earn a certain grade.  I have seen high schools where a weighted GPA below 4.0 places a student in the bottom half of the class. On the other hand, when I worked in college admissions we had an English Department that took great pride in its low grades.  One member of the department was notorious for stating at the beginning of each semester, “In my class God would get an A.  I would get a B.  For all of you, that leaves…”  He was not known for his impish sense of humor.  After we enrolled the strongest class statistically in the college’s history, there were 390 students enrolled in freshman English, and exactly one student received an A.  The grading scale was a ten-point scale, but it didn’t matter.

I suspect that grades will be part of the college admissions process for some time to come, and that is a good thing, because the alternative is greater reliance on standardized testing.  I hope that we will always consider grades in context.  When my son came to me during his junior year in high school, having transitioned from underachiever to good student, and told me he had gotten a 95 on a test, I responded, “Out of how many?”  That’s probably always a good question when it comes to grades.