What do Letter Grades have to do with Performance?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: September 20th 2015

Sketch of family on blackboardThe school year has begun. In a few quick months, across British Columbia parents will receive report cards indicating how their children are progressing in their learning. In many cases, these report cards will have structured comments, a letter grade, and, in higher grades, a percentage. There are many people in the public who hang on to those letter grades and percentages as if they were the gates to the future. They recognize that the difference between one or two percent might mean the difference between entrance to post-secondary or not. But recently I have been asking myself – where else in the “real world” as people call it, do we actually grade a person’s performance with a letter grade and percent? I struggle to find any. Do we only do this to our students?

Surrey has 10,000 employees. Nowhere would I ever contemplate reducing human performance, skill or leadership to a percent and letter grade. I worked in the business world for several years. I was evaluated and I evaluated others. Nowhere did we ever use such tools.

We did not use these tools because we knew that in the world of coaching and improving human performance,  we knew it was about the ability to understand people, to engage with them and to support them. We knew that grading people was actually counter-productive. Our colleagues need us to talk with them, listen to them and to provide support in the form of constructive feedback. data filter

Letter grades and percentages on the other hand are fundamentally a sorting and gatekeeping mechanism. We use these tools of mathematics and statistics to determine the future of our children because these statistics are used to determine next steps in their journey. It is convenient to be able to draw a line and say that 80 is good and 79 is one short. However, we all know that those numbers are like the emperor’s new clothes.

When I taught, I too justified my grades and I worked hard for them to be accurate. I did my very best but I think like many teachers, I realized the limited scope of letter grades or percent to actually inform the learning process. Letter grades and percentages were about reporting, they really weren’t about learning.

So what do we know works? Of course as the research shows and tells us again and again – regular descriptive feedback. The following questions (adapted by Halbert and Kaser but originally from Hattie and Timperley) can guide us in this journey:

•Where are you now in your learning?

•Where are you going?

•How are you going to get there?

•How can I support you in that journey?

Learners (adult and student) should get detailed and descriptive feedback to help guide them. That feedback as we know from decades of research and practice (Wiliam, Black and William, Earl, Sutton, Harlen and Crick, Bangert-Downs, Tunstall and Gipps to name only a few) tells us that descriptive feedback is far more effective than evaluations that give us a mark. Dewey Reflecting on Experience

Imagine your boss, colleague or whomever coming to the door and you know they are going to give you feedback on your work. If they gave you a document that said:

“Thank you for your dedication and time, I appreciate the effort you have made. You do good work and I look forward to our time ahead.”

79% – “B”

I wonder what you would think. Likely you would be soft on the comments, and likely angered by the percent and letter grade followed by a bunch of questions. Soon, the comments would mean nothing and the entire conversation would be about the 79 and the B. This is what we provide to students and to parents several times a year. Imagine, breaking a person’s complex understanding of things like civilization, culture, art, dance, philosophy, English, down to a number…to one decimal place in fact.

I believe that our students and parents deserve more. I believe that we are making great progress in finding ways to balance assessment, with evaluation and finally with reporting but we should constantly think very carefully about the role that letter grades and percent play in supporting learning and we should not talk about learning and letter grades in the same context. Evaluation and Reporting are one conversation and learning is another. Too often we hear assessment mixed with report cards and that simply is not a great place to be.

I do not have the perfect solution. This is complicated stuff especially when it comes down to the measures that our universities would use to determine who gets in and who does not. How do you do this when they have tens of thousands of applicants to consider from all around the world?

What I am trying to say is that we need to constantly and purposefully place descriptive feedback with assessment and learning. The other conversation about how we adequately communicate the complexity of the learning process and student achievement home to parents has its own place.

We won’t solve this today, there are many competing interests and many challenges. However, I believe that the conversations have begun in many places and I also believe we have the ability, desire and tools to make the changes we need. As we know, our children deserve the very best we have. Little superhero

Meanwhile, if you know anywhere where adult performance in the workplace is given a percent and a letter grade? Send it my way. I would love to see the context.

Better yet, go into your boss and ask if she/he would please give you a letter grade on your work. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

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