A good grade can provide a great lift.
A good grade can provide a great lift.

A, B, C, D and F: They’ve been around since our grandparents’ days. These letter grades are marked on students’ assignments, tests, and report cards a handful of times each school year, as an indicator of whether or not Johnny is an ace student, an average student, or struggling mightily to get by. This grading system has withstood the test of time, and yet it has detractors. Some wonder how that can be. However, more and more public schools are moving away from this traditional grading system, but there are some good reasons to keep it in place.

Early Letter Grades

The concept of assigning a score or rank to assignments, assessments, and student work has been firmly in place since 1913. Schools have utilized a standardized system of grading using letter grades. The history of this type of assessment trace loosely back to Yale in the late 18th century when students who accumulated 20 academic points earned an “Optimi.” Sixteen points was the equivalent of “second Optimi.” Twelve points was “Inferiores” and – gulp – only 10 was “Pejores.” One can only presume that there was no classification for “F” because having reached this point, the student would no longer be attending Yale.

Current Letter Grades

After a few years of traditional education, virtually every parent and child understands the meaning of letter grades. It's a standard set of score that correspond with a student's performance on specific tasks. A is typically equivalent to excellent work or mastery of content. B is an indication that the student is doing well; average to above average. C is the score directly in the middle, and equates to average. D is below average and F is a failing grade; failing to meet minimum standards.

With the current letter grade system, students know exactly what each grade means, there is a familiar language within academic evaluation; therefore you can handle any grade accordingly. Schedule a conference with the teacher or have a talk – stern, concerned or congratulatory – with little Sally. Letter grades allow parents to act with conviction right out of the starting gate and then make adjustments as they get more information.

Continuity

Imagine the confusion that could occur if – as is beginning to happen – some schools use alternative grading systems and others stick with letter grades. This can cause uncertainty if a child changes schools, possibly even blemishing his academic record if “B” doesn’t quite equate with the new school’s “pretty darned good” equivalent.

It potentially becomes more of a problem if the student is changing schools because he’s moving up to middle school, high school or college. Students can flounder at a critical point in their educations if the old framework they’ve been working within throughout their entire academic careers is suddenly removed and replaced with something else.

Post-Secondary Education

Admittance and acceptance protocols at colleges and universities depend to a great extent on a student’s grade point average. A B letter grade typically confers 80 to 89 points in grade school and high school, but what does a verbal assessment equal in terms of points? Verbal assessments are open to interpretation, which at the very least would cause post-secondary schools a lot of extra manpower to decipher for purposes of acceptance.

Motivation

Even adults need a good reason to tackle difficult or even unpleasant projects – otherwise, the frequently used word, "procrastination," might never have been born. They want raises, recognition and promotions in exchange for a job well done. Kids are no different and, in fact, their immaturity may make grading motivating factors even more important to their accomplishments.

Letter grades provide motivation and goals. They say, “You’re here,” and “Here’s where you have to go to achieve the next level.” There’s little or no ambiguity because letter grades are consistent and easy to understand. If Johnny wants a better letter grade, he knows he’ll have to prep and study for that exam. There’s a direct correlation between action and letter grade ramifications.

The Case Against Letter Grades

Detractors of the letter grade system argue that a student may be less likely to tackle difficult challenges because messing up might lower her A to a B, but it’s hard to imagine any quality grading system that would not be affected by poor performance unless it literally notes, “A for effort, at least.” However, if the final product was substandard, no matter how hard Sally tried, Sally can only benefit from going back to the drawing board so she can understand how to get it right next time.

Detractors also say that once a student reaches his or her letter grade goal, they are likely to stop trying and coast through to the end. He’s already there, right? What’s left to do? Plenty. An A at mid-semester doesn’t guarantee an A at term’s end – there are assignments and tests to come, so becoming complacent and slacking off will only bring that A down. The argument of possible coasting doesn’t particularly make sense. Even if the student doesn't immediately acknowledge the importance of maintaining, they will most likely remember next semester when their mid term grade is an A.