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

They’ve been around since our grandparents’ days: A, B, C, D and F. These letter grades are marked on students’ report cards a handful of times each school year, intended to be an indication of whether Johnny is an ace student, an average student, or struggling mightily to get by. So how can something that has withstood the test of time have detractors? More and more public schools are moving away from this grading system, but there are some good reasons to keep it in place.

The First Letter Grades

School letter grades have been pretty much firmly in place since at least 1913, but they 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.

Letter Grades are Easy to Understand

Virtually every parent and child understands the meaning of letter grades at a glance after all these years. A’s are great, and B’s mean that your child is doing good, if not exactly great. Anything lower is typically cause for at least some alarm.

You know exactly what each grade means so you can deal with it: 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, then make adjustments as they get more information.

They Provide 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.

The Connection With 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.

Then There’s the Motivation

Even adults need a good reason to tackle difficult or even unpleasant projects – otherwise, the term 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.” But 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 letter grade goal, he’s likely to stop trying. 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. It’s an argument that doesn’t particularly make sense. Even if she doesn’t immediately acknowledge the importance of maintaining, she’ll most likely remember next semester when she achieves that A at mid-term again.