In Our Schools: Grading Our Students

By Dr. Akil E. Ross, Sr.

An essential task of any leader is to ensure that the organization’s processes produce its promise. The leader continuously improves strategic plans to achieve the organization’s vision and mission. In School District Five of Lexington & Richland Counties, we believe that every student should feel loved in our schools and have demonstrated academic growth. To achieve our vision, our school district must be able to continuously improve our strategies. I am convinced that the grading system is one of those processes that is due for improvement.

In January 2023, our district published a grading philosophy which stated that grades “reflect evidence of student proficiency in the learning progression of content standards and skills over time. Behavior and effort are evaluated and reported separately from the academic grade.”

The following two statements have raised two important questions that require our community’s attention. First, how accurately do grades represent one’s proficiency in standards and skills? Second, do we genuinely believe that a student’s grades should not include their efforts and behavior?

The straight “A” student has mastered all of the concepts and skills required in each of their classes. I was never a straight “A” student; in fact, I was a straight “F” student in the third grade. The straight “F” student has not demonstrated any learning of the concepts and skills required in their courses. The difficulty in our system is articulating how much more all “A” students know than all “B,” “C,” and “D” students. There is an average of twenty-seven (27) specific math skill indicators required by the South Carolina Department of Education for each grade in elementary school. How many more skills does the “B” student demonstrate proficiency in than the “C” students? This is a question that the system is not able to answer at scale.

During a recent presentation of student growth data at an elementary career day, students asked me what the plans were to help the students not demonstrating proficiency. The 2024 spring administration of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) found that 37 percent of the students are not projected to meet elementary mathematics proficiency. One of the students asked, “How about you work on skills that the students don’t know?” This sounds like a simple solution, but for a total of 1,832 students, it is extremely difficult for the system to solve this problem. This problem compounds, and it is unfair to place this burden on the backs of teachers. The new math standards average thirty-seven (37) indicators for middle school students. A teacher is expected to make up the skill gaps from the previous years while teaching an additional 37 skills during an academic year for each student. This has resulted in 2,315, or 58 percent of our middle school students, not being on grade level in mathematics.

Our grading philosophy states, “Grades should identify for teachers, students, and families clarity, gaps, and deficiencies in learning and consistently and objectively inform teachers of areas where students need remediation or acceleration.” The solution lies in the team. When teachers, administrators, students, and parents team together, we support every student. During my second year in third grade, I learned that learning from failure only occurs when you learn from failure. Unfortunately, not all students are able to do so. Therefore, I am proposing that we extend the “standards-based” grading system currently used in K – 2nd grades to 3rd – 5th grades. In this system, we do not report on the 100 percent scale for the report card. Instead, we would report M= Met expectations, PR= Progressing, or NI= Needs Improvement for each of the expected skills. For example, a student could receive NI for Multiplying & Dividing decimal numbers to hundredths. This would better communicate what a student knows and is able to do better than 77 percent in math.

The US grading system can be traced back to 1785 when Yale College President Ezra Stiles placed his 58 students into four performance categories. He assigned 20 students as Optimi (best), 16 students as Second Optimi (second best), 12 students as Inferiores (less good), and 10 students as Perjores (worst). Yale later moved to the 4.0 scale for grading. In this model, students earned scores from 0.0 to 4.0. In 1837, Harvard instituted the 100-point scale to compare students’ performance, but the majority of students reported being in the 25 through 75th percentile. By 1886, Harvard added five letters to the grading scale: “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E” (“E” later became “F”). This is the system we use to this day. The grading system was used to stratify students into performance groups but does not communicate what students know and are able to do. My second-third-grade teacher used grading differently. She never accepted failure from any of her students. To be clear, she would give you an “F” but also required you to keep working on that material until you could prove you were proficient in it. Some students need more time to learn, and she provided that time. Her grading system allowed students to get a passing grade when they demonstrated proficiency.

For grades 6-12, my goal is to report the quarter, semester, and final grades using the South Carolina Uniform Grading Scale Conversions and report the daily assignments on the 100-point scale. The process, called Macro-Minimum Grading, results in catastrophically low quarter or term grades being raised to a 50 percent “F” on a 100-point scale. The 100-point scale has 101 possible grades, and 59 of those grades are “F.” The South Carolina Uniform Grading Scale converts the 101 possible grades to 51 possible grades. In this conversion, all grades have equal weight.

In this model, students who do not master their skills or do not complete assignments will fail the course. However, students who improve their academic performance over the course of the year will have a mathematical chance for their grade to reflect their skills because the 59-point “F” will only be used for assignments, but the 20-point “F” will be used for the quarter, semester, and final grade.

These changes that I am proposing will take time to implement. As a result, I will not require any changes for next school year until teachers, parents, students, and community members have the opportunity to reflect and give feedback on our grading philosophy. These changes will require shifts in processes and paradigms. These shifts will require time. I predict the largest shift will be determining if behavior and effort should be part of the academic grade. I feel I am in the minority of educators who believe that behavior and efforts should be evaluated and reported separately from the academic grade. I am in favor of creating a citizenship grade to assess and report behavior and effort so that grades clearly reflect a student’s learning.

Our state and nation are in desperate need of a skilled workforce to address our workforce shortages. We need to maximize the potential of every student in order to overcome this challenge. Any system that does not help us teach the skills that students do not know should be improved so that all students have a chance to learn. The state standards require our students to Create, Draw, Describe, Compare, Interpret, Calculate, Find, Solve, Determine, Identify, Discover, Apply, Translate, Rotate, Classify, Connect, etc. It is my goal to create a system that clearly communicates each child’s learning progression for the skills that will make them successful – not just in the classroom but in life. This is a major step in our continuous improvement process, and we will take the necessary time to become proficient in our grading practices.