What Happened to the “E”? A Perspective on our Grading System

Tim Van SoelenThe CACE Roundtable2 Comments

StockSnap / Pixabay

StockSnap / Pixabay

“If you received an A on the test, you may take a seat in the back row. B’s in the next row, C’s, D’s and F’s should grab seats in the front two rows please.” Unbelievable, right? Would a teacher really do this in a classroom, seat students by the grade they received? Unfortunately the answer is yes, and I saw it happen. Students looked at their test grade and moved accordingly. When I visited with the teacher regarding this decision after class, he stated that this was his response to the research showing that students in the front rows learn more. An interesting application of research…

This story is not to highlight a less-than-recommended seating chart practice, but to stimulate some thinking about the question – what does a grade really mean?  There actually was a time when a C meant average, or was at least a bit closer to that definition. According to Duke professor Sutart Rojstaczer, the average GPA in colleges and universities was 2.52 in the 1950s. Today, that average is 3.06. My tenure as a college professor would affirm this rising average. Students arrive at class expecting to receive an A if they complete the work assigned to them. They fight for the points taken away and ask for extra credit to recover missed points.  I am not surprised or even disappointed at such requests as there is a lot riding on a student’s GPA – keeping academic scholarships, increasing their chances of getting into more prestigious graduate schools, staying eligible for co-curricular activities, keeping parents off their back…and their lists go on.

There are some attempts to push back on this grade creep. In 2004, Princeton University adopted a policy that required professors to cap the number of A’s given at 35%. Richard Kamber, a professor of philosophy who has written quite extensively about grad inflation stated “It’s not exactly draconian. It  was an act of leadership on their part. They were actually suggesting that other institutions should consider doing the same thing.” Yale tried a similar initiative in the spring of 2013 but postponed the faculty vote due to a negative response from the student body. Not surprising as the spring of 2012 showed that 62% of the grades at Yale were A’s.

I know what was described in the first two paragraphs is not unique to colleges and universities.  It exists in high schools and middle schools, even in our lower elementary classrooms.

So what now? Is the current grading system not working? Maybe the idea of grade distribution was a flawed one to begin with? Should we be sorting our students in school by their grades? Or, should we look beyond grades on the core academic subjects and really help students understand, appreciate, and develop the gifts that God has graciously given them? Is it time for some flex academies that focus on agricultural education or digital design or performance art to open up in our Christian high schools for students who are obviously gifted but maybe not A = Awesome in Calculus?

There are some new assessment ideas creeping their way into the fringes of school that I am very excited about – new practices that allow students different and multiple opportunities to show what they know and are able to do. Standards-based grading (SBG) is one of these practices.  Patricia Scriffiny wrote a great piece in Educational Leadership (way back in 2008!) in an article titled Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading. Her first reason was “grades should have meaning.” She defines the traditional A – F but in more useful ways. For example, her A means that the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives. An F means the student completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in the sequence.  A little different definition than an A = 94-100 or and F = 0-60, eh? I appreciate all of the reasons on the list but want to highlight number seven: It’s a Launchpad to Other Reforms. One reform that SBG seems to be leading to is a competency-based (CBE) education/personalized learning movement.  CBE moves away from some of our traditional school relics like seat time and age-level grouping in favor of a structure that creates and allows for flexibility for students to progress as they demonstrate mastery, regardless of pace, place, or time.

Such practices seem as though they fit a biblical and holistic view of the child much better than an A or an F on a report card. If we really want to identify, affirm, and develop the gifts God has given each student for purpose in His Kingdom, is our current assessment system consistent which such a vision?

And, someone please tell me, what happened to the E? We certainly know what A-F stand for but how about E? Who decided that excellence and effort and (student-generated) evidence should not be part of our assessment system? Or, how about H for hope? Or, P for persistence or productivity? Or, S for self-regulated. Let’s take a deep look at how we assess our students, ensuring that we are faithful to the calling we have been given. Our purpose for education is for redemption and restoration, to train minds and disciple hearts, not to sort them into A’s and F’s.


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

2 Comments on “What Happened to the “E”? A Perspective on our Grading System”

  1. Thanks for this article!

    I found some information about your mysterious “E”: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-there-is-no-e-grade-2014-9. (Also be sure to check out the percentages they list for grades–quite different from today!)

    After graduating from Dordt, I’ve found that most of the world doesn’t care about GPAs as I anticipated. I realize it can be important for grad school and perhaps some occupations. But, in general, those outside academia don’t put the stress on GPA that students do. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the benefits and pitfalls of the current emphasis on GPA.

    1. Thanks, Sarah – I should have known I could count on you to dig deeply into this question. I appreciated your insight on how GPA has not mattered much for you. The educational system remains broken but I do like some of the trends I am seeing in the area of grading. From Ivy Leagues schools experimenting with admissions policies (click herehttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/opinion/sunday/an-admissions-surprise-from-the-ivy-league.html?_r=0) to a surge in competency-based education, these are movements that acknowledge the whole person more so than a grade. GPA is entrenched in our educational system and will remain so for the time being, in my opinion. College scholarships are most often based on it along with an ACT or SAT score. However, when you think about whether a GPA can really measure some of the skills that I am guessing you might be thinking about – critical thinking, collaboration, communication, caring, compassion – I have to scratch my head a bit. We can find some other ways for students to show competency in all those c-words. Thanks for the comment, Sarah!

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