Subjective Nature of Grades

Can we all stop pretending that grades are an objective standardized measure of a student’s work?  That you can accurately compare any two students’ mastery of a subject who are in different classes or different schools?  That is means the same thing to be an “A” student in 2 different high schools even in the same town?

In my public high school, the reputations of easy teachers and hard teachers were common knowledge among students, advice passed to the lower classmen between classes and over lunch.  In a town with more than one high school, reputations preceed entire schools as well as teachers. 

Even in the black-and-white right-and-wrong subjects like math, an A doesn’t level out among different teachers/schools.  How was the A calculated?  Is a correct answer with no label counted wrong?  Did you count off for not showing the work?  Could you correct a paper and raise your grade?  Could you retake a test you failed?  Were late papers penalized?  Do you get half credit for a partially right answer?  Is the lowest test score dropped?  You can see how an A in a class with all yes answers would mean something very different from an A in a class with all no answers, and I’ve had teachers who would answer differently on each of these.

When you float into subjectively graded classes like writing or “participation” graded classes like PE, don’t imagine that the grades suddenly standardize. 

After all, if grades were standard, we wouldn’t need standardized tests, would we?  A college could look at your high school transcript and know exactly how strong a student you were.  ACT and SAT would be redundant.

In my homeschool, I issue grades.  I didn’t when the children were younger, but as we hurtled in the junior high/high school years, they seemed more important.  We felt the need for official assessment.  But I have to warn my children about comparing themselves to other kids, explaining why a B in their science class might not mean the same as a B in their friend’s AP science class at a a public high school or even their homeschool friends’ science classes.  Even if I graded all their tests and daily questions completely objectively (fairly easy to do in science), we might’ve used different curriculum or assigned different reports or set the expectation level differently to define what work earns what grades.

I hear people argue that grades in homeschool are meaningless because moms aren’t objective.  I say they are just as objective/subjective as anyone else.  As a part-time professional writing teacher, it’s been my experience that homeschool moms grade too harshly, too critically.  But that doesn’t matter.  Using grades to compare students is an imperfect system, in home or public education.  Too many factors go into calculating a grade.  A grade is a method of boiling down a lot of information into one quick communication device which conveys a general idea of a one person’s assessment of student’s work. 

I’ll keep using grades because they are expected for college; they are a necessary language to learn to communicate to anyone outside my homeschool.  I’ll keep paperwork and portfolio examples to show those colleges exactly how my kids achieved those grades.  But I won’t worry about whether I’m too subjective or stress myself defending those grades to people who aren’t in my shoes (with the possible exception of an admissions officer).  My kids are more than numbers, and those grades are such an inconsequential sliver of their lives.  It’s not worth the emotional energy.


3 thoughts on “Subjective Nature of Grades

  1. Thought provoking topic –
    I understand the need for our homeschooled children to be aware of the grade language of academia, but I have questions. If a child is taught from the beginning to learn whatever is being studied until understanding is achieved with a grading system of only two possibilities (understood or not yet understood), how does one translate that later into a traditional academic grading system? If a child is expected to learn/understand something before leaving it, then is a grade only meaningful in the academic world sense if the grade is issued on the first try? Is that first try grade then meaningful, if persistence in study with the goal of being able to teach is eventually reached?
    I have more questions, but this is a good starting place.

  2. Hey, I just want to let you know that it is possible to apply to top ranked universities without anything more than pass/fail. My DS did it.

    We just explained in a letter that without any peers to compare to, we did not feel that assigning grades was appropriate. Subjects were studied until understood.

    The colleges seemed to be able to handle it and he even was accepted into some honor programs.

  3. Grades are almost completely subjective and only offer a glimpse (at best) into the ability of the student to do what the teacher wants. Little more.

    I have often heard that grades are a “motivator” to get kids to learn. Hardly. In fact, I said all through high school, “I am happy to learn as long as I have an A. If I don’t, I’ll stop learning so I can get the grade.”

    Ugh. I really dislike grades. Very good post!


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