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Answer Sheet: Rethinking the Way Teachers Assign Student Grades

This is a companion piece of sorts to the one below, which looked at the current hand-wringing over grade inflation and what some see as too many A grades being given to students. This post takes a dive into a different tentacle of the world of student grades: what constitutes an F and whether the traditional 100-point grading scale makes sense.

Student letter grades are such a huge part of school life that it may seem they are as old as schooling itself — but their popular usage is less than a century old, and even in the early 1970s, only 67 percent of K-12 schools in the United States used them. The 100-point grading system became common, with the A-F scale becoming dominant. There is no E on that scale because it would fall at the lowest end and there was concern that it would be mistaken for “excellent.” The word “fail” conveniently started with an F.

When schools across the country closed in early 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers began to experiment with grading systems in an attempt to find a way to fairly assess students whose lives had been disrupted, and there was new attention placed on efforts already underway in some districts to change grading systems. Some have dropped the 100-point grading system and moved to one based on 50 points, drawing criticism that students were being rewarded for failure. Rick Wormeli thinks that criticism is all wrong.

Wormeli is a former National Board Certified teacher in Virginia who now consults with schools and districts on classroom practice and grading systems, and in the following piece, he explains why some school districts are moving to a 50-point grading scale. He is the author of “Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, Second Edition.” Earlier this year he wrote a piece for The Answer Sheet about why grading homework needs to be rethought.


By Rick Wormeli

When it comes to turning zeros into 50s on 100-point grading scales, students aren’t getting something for doing nothing. Instead, they’re getting an accurate report of their subject learning. Yes, it’s ethical to do this, and yes, we’re teaching students responsibility when we do. Let’s take a deeper look.

There are some in our personal communities and teaching profession who are concerned about schools requiring zeros on the 100-point grading scale to be recorded only as minimum F’s of 50 percent. They say making an F a minimum of 50 percent is, “easier grading,” not preparatory for the working world, doesn’t teach students consequences and falsifies the report of student learning (Matthews, Washington Post, Oct. 24 and 31, 2022).

Some of these educators, writers and parents think if we record a 50 percent in the grade book when a student doesn’t turn in a paper or take a test, then are we giving him something for having done nothing. They often compare this to paying someone $50 for job they didn’t do.

Grades, though, are not compensation or transactions. They are accurately communicated, summative judgments of student learning as of individual calendar dates, nothing more. If we use them as bartering tools, or to bribe or coerce students to do schoolwork, it corrupts grades’ power to communicate accurately. Reports of compliance or noncompliance mix into the reports of mastery, and we can no longer trust the accuracy of the grade.

A 50 percent in most schools’ grading scales is an F grade. When we record a 50 percent for work not done, we are NOT reporting that the student demonstrated 50 percent, or half, of the learning; we are recording an F, the student failed. It’s merely a symbol placeholder for, “No proficiency here, no credit granted.” We’re not recording a minimum 50 to bolster self-esteem, coddle children or buffer grades. We do it to be accurate and ethical in grading, particularly when averaging on the 100-point scale. In this, we respect interval science and the volatility of averaging (a central tendency calculation that is super sensitive to outlier scores, creating inaccurate reports of learning).

Think about it: On the 4.0 scale, a 2.0 performance is described most often as “satisfactory” or “basic,” but a 2.0 out of 4.0 is a 50 percent, which is defined as failure in most schools. Again, these numbers are not the amount of work being done, learning achieved or portions thereof. They are merely symbol placeholders for longer descriptions of learning proficiency.

When a teacher says that students barely attend class or do any work, yet still have a 50 percent, they are declaring that these students have F’s, not something more than that. When a teacher says that such a policy means a student needs to do well only on one big assignment to pass the course, they are declaring that a pattern of failing all but one assessment is acceptable for passing their classes.

How is this is acceptable to teachers and communities? A student who gets 50, 50, 50, 50, and a 100 on five tests, for example, shouldn’t get a passing average of a 60 percent. He has an F, F, F, F, and one A, which is by no means indicative of mastery in course content. Here, we find a misguided attempt to invoke the credibility and authority of mathematics upon the messy enterprise of learning and assessment to make it all seem more objective.

The challenges, then, include

  • the need to toughen what’s expected for demonstrating mastery (not letting students pass with such minimal expectations);
  • using average when mode is more accurate and not as distorting (mode is the most frequently occurring score in a set of scores, the most consistent pattern of evidence over time);
  • inappropriate dependence on the 100-point scale instead of smaller scales with discernible levels of proficiency;
  • pure mathematical calculation of a grade rather than serious analysis of student performance against evaluative criteria.

Let’s repeat the reminder from above: 50 percent is not a statement that the student learned half the stuff. It is just the arbitrary number we use to indicate failure, just as an 85 percent might mean, “Pretty good, almost excellent.” Given this concept, then, we have to decide: Do we choose the lowest, most unrecoverable and hurtful end of the F grade range, a zero, or the most hopeful and recoverable end of the grade range, a 50, but nonetheless, a statement of, “No evidence presented?” Which one will lead to our true goals of student engagement and learning?

The 100-point grading scale includes a range of about 10 points for each of the letter grades A, B, C, and D. The F grade, however, has a range of 60 points, 59 down to zero. If we are asked to average grades on this scale with one of the grades being zero, it creates a massively downward and unjust, skewing force. One zero in most classes requires six or seven perfect 100s in a row just to achieve a D grade when averaging.

That one zero functionally “erases” or distorts the accurate report of learning demonstrated on other assessments, and as a result, student engagement, not just grades, nose-dives. Because there is no way to get an accurate report of learning or to mathematically recover from one mistake like this, students give up. In these moments, the school fails the learner; the learner does not fail the subject. That gives a student every excuse in the world to avoid the demands of school. None of the research on how to build student maturity, self-discipline and time management supports using punitive grading measures.

A student completely dropping the ball on a major assessment, paper or project is often an indicator of something else going on, including trauma, depression, panic disorder, poor instructional design, living in poverty, lack of language facility, sleep deprivation, and substance abuse. Keeping such an exaggerated influence as a zero on the 100-point scale is an ineffective and disturbing way to help students navigate the gantlet of extreme stressors in their young lives, many of which are beyond their control.

Using a comparison used first by researcher and writer Doug Reeves, what if we reversed it: What if we gave the A grade the 60-point range while each of grades B, C, D and F had only a 10-point range? This would be something like: A=100-40, B=39-30, C=29-20, D=19-10, and F refers to scores from 9 down to zero. Absurd, I know, but bear with me.

When averaging in this situation, one outlier of 98 percent would skew a particular student’s overwhelming series of D and F grades into something indicating he is competent in the subject when clearly, he is not. In this case, an outlier A grade distorts the average and accurate report of learning just as inaccurately and unjustly as the 60-point range for an F grade does in the commonly found practice described above.

Here’s the tough part for all of us: If we know that using zeros on the 100-point scale instead of turning them into minimum F’s of 50 (or whatever number creates an equal interval influence for all grade ranges when forced to average scores) distorts the accuracy of the grade, yet we continue to do it, we are accepting the premise that familiar yet false math calculations of student learning are more important than accurate grading and the positive outcomes that come from it. We’re also indicating that student despair over one missed assessment, paper or project and the impossible recovery from such a mistake are better ways to teach maturity than hope, engagement in learning, recovering from mistakes and students learning the required content.

Let’s live up to expected grade integrity, and turn zeros into minimum 50s when averaging on the 100-point scale.


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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Rick Wormeli

Rick Wormeli is a former National Board Certified teacher in Virginia who now consults with schools and districts on classroom practice and grading systems. ...