This is a guest post by Elaine Hirsch.
Movements for change and reform in the US educational system challenge nearly every aspect of the student’s experience, and grading systems are certainly not exempt from this. In an ongoing struggle to best measure the effectiveness of our education system, traditional and alternative grading systems have been in use across the United States. Not only have teachers been tweaking their methods frequently, masters degree dissertations have been looking at this topic, driving research in the field.
Traditional grading systems often assign the letter grades (A-F) that most Americans are familiar with. These are sometimes tied to “points” that are used to compute grade point averages, where, for example, A=4.0, B=3.0, and so on. There are two main types of traditional grading systems: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. A norm-referenced system assigns grades based on where students place in the class. As are assigned to the top portion of the class, Bs to the next group, Cs to the next and so on. A percentage of the class is used for each grade. For example, As may be assigned to the top 10% of the class, Bs to the next 20%, and so on. In this system, even if all students do very well and have a small difference in their overall performance, some may end up with low grades. However, it does well to show how students compare to their peers.
A criterion-based system, on the other hand, relates grades to a fixed performance level. For example, in this system, and A may be assigned to any student who earns 90% of possible points in the class, a B may go to anyone between 80% and 89%, and so on. This allows students to earn expected grades based on their performance independent of other students. However, differences in the harshness of grading may force all students to high or low grades, so the distribution of scores may be quite small.
Alternative grading schemes reject the systems described above, but there is no single alternative scheme that is widely accepted. One commonly-used alternative is a pass/fail system. This is used in institutions that have traditional grading systems when students are only partly participating in a class, such as in the case of an audit. They may also be used in very subjective fields, such as the arts. Evaluations are another alternative. These provide students with detailed written feedback about their performance, highlighting areas of success and weakness. This provides much more detailed analysis of performance for students. Self-assessment is another option, favored by instructors who see their role as educators rather than evaluators. These set up some criteria that students must meet for certain grades, but allow the students to choose their own grades for the course based on their analysis of their performance.
Traditional and alternative grading systems both have their benefits and drawbacks. The widely-understood meaning of traditional grading is an advantage, and many institutions require students to submit grades in this format. However, alternative schemes provide opportunities for more subjective or detailed evaluation, sometimes changing the role of the instructor. Research continues into these systems and their use in different environments.