There are so many different philosophies when it comes to grading and I’m not going to debate the merits of each today. Suffice it to say that for most, grades rarely have any true meaning. And for me, therein lies the problem. Proficiency-based grading can give grades the meaning they deserve.

When I started teaching, I, like most of you, copied the system that came before me. My grade book was broken down into tests, quizzes, projects, homework, and participation. And I was always frustrated with the results. I had students earning A’s who couldn’t actually use the language and students who had C’s, who could use the language but weren’t good at the school stuff. I knew something was wrong and I set out to fix it. I wanted my students’ grades to actually match their ability in the language, so that if a student earned an A in my class, it was because they really could use the language.

Today, many of the grading philosophies have leaned completely the other way. Instead of kids getting good grades because they were good at school stuff and getting poor grades because they weren’t, many teachers want to give all kids a good grade to bolster their confidence and make them feel good about themselves. I get it. I don’t want my students to lack confidence or feel badly either, but I think these systems do more harm than good. They may feel very confident in your classroom but when they move on to the next and that teacher believes in evaluating a student’s ability, that confidence can be destroyed just like that. I think it better to let each student know accurately where they stand on the path to proficiency, rather than to bolster their self-esteem with good grades. Kids are smart, and they’ll catch on to what you’re doing and many will eventually resent you for it.

On my path to making grades more meaningful, let me begin by telling you what grades are not. Grades are not motivators. Students are not motivated by getting good grades or by getting low grades. Grades are not mere numbers, nor should they be used to rank students. Grades do not lead to language acquisition, but they do report on that acquisition.

The only thing grades should be is an indicator where a student is on the path to mastery. It should be focused on what a student can do with the language they have and not be focused on the hoops schools make students jump through. Grades should inform the student and the teacher on where the student is and how much further a student needs to go to get to proficiency or mastery.

I’m going to let you think about that for a bit as I whet your appetite for this series of articles on grading and assessment.

Read other articles in this series:

The Problems with Traditional Grading.

Principles of Power Grading.