What really is an "A"?

Chris McNutt
June 28, 2018
Grades are meant to be representative of a child’s progress. If a student is doing well, they receive an A or B, so on and so forth. Often overlooked is the actual measure of progress: feedback.

Grades are meant to be representative of a child’s progress. If a student is doing well, they receive an A or B, so on and so forth. Often overlooked is the actual measure of progress: feedback. If you want to tackle objectives for a student, look no further than the descriptive notes on what they need to improve. The letter grades are a summary, the notes are where one learns. However, as most teachers will recognize — students, parents, and schools care mostly about letter grades. The stigma of an A-student constantly chasing all As — “How dare you give me a B!?” and the demotivated, struggling student receiving Ds — “Who cares anyways?” Rarely do you find a student saying, “Huh, I never knew this! Thanks for pointing this out. I’ll try it out next time!”

So many households are infatuated with the grade a child’s been given. It makes sense — grades are actually a fantastic motivator for students — but only when they’re doing well. Children who perform well on assessment will often chase that opportunity (consequently being nervous, anxious, and self-gratifying), while those who are behind fall even further behind. Any parent or teacher is familiar with a child receiving a report card — prompting a fist pump or look of dismay — then seeing the aftermath. One will continue to excel, the other will give up. In fact, researchers showcased how students with first semester high grades saw little to no change in emotional and behavioral engagement in the second half, whereas those with low grades saw drastic drops (Poorthuis et al., 2014). This is quite the conundrum, as grades are meant to communicate standing, but it actually affects standing.

In response, schools are shifting to mastery-, competency-, and other updated grading scales. Some shift the traditional academic scale, for example allowing for retaking of assessment and moving those on who eventually end up with an “A” or “mastery.” This falls victim to the same issue of demotivation, as those who perform poorly are less likely to push themselves to succeed. Others change the paradigm to skill-based assessment, ranking on “soft skills” such as creativity and leadership. In every circumstance, the moment a scale is enacted, the results are skewed. How can we rank creativity on a 1 to 5 scale? What happens if a student has a “3” in creativity, then a year later has a “2”? What does a “5” leader look like? Do they look the same to everybody?

Rubrics are, without a doubt, the pinnacle of grading assessment. Everywhere one looks there will be a new “improved” and ‘faster” way to grade — more complex or more streamlined rubrics. These charts are the case-in-point example of the subjectivity of grading — why, when questioned — grading makes little sense. What is a “3” on grammar? Does sentence structure earn a “5” or a “4”? Does a student “pass” their formal presentation? There will be obvious successes and failures, but what about all the steps in-between? Won’t accessors all grade differently? Despite the motivating factors at play, what if the entire system was flawed from the beginning?

The easiest way to put this to the test is to create a rubric of one’s choice for any assessment with a small group of teachers. Then, have each teacher grade using that rubric a series of papers (presentations, projects, whatever the assessment may be), without seeing what each other marked. It is almost a guarantee that discrepancies will exist. Furthermore, by placing even more teachers and even more assessments, the results will become more and more skewed. At this point, what does a grade even mean anymore?

Why not throw out the entire system? If there’s no way to grade without implicit or explicit bias, why not just give feedback? After all, research shows that students learn the most from purely given feedback without a grade (Butler, 1987). Of course, the traditional system has been in place for a long time, and rejecting and exiting its hold requires bravery, a lot of hard work, and methodological change. Not only does one need to convince themselves it’s the right thing to do, they must convince students, parents, teachers, the district, and higher education. But if this is what’s best for students, why would we not go all in?

It seems like the obvious solution to the problem. Instead of formulating a dozen new educational frameworks for assessment (despite the financial incentive of doing so), why not drop grading entirely and focus on what great assessment looks like? After all, what barriers may exist?


Students may be dependent on grades to have a constant reminder on how they’re doing. How do they know if they’re “doing well” without a grade? They must then rely on feedback alone to critically think on what to improve and do differently. Just how most people learn naturally, we should be in a constant ebb and flow of learning, remembering, and doing. We shouldn’t always do well nor always do poorly — and measuring using grades has taught us otherwise. Students should feel empowered to learn for the sake of learning through authentic, meaningful assessment. A drastic shift would occur that then deemphasizes outdated work (daily homework, worksheets, “fridge” assignments), as no one would bother to do them. Instead, students would do the work they find beneficial — and we must give them a voice to us to learn.


Parents utilize grades to track their child’s progress. Are we not responsible for letting them know where their child falls? All things considered, what does a grade actually communicate to parents? How well a child listens? How good they are at following directions? How much of what is taught and memorized is relevant regardless? In a system without grades, parents would need more communication from teachers (and their child) as they’d be focused on “what did my child learn today?” rather than “how is my child doing?” — which are important philosophical differences.


Teachers use grades for communicating, but at many points as a motivating factor. Would students do any of their work if it wasn’t for a grade? How can you design compulsory work at school without a system that reinforces compulsion? Simply stated, you cannot. It’s up to teachers to deliver innovative, practical, and emotionally-connective lessons and projects that engage learners so they want to learn. It’s relatively simple to state: design lessons that students care about. To do so, have students lead the discussion and class as much as possible — act as a guide and mentor rather than a taskmaster.

And grading does not mean an end to assessment. The easiest — and emancipating way for teachers and students alike — is to let students track their own progress. When students assess themselves, they’re more likely to be empowered learners and take away much more information than the traditional model (Hattie, 2012).

Higher Education

It’s a myth that colleges reject students who don’t have a class rank or grades. The highest ranked schools in the country consistently take in young adults from gradeless institutions. More of an emphasis is placed on the experiences and work these students have done (which they’ve likely had many due to their reimagined classrooms.) Interestingly enough, it could be argued that students who have no grades or class rank are more desirable as they’re unique.

Even though change is difficult, we owe it to the next generation to make lessons empowering. Ironically, those who perform best in our current system — achieving all As — tend to go on to do less. Valedictorians rarely go on to do great things because their main strength is the ability to comply — not developing creative solutions (Barker, 2017). We need students who can find knowledge for themselves, can listen and improve from feedback, and are tasked with problems that they can solve in the real-world. There’s no reason to practice hours on end to receive an “A” when one could be doing practical work to help someone in need — or learn more about themselves — or make strides in philosophical inquiry.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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