Not making the grade

September 25, 1992

Rating student performance with letter grades is as time-honored a practice as starting each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance.

In recent years, however, educators and child psychologists have questioned the wisdom of handing out A's, B's, C's, D's and F's to young students, especially to first- and second-graders who are struggling with the rudiments of socialization at the same time they're learning to read and write.

Carroll County public schools don't give letter grades to students until they reach the third grade. And last year, a first-grade teacher in Baltimore County was praised for developing a "non-report card" that shunned letter grades for a system that determined if a child was "progressing," "demonstrat[ing] consistency" or "need[ing] improvement."

Stuart D. Berger, the new superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, has been outspoken about his distaste for grading small children. "What the hell is a D in first-grade physical education?" he has said. "We demoralize these kids."

Backing up his vow to reform the system of letter-grading, Dr. Berger has established a committee to study grading methods county-wide.

He also has arranged for four county elementary schools to try out a rating technique that does not depend on letter grades. The experiment calls for each child's performance to be measured by how he or she meets certain benchmarks through the year. This approach can give a clearer picture of individual progress than that offered by letter grades, Dr. Berger claims.

While educators generally favor altering the grading system, parents are said to be less open to change. They view letter grades as a direct and familiar way of knowing how well their children are doing in school. An A or a B is good news; a D or an F means the kid is grounded.

But, as educators and psychologists point out, it's not so simple. One student's C might have required as much effort as another student's A, maybe more. By over-valuing a high letter grade, some parents and teachers can devalue the learning experience.

As a result, students tend to feel pressured to compete and compare themselves with classmates, to go for the good grade above all else. It can be a bad environment for even the best students; for poor students, it can be disastrous.

No doubt letter grades are necessary for high school students, whose grade-point averages provide important information to college admissions offices. It could also be argued that middle-school students will need to adapt to grades in preparation for high school. But if grades could be dropped for a more even-handed rating system, it should be tried at the elementary level, as in Baltimore County's commendable experiment.

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