Simple as ABC?

December 14, 1992

Stuart D. Berger, the superintendent of Baltimore County public schools, makes no bones about his distaste for giving traditional letter grades to elementary school students.

"What the hell is a D in first-grade physical education?" he recently said. "We demoralize these kids."

So it should come as no surprise that Dr. Berger, in his first year as superintendent, has moved quickly to alter the evaluation system for county students in grades one through five.

Already four county elementary schools are experimenting with various grading methods, such as check marks denoting that students have reached certain learning levels. A committee studying new grading procedures will offer its recommendations to the county school board this month, and barring any major obstacles, the new procedures should be in place next September.

If there are any obstacles to the plan, they would likely come from parents. Most teachers and school administrators appear to favor a change, but some individual parents have voiced objections. They argue that the traditional A, B, C, D and F grades are simple and direct. They also claim that a new system without letter grades would penalize the good students who are motivated to earn A's and B's.

Critics of letter grades say that's precisely one of the main problems with the traditional method. Many students, all too aware of the value placed on grades by their elders, labor more to see A's and B's on their report cards than to enhance their knowledge of the world they inhabit.

As educators and psychologists have pointed out, grading just isn't so simple as ABC. One student's C might have required as much effort as another student's A, perhaps more. In that light, letter grades for very young children seem unfair and could even be considered tragic if a child of seven or eight were given a letter label -- a scarlet D? -- that caused him thereafter to be viewed by himself, his family, his teachers and his classmates as a "bad" learner.

Letter grades are probably necessary for high school students, whose grade-point averages provide important information to college admissions offices. Traditional evaluations might also be proper for middle-schoolers, who will need to adapt to grades in preparation for high school. For elementary school students, however, there must be a better way. Credit the Baltimore County school system for trying to find it.

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