Letter Grades Are Failing Louisiana Students
When I was in school (in another state), everything we did in class received a score with actual numbers. This made it easy to see exactly where you were at all times, and calculate your average on the fly. If you were failing a class, you could figure out exactly what you needed to make on the next test to pull your grade up. Parents and students knew where they stood.
It was a good system. It made sense. So, of course, we don't do it that way here in Louisiana.
Instead, the Louisiana Department of Education has established the following standardized grading scale that gives students letter grades based on a set range of scores that are just weird. For most of the rest of the country, letter grades on are a 10 point scale, where an A is 100-90, a B is 89-80, a C is 79-70, etc... However, I guess because we just can't do anything in Louisiana like anyone does anything anywhere else, we use a 7 point scale. Except for the C, which gets a 9 point range, for reasons which should become clear as we dig deeper into what's going on here.
Here's the current grading scale:
- A = 100 – 93
- B = 92 – 85
- C = 84 – 75
- D = 74 – 67
- F = 66 – 0
This might not seem so bad at first, but here’s the thing. The letter grade can completely replace the actual score on every assignment.
While this might be left up to individual parishes or schools to decide, I spoke with local elementary and middle school teachers about this issue, and they informed me that teachers here don’t input any numerical scores into the computer system that tracks and calculates grades. Instead, they look at the actual score a student earned on an assignment, then they enter the corresponding letter grade for that score into the computer. At the end of the grading period, the system calculates the final letter grade based all the other letter grades that have been entered.
But how do you calculate an average without numbers?
Pretty easily, actually. You just convert the letters back to numbers behind the scenes. An A, for example, equals 4 points, a B equals 3 points, a C gets 2 points, a D gets 1, and an F gets nothing.
Still with me? Cool. Because here’s where things get weird.
To illustrate what happens with letter grade voodoo, let’s assign the scores from 9 assignments to a hypothetical student and see what would show up on her report card using both numbers and letter grades. (To keep things simple, all grades in this example are weighted equally.)
I'll try to use realistic grades that reflect a student who started the grading period strong, then stumbled a bit in the middle when learning a new concept, but ultimately got herself back on track by the end of the grading period.
100 - A
97 - A
92 - B
65 - F
74 - D
66 - F
84 - C
92 - B
97 - A
If we used traditional number grades, this student closes out the grading period with an 85 average, which is a nice, respectable B. She feels good about herself, because she worked hard to pull her grade up and, even though she failed a couple of assignments, she ultimately grasped the new concept, which was reflected in her increased performance after receiving the failing grades. This is pretty normal. It’s how school should work.
However, if we convert those numerical grades to letters and then assign a point value to calculate the GPA, we end up with a somewhat different result.
A - 4
A - 4
B - 3
F - 0
D - 1
F - 0
C - 2
B - 3
A - 4
Using letter grades, the student completes the grading period with a C average. She still passes the class, but loses some of her confidence in the process, because despite working hard and putting in the effort to raise her grades after struggling with a new concept, she just barely manages to squeak by with a C.
The same thing can work in the opposite direction, too. Let’s take a new batch of grades, this time assigning the lowest possible point value for each of the same letter grades as before.
93 - A
93 - A
85 - B
0 - F
67 - D
0 - F
75 - C
85 - B
93 - A
Using traditional number grades, this student would end the grading period with a 66 average: a big, stinkin’ F. She failed the course, and rightfully so. She earned that score. She should’ve studied harder, put in more of an effort, or taken advantage of after school tutoring. Maybe a couple of the zeros were from homework assignments she didn’t turn in. Who knows? The point is, she fails the course using her actual score measured in numerical grades.
But remember, I used the same letter grades as the first example. The only thing I changed were the numerical values behind them, by assigning the lowest score in each letter grade's range.
Therefore, by using letter grades, her average remains unchanged, and despite having failed the class based on her actual performance, not only does she pass using letter grades, but she jumps up two entire letters, from an F to a C.
I’m not sure what the reasoning is for using letter grades, but I suspect it has something to do with artificially leveling the playing field. The highest and lowest performing students will always be on the extreme ends of the scale, but what letter grades tend to do is pull the above average students down while lifting the below average students up.
Letter grades also help low-performing schools look like they’re doing a better job than they truly are, but I’m sure that has nothing at all to do with it. (Yeah, right.)
Is this a fair system? Some people might say it is, in that it equalizes things for everyone - but it does so artificially. The above average students who get penalized by letter grades into receiving average scores aren’t really C students. They just look that way, because we have to bring them down so we can raise the D and F students up to the same level.
It’s nonsense. It’s not egalitarian, it’s not fair to the teachers or the students, and it’s not constructive.
It’s stupid and horrible, and I can’t believe we let them get away with it.
Good teachers work hard to help their students not only pass a class, but to actually learn and understand the material. A good teacher wants to know her students are actually learning, because she cares about each and every one of them - and Louisiana is filled with good teachers. But when they're forced to use letter grades that have the effect of artificially bringing some kids down while lifting others up, it can get frustrating trying to gauge a student's actual comprehension and level of mastery.
Let students have the grades they actually earn - for better or worse. If they fail a class, then they’d know it’s because they failed the class, and not because of some goofy letter grade voodoo. Likewise, let’s not give students fake confidence by bumping their grades up to passing when they should’ve failed. That’s not going to help them in school, it’s not going to help them at home, and it’s sure as heck not going to help them in the real world.
Grades aren’t taxes. Yes, some schools have a lot more wealth than others, and their students tend to perform better than low-income, at-risk schools. There are many valid arguments to be made regarding inequity in the public school system, and they’re arguments which need to be had so we can finally solve them someday.
However, I’m not comparing students between different schools here. I’m talking about the student body of each campus independently. All of the students on any given campus are receiving the same level of education, at the same level of funding, because they all go to the same school. That’s as egalitarian as you can get.
And it’s still not enough. Apparently.
Is this the nanny state at work? Are we instilling the wrong values in our kids by bringing above average students down so we can lift below average students up? Again, we're not talking about taxes here. This isn’t about income inequality. We’re not trying to balance a budget by taxing the good grades of above average students or anything. There isn’t a problem that’s being solved here, other than helping some students pass who shouldn't.
Which is the ultimate effect of letter grades, to be honest: passing students who should've failed. With letter grades, a student can take three zeros and still pass with a C as long as they pull in a couple of As and Bs.
It seems like the state of Louisiana wants every kid to be an average student, because it's stacked the deck to push every one of them toward the middle. By using letter grades and a bizarre 7 point grading scale, we're making it harder and harder for kids to get really good grades while making it easier and easier for every child to become a C student. After all, the state has made it harder to excel and harder to fail, but easier than ever to be average.
This hurts every student and, in turn, every adult. After all, kids eventually graduate and enter the real world. Do we really want some of them to enter the workforce expecting to just coast by on the hard work of others to collect a paycheck, while other students graduate knowing they're going to have to work harder and longer hours to make up for all the work the coasters aren't doing?
Well, no. I don’t think anyone wants that. Except we kind of already have it, don’t we?
Great job, Louisiana!