Understanding Grades, part two

Grades mean one thing only; they are a set of data to communicate to a student, the student’s parents, and the educational community the extent that the student has mastered a course’s objectives. When a student earns an 80%, the score indicates that the student understands/can perform 80% of the material encountered. Thus, the student has 20% more material he/she must learn.

Grades should be formative, meaning that teachers should be able to look at a student’s grade and then tailor further instruction to help that student learn what he/she still needs to learn.


Every evaluation should be a road sign.

Some of them are “green lights.” “You understand it all. To infinity and beyond!”

Some of them are “dangerous curves ahead,” which means, “Go ahead, but be sure to review, and pay close attention.”

Some of them are “detour” signs.  “You need to approach this material in a new way, because the way you are going is not working.”


Unfortunately, many parents attach a prophetic component to grades, believing that “Good grades” presage an illustrious career, a slick car, and a spiffy home. “Bad grades” foreshadow spending middle age living in your parents’ basement and developing familiarity with the operation of various fryers.

According to a study by Abelard and Parker in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, parental perception of grades can be divided into two categories: learning goals and performance goals. To summarize, “learning goal” parents see the purpose of school and grades to be mastery of course material. “Performance goal” parents, in contrast, view grades as a means to achieve honors, scholarships, admission to an excellent university, and a successful and lucrative career.

Parents want the best for their children, and naturally, all of the “performance goals” sound great, however, attainment of these goals comes at a cost. To quote the study:


“Children of performance goal parents were significantly more likely to exhibit dysfunctional perfectionism than children of learning goal parents, reporting a combination of high concern about mistakes, doubts about actions, parental expectations, and parental criticism. Parents' achievement goals can help predict which students might be at risk for adjustment problems and future underachievement.”

As an educator, I support “learning goals.” Mastering grade school and high school curriculum empowers children, providing them with essential basic skills and building blocks to create a firm foundation for their future.