Not Meeting the Standard: Thoughts on Elementary School Grading

It’s been several generations since elementary school teachers commonly assigned their students letter grades.  Educational leaders phased out the practice a long time ago, feeling that it didn’t encapsulate children’s performance, and unnecessarily boxed them into being A, B, C, D, or F students at an early age.  Although giving traditional letter grades possesses this obvious downfall, wholly eliminating them has created a different problem that has hurt elementary education.

My elementary school report cards were configured very differently than most that I see today.  From kindergarten through sixth grade, I would receive one of the following grades for core subjects:           


An O was like an A, while an S ranged from C to BM could be anywhere from a low D to a low C, and a U was a failing grade.  Character and basic skill development were marked with plusses (+) for Meets Expectation or check marks (✓ ) for Needs Improvement.

By the time I started teaching in 2001, this type of report card was antiquated, yielding to a numerical standards-based grading system that many schools still use and endorses:


The website also states:


Standards-based grading (SBG) is an innovation in education that focuses on learning and helps increase achievement.  It is often combined with updated instructional practices and culture to better engage students and foster a positive environment.


As a first-year teacher, the philosophy seemed sensible enough.  My professional experiences over the next ten years, however, led me to a very different conclusion.  Many of my colleagues assigned percentage grades to each standard, and most of my students’ parents would equate 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s to As, Bs, Cs, and Fs, or Os, Ss, Ms, and Us, respectively.  Whenever I examined student work, I always felt that the lines between 1s and 2s, 2s and 3s, and 3s and 4s were blurred – not nearly as black and white as my principals and professional developers claimed.  This led me to conclude that numerical grading wasn’t as optimal as the “research showed.”

Today, some schools have transitioned away from standards-based grading, instead using written narratives or student work portfolios.  Like chalkboards and overhead projectors, letter grades are nearing extinction. 

In theory, I like numerical, standards-based grading.  In reality, however, I find the system flawed.  Letter grades simulate life better than standards, because they allow all children to see a correlation between their efforts and achievement.  A child with below average intelligence can study harder or do extra credit to receive an A, but – at least in theory – they might never score advanced.  Conversely, a privileged student with a 140 IQ could be chronically truant, never do homework, never participate in class, and still receive 4s, simply because they have a high aptitude for learning and are thus Advanced.

Both hypotheticals send damaging messages to children at an impressionable age.  The over achieving child can become discouraged feeling that their efforts are futile, while the under achieving student sees no correlation between their work habits and academic results.  For all of its shortcomings, letter-grading systems provide transparency, helping children realize that they can compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline.

Of the hundreds of responsibilities elementary educators take on daily, helping children recognize the connection of effort and reward might be the most important.  Unfortunately, required grading methods don’t always make this easy.

The best elementary school teachers find ways around these obstacles, regardless of the system in which they’re working.

The best administrators understand that traditional and progressive grading systems don’t need to be mutually exclusive practices, and work creatively to synthesize the best aspects of both.