- Grades are payment for what the student has done in class. In this scenario, the teachers sees the grade as what the student has earned by being in the class. Normally, everything from homework to tests to bringing in paper towels to extra credit figure into the grade, so that "an 85" is meaningless. It almost certainly doesn't mean that the student has learned 85% of the material. With enough extra credit, homework (done with "help" from others) and paper towels, a student who barely knows any of the material could have an 85.
- Grades are the average of the test scores, and nothing else. In this scenario, a series of "snapshots" from the grading period are the only means the teacher deems as valid to determine whether or not a student has mastered the material. The student gets test anxiety? Not important. The student has a learning disability that makes taking a paper-and-pencil or an online test difficult if not impossible? Irrelevant. The student has stayed after for extra help, and during those sessions has demonstrated a deep understanding of the material through the explanations they give? Nope. Only the grades on the tests matter. Does an 85 here mean that the student understands 85% of the material? Probably not. In fact, the percentage is probably higher than that, but the grade won't show it.
- Grades are a means of ranking the students from best to worst. The best kids in the class, whether they have demonstrated it or not, get the A. The worst kids in the class, whether they deserve it or not, get the F. The difference between the two? It can be anything from their reputation (other teachers said this is a good/bad student) to their personality to their effort to their ability to "brown-nose" the teacher. What's missing from this is anything related to the material. The "85" says nothing about the student's understanding.
There are other scenarios, of course, but you get the point. For the most part, the perception by someone reading a transcript is that "85" means the student understands (or at least understood) 85% of the material. Anyone who has ever put a grade on a transcript knows that this isn't the case. So if "the student has an 85" is meaningless, why do we continue to label kids in this way?
Because there's not an alternative.
Oh really? Let's look at the report card I received when I was in kindergarten. There was a column containing a list of skills (things like "knows numbers from 1 to 10" or "can buckle boots"...not kidding), and another column where the teacher would mark if I had the skill mastered, or if I was making progress, or if I hadn't demonstrated the skill at all yet. On the other page of the report card were the "behavior" skills (takes turns, raises hand, etc.), along with a similar set of marks. If anyone looked at that report card today, they would know exactly what the expectations of the class were, and what I was able to do (or not do) at the end of the first semester of kindergarten.
So why can't we give a similar report in a high school classroom?
No, seriously: why not?
We could if we actually worked with the kids as they were learning the material. We could if we actually got in the arena with them and participated in their struggle and gave them every opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the material.
Lecturing alone can't do this. Testing alone won't be enough. It takes real, meaningful discussion with each and every student to achieve this. And don't tell me it can't be done, because this is what happens in my classroom pretty much every day.