18 November 2009: A better grading scale needed for schools

A better grading scale for schools is in order

Some millennia ago, Hindus began to understand the role of class and power in society. Thus, they created a caste system (in descending order): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (workers). The worst in society are Untouchables.

In our secular and ostensibly class-less society, such a religious construction doesn’t fly; so, we use letter grades in school to sort us out.

I recall at St. Colman’s, my parochial school, a failing grade was indicated with an E, not an F, which makes sense not in the sense that assigning a letter to label a student a failure makes sense but in the sense E follows the alphabetical A-B-C-D progression.

Grading is identity politics at the educational level. An A says my kid is a genius — and so am I, by the way — and headed to success while yours with the F is destined to be an active participant in the criminal justice system or, at best, to do the drudge jobs beneath the dignity (and skill level) of my A kid.

Think of it: F is the only grade that is also the first letter of the word that explains what the kid has done or perhaps better said, not done. After all, A does not mean Awesome; B, Better than but not best; C, Common; or D, Doo-doo. But F does mean Failure. Because it’s about labeling, we skip E.

Grades are not indicators of performance but vestiges of a past psychology that held motivation can be induced only through a reward-and-punishment system.

Think of it this way: What does my receiving — not earning — a B in 11th-grade English mean? That I understand the nuances of Thoreau but failed to cite my sources in my literary analysis of “Walden”? Or that I wrote a great paper structurally but mangled some of the great man’s ideas?

Grades are essentially calculated on the basis of a student’s work ethic: Turn completed work in on time and you are pretty much good to go. Acing tests and quizzes, turning in either self-written or plagiarized well-constructed papers, being cooperative and pleasant, and cheating and schmoozing all work to move the work-ethic marker up.

Because many American parents either live their lives vicariously through their kids — the reason for fights at Little League games — or are other-oriented, validation from an outside authority — the teacher — becomes necessary to ascertain the success of their children, despite in the telling they are being told nothing of substance.

We can remedy that with a more meaningful scale with specific appellations: the Fabes’ — what my former high school students called me — Indicator of Placement in the American Caste System or FIPACS for F’s — the brainiacs, as you will see — who love to toss around acronyms.

Those who do extremely well are assigned an F, for “Fabulous” or “Fantastic” or perhaps “Fenomenal” for those who consider spell-check a tedious extra step.

Those who come close, the former B’s, could receive an L for “Loser” to correspond to second-place teams in professional sports often considered to be the biggest losers, the losers of championship games, but that would be overly harsh. Instead, they get an O, for “Oh, so close.” (Note: The teacher needs to be careful the O is not written as a 0 (zero).)

The kids who used to get a C for average don’t get an A for “average” to avoid being considered “bland,” but a D for “Did” because that is what they did: They did, no more, no less.

Those who would have earned a D in the old caste system now get a G for “Gamer” because they have figured out how to play the game: They do enough to keep from failing, earn their credit, remain eligible for the team, all the while keeping somewhat in their parents’ good graces and, in so doing, avoid being grounded, all the while retaining a rebellious image important to their peers. It’s a tough balancing act.

By learning how to live to play another day when things don’t go well, the G can also mean “Golden” because they are likeliest to lead happy lives. No head-butting or stress overload with them.

Finally, the kids who once got F’s, thus labeled failures, are assigned N for “No grade” because they, like their counterparts who earn the G’s, figure out the game, but, unlike the G’s, refuse to play for whatever reasons. As it is a cardinal rule in the game of life that nothing in means nothing out, they do not get even a T-ball ribbon for showing up and taking a few half-hearted swings.

The conundrum is that assigning N is de facto grading, and the N could come to mean “Nothing” or in bilingual schools, “Nada.” And there is the danger F’s and O’s will label the N’s “Nincompoops,” but it’s better than a U for Untouchable and, besides, no caste system is perfect.

So, the next time you get a report card with letter grades without detailed explanation as to your child’s performance, recycle or use it as fuel in the fireplace, unless, of course, the letters correspond to the FODGN scale from the FIPACS.

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