Letter grades give my students a clear way to measure their progress and the motivation to do well because they have a clear goal they can measure and see. They don't get that with a pass/fail system.
5 Reasons Why I Believe in Letter Grades for My Students
In many ways, I am a forward-thinking liberal when it comes to teaching. I get excited about new concepts and am willing to try almost anything to make learning more interesting and engaging for my students. When it comes to grading, however, I am a staunch traditionalist. I believe that letter grades are beneficial. Grades help students to see where they have a clear understanding of the subject matter, and where they are falling short. Used well, letter grades can give them the motivation to succeed.
Letter grades are encouraging to students who come to see it as a reward for hard work. For some of my more competitive students, the idea of being first in class or getting the highest marks on an assignment are like a shining beacon leading them on when they must slog through an uninteresting subject. They are willing to work hard because they want to be first among their peers. When everyone in class gets the same score - a pass - for completing an assignment on time, there is little incentive for students to work hard. Especially if they feel that extra effort makes no difference in the end. As this post for ConnectUS points out, students who don't feel challenged can become lazy and stop trying - something that is bad for everyone.
Easy to Quantify
A student who has worked hard for an 'A' understands they are doing top-level work. A student who has allowed assignments to slide and gets a 'C' as a result also understands the reason for their less than stellar mark. With letter grades, students can see at a glance what's working and what's not and make a plan to improve.
With a simple pass/fail system, that doesn't happen. Students who think they have a high understanding of the material because they're passing could be in for a surprise when they fail the final exam.
Most parents are familiar with the letter grading system. It's what they had when they were in school. When they see a letter grade on their child's report card, they can link it to the effort they've seen their child put into their school work. Letter grades offer an excellent starting point for parent conferences too. With letter grades, parents can see where more effort and guidance are needed. When the see a 'Pass' they often assume the student is doing well enough - even when that isn't true. Pass/fail can fool parents into a false sense of security, which can hurt students who need more help at home. And, as Bill Reynolds points out, changing from the familiar to the new can cause unnecessary confusion for parents who have out of school for some time - something we try hard to avoid.
When grading assignments, I use a traditional scale to determine the letter grade. This makes it easy for students to understand their grades and calculate the scores they need to achieve the mark they desire. Letter grades also have a proven track record with students and help to motivate them when a topic isn't enough to hold their attention.
And, since most colleges and universities still rely on letter grading to measure student achievement, it's a system they had better be familiar with before they leave school.
Awards Those Who Work for it
I have always felt that the pass/fail system was inherently unfair. Students who skate through a course doing only what is essential get the same grade as those who apply themselves. That's hardly motivation to do your best. Students who work hard to deliver quality work - even when they would rather not - deserve the high marks they receive. These students shouldn't be shorted because we're afraid we might disappoint someone who would rather not do the work.
There are Cons Too
I realize that letter grading isn't a perfect system. It's true that for some students the idea of letter grades can be demotivational. Students who do everything in their power to achieve and still get only average scores can wonder why they should even bother. But, I think, this can be beneficial in the long run.
In a world where everyone is exceptional, a little humility can go a long way in helping our students to grow as people. It's important for them to fail once in a while, so they can appreciate their successes when they come. Failure can be a gift and, with letter grades, a gift I can give without long-term harm. Learning to cope with failure now, and understanding that they are responsible for their successes can help them to build the strength of character they need to tackle life as adults.
Bad for Younger Students
Of course, this is all moot in an Early Learning classroom. I don't use letter grades with my younger students because, at this level, the attempt is far more important than the outcome. For my youngest students, the focus is on the effort they put into a project and the pride they feel when they do their best and learn something new. Not whether they've met an arbitrary guideline.
For my older students, however, I have embraced letter grades with my whole heart and, with the proper delivery, they do too.