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A to F Scale Gets Poor Marks but Is Likely to Stay

Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High, speaks with students Amir Reda, left, and Vince Bury. Reda predicts letter grades will disappear. Bury says a new scale could provide more flexibility from student to student.
Daniel J. McMahon, principal of DeMatha Catholic High, speaks with students Amir Reda, left, and Vince Bury. Reda predicts letter grades will disappear. Bury says a new scale could provide more flexibility from student to student. (James A. Parcell - Twp)

· D: barely passed, 75 percent

· E: failed, below 75 percent

The percentage equivalents were tougher than most systems today. The next year, Mount Holyoke tightened them further, making a B from 90 to 94 percent, a C 85 to 89 percent, a D 80 to 84 percent, an E 75 to 79 percent, and adding a sixth grade, the soon-to-be-famous F, which was anything below 75.

College students today are still comfortable seeing these letters, whether on paper or computer screens. And many say they don't see much reason to follow such letter-grade-abolishing schools as the New College of Florida in Sarasota and Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., which use narrative evaluations to assess students.

"An A at one school might be an A-minus or B-plus at another school," said Lauren Reliford, a junior at Boston College, but "for the most part, people all over this nation understand that an A is much, much better than an F."

Still, Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in the Colesville area, said schools have been inconsistent in their use of letter grades to determine class rank, valedictorian selection and athletic eligibility. "We are all over the landscape, and in my opinion, this causes the continued erosion of confidence in public schools."

That erratic letter grading system still gets less criticism than the standardized tests used to assess students and schools, mainly because the machine-scored exams lack the human touch. "The standardized tests present an impersonal but universally known target," said Robert W. Snee, principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church. "A single teacher is only grading 125 students this year, and she has a personal relationship with each one of them."

Some students said they envision an end to the reign of the classroom teacher and the grade book. Amir Reda, a junior at DeMatha, said letter grades will disappear "for the same reason that many teaching styles that were used a century ago have been disbanded." His classmate Vince Bury said, "We should be able to develop a new grading scale that provides for more flexibility from student to student."

Experts are less sure. Finn said the more likely outcome is that letter grades will stay but continue to be inflated and trivialized because of what he called "the therapeutic ethic, the aversion to competition, anxiety about self-esteem and simple marketing pressures."

Verner, like many teachers, said he does not celebrate letter grades' resilience. "I think they are an abomination, which is probably ironic since I spent 32 years dishing them out."

He said he would prefer that high school students applying to college send portfolios of their work, rather than grade transcripts. He said he had fond memories of an ungraded program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., which he attended in the late 1960s.

"We had written evaluations for each course," he said. "When I transferred to American University, I think they didn't know what to do to convert those to letter grades, so they converted them all to A's. Lucked out again."

Jason Busby, a history and government teacher at Agoura High School in Agoura Hills, Calif., said, "Letter grades are hopelessly inaccurate and lack meaningful feedback for the student, but students and parents are just as reluctant to listen to or read long, drawn-out analyses of students' work as teachers are to deliver it. Grades are simple. Grades are easy. Grades are understood because parents had them when they were students.

"Ask any number of parents and students what they are hoping to get out of a given class and they will tell you, 'A good grade,' " Busby said. "Ask them, as I do every year of my students, if they would accept an A at the cost of learning nothing about the subject in class. . . . The answer is 99 percent yes."


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