We Can Simplify Our Student Grading System

In the works, I have two different questions for you:

  1. ‘Do Medium-sized Egos Really Exist?’, and
  2. ‘Should Law Enforcement Officers Be Allowed To Use The “I was afraid for my life” Defense?’

Both of these require some preparation/research, but I hope to have them ready before too long.   For now, I’ve chosen a lighter topic about a scheme that, because it’s not being implemented as designed, could well be simplified.

Some Background

When I started school, we got one grade, from A to F (I never learned why E was left out), to represent our mastery of the subject.   Then, at some point, they introduced a separate grade for effort (from 1 to 3) and another for conduct (also A through F, also without the E). These were promoted as independent variables that could give more insight into the performance of one’s child.   I soon had reason to question the independence of these variables.

What’s The Best Grade You Can Get

Conventional wisdom tells us that the highest grade one can get would now be an A1A.   I’m not here to discuss the merits of bad behavior, so we will focus only on the first two symbols.   To me, it was obvious that an A3 would be more desirable.   Here’s why –

Suppose it’s a leap year and you are betting on track events at the Summer Olympics.   In the first heat, the first place runner comes in with a time of, say, 4:00.00. At the end she is visibly spent (lying on the ground, breathing heavily, and sweating profusely).   Her grade would clearly be an A1.   In the next heat, the winner has the exact same time but isn’t even breathing hard.   I would give her an A3. Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for runners in the early heats of big events to pace themselves to save some effort for later heats, if they can afford to.  

Of course, both runners advance to the finals with the best times.   Again, conventional wisdom gives the higher grade to the first runner. But tell the truth – which one are you betting your hard-earned money on in the finals?

My Experience

So you can see what grade I was trying for.   But the truth is teachers don’t give A3 grades, even if you never turn in your homework.   This isn’t a case of political correctness (whereby we fashion our remarks based on the possible objections of imaginary people with hyper thin skins or real fools priding themselves on how easily offended they can be). It is another common problem in the political arena whereby people refuse to let facts get in the way of their idea of the way things should work in their perfect (but grossly oversimplified) world.   In their view, the very fact that you got an A proves that you were trying really hard because hard honest work is what made America great.  

The problem is that once you link those previously independent variables (effort and results), you are really only working in a one-dimensional world. You don’t need two grades to adequately describe it.

Looking From The Other Side

But you may be saying to yourself “Silent, you are the anomaly!   Only the very rare person who can find a task at which they can succeed without unbelievable effort would have the luxury of taking your position on this topic”.   If you really think failure is the norm, then answer this:  

Do you really think someone who, for whatever reason, didn’t meet the minimum requirements for success in this class, would prefer an F1 over an F3?   From what I’ve observed, the opposite has usually been the case.   If you give him an F1 you are saying “bless his little heart, he gave it his best shot but is just too stupid to make the grade”.   That may even be true, but giving him an F3 gives him an alibi (or more accurately, reinforces the excuses he’s been giving even without your blessing) that he’s really very, very intelligent, but just didn’t put forth the effort.

I’m not saying to give all failures a “3” – you could just make the variable independent, open your eyes, and give the student whatever they truly earned.


There are actually two ways to cure this problem: we could start treating effort and results as the independent variable they are (which is probably too agonizing a task for most teachers). Or we could just stop giving the effort grade.   I propose the latter.   What do you think?