One evening, I was watching my two sons play a video game. They are busy elementary and middle school kids with sports, music, friends, and family obligations, so an opportunity to do this was exciting for them. They chose to play a basketball game and got started. I watched them, encouraged both sides (much to their chagrin), and reminded them that they should consider the other brother’s feelings before bragging about a great three-point shot. It was in the middle of their game that I noticed something… My boys were being given letter grades on their free throws by the game. Wait, what?!? Each time they completed a free throw an A, B, C, D, or F appeared on the screen. There was feedback to accompany the grade, albeit in a much smaller font. And there was definitely a mismatch between the grade, the feedback, and whether or not the shot went in. Wouldn’t it be enough to know whether you made or missed the shot and why you missed it? Does the additional layer of a letter grade add anything to the experience? My sons quickly answered the second question with a resounding ‘NO!’, according to their reactions. They were raising their voices at the screen with comments such as: How can I get a D on a shot and still make it?? Wait, I got a B- and missed mine…how is that fair? I got an F on my free throw???
I was shocked. The boys finished their game and we had a quick conversation about how the letters weren’t helping them improve, so maybe we should read the feedback next time rather than pay attention to the grade. They couldn’t find a rhyme or reason for how the grade was determined, and it was not explained in the game manual (Yes, I checked, even though no child would look for that). How eerie this felt… As I work relentlessly to refocus schools and teachers on learning through healthier grading practices, I was surprised to see that grades had infiltrated another part of my children’s life. I work hard to move grades to the background and here they were rearing their ugly heads again. I want grades to be a meaningful and accurate piece of communication, but this experience reminded me of an arbitrary, traditional letter grade. I started to reflect and wonder how many places grades appear outside of the educational world and what purpose they would serve. I am consistently reminded that the journey to grading reform has begun, we are moving forward, yet we have so far to go!