Report cards from Mount Hope recently went home, which means that grades are fresh in the minds of parents, teachers, and students. It can be hard to know what to make of grades. In some ways, they seem a bit removed from reality—after all, they’re just letters on a page. On the other hand, it is remarkably easy to get wrapped up in them as authoritative seals of success and achievement. What is the real purpose and use of a grading system at a school like Mount Hope?
To begin with, “grading” is a strange term for students. It implies that something’s quality is judged and perhaps ranked based on a particular standard. Grading works well when the standards are clear. The USDA “Grade A” label on my eggs, for instance, tells me that they’re free from defects and won’t poison my brownies. That’s simple enough. But is it possible for a school to have such clear standards for its students?
Though they can be difficult to pin down, some measurable standards in school are simply necessary. Teachers need to assess their students in order to place them in the proper class. Mount Hope has particular tests and benchmarks for advancing a student to the next math class, Latin class, English class, or even the next classroom. This is for the good of both students and teacher, to make sure everyone is set up to learn (and teach) successfully.
Measurable standards can also help hold students accountable. Teachers at Mount Hope regularly give quizzes in math, spelling, history, Latin, and memory work, and these receive percentage and letter grades. Compositions are graded by points on a rubric. When a student sees a grade stamped on his quiz, he quickly gets a basic idea of how well he is standing up to expectations, and he is moved either to study harder or to keep up his good work. Grades also give teachers a rough idea of whether or not their students are actually learning what they’re teaching—which is good information to know!
Grades and percentages, then, can be necessary or even helpful; yet they only do so much. A paper marked with a C- can’t move a disobedient student to suddenly start listening in algebra class. An A+ can’t teach him to love beautiful art. Only through language—conversations, questions, and explanations—can teachers help their students see what they need to work on and what they should learn to love. Dialogue is also the best tool for teachers to tell what a student really understands. For this reason, percentages never have the final say. Teachers observe much more than any calculator, and they reserve the right to change any letter grade to better fit their students.
This means that grades and percentages are only helpful if they are explained. A 87% English score on its own might indicate, “Do a little better next time,” but it won’t say precisely what is going wrong, how the student can improve, or whether he is truly struggling or just being lazy. That is why teachers make an effort to communicate with parents regularly. It is also why Mount Hope’s report cards primarily feature comments, with the corresponding letter grade as a reflection of those comments.
Grades matter because they indicate how well a student is learning content—and content is valuable. They are especially important when they show a child’s work ethic and attitude toward his job as a student. But grades and report cards—even thorough ones—can never become an obsession. When we focus only on human achievements, we will never be satisfied, either with ourselves or with each other. Students remain sinners, and they will always struggle with one thing or another. That is why the primary purpose of a Lutheran school is not to help parents raise up great scholars, or even virtuous citizens, but Christians—Christians who know that Jesus has won for them the highest possible merit. As we and our students work to love God and our neighbor, Christ and His Word remain our highest good, regardless of the grades that come home.