Stories About Too Many A’s
Part 1:
I was tutoring Sandra, a fifth grader, once a week. This particular Wednesday I was asked to tutor her in religion, which she was consistently doing poorly in. She had a test coming up the next day, so we went over the various parts of the chapter in question in her religion book.
Sandra was often distracted, and benefited from tossing a ball or walking around the room as we went over the questions--that was typical of her. Today, however, she'd stop moving just to talk about various details of the material--and this was unusual for her.
Weeks before, when we'd started working together, I asked Sandra what her favorite subject was in school, because I believe it's critical to see and understand the child as a whole being, and because a child's natural interest can provide an "in" if we get stuck somewhere along the way.
Sandra said her favorite subjects were handwriting and recess. That was it.
But now, as she spoke about the details of the Saints and the communion, she was charged with energy. Clearly she enjoyed this subject, it's just that she wasn't doing well in it.
On Friday as I was walking by Sandra's classroom, her teacher called to me to come in. "Sandra," she asked, "don't you want to show Miss Susan?" Sandra proudly presented me with her test; she had gotten an "A". It was the first time and she was visibly proud. I congratulated her.
Later I bumped into Sandra's teacher in the hall. "I don't know about that test," she said. "I'm afraid it might have been too easy. Miss Alma was looking over my shoulder the whole time I was passing them back and she was just shaking her head because it was just one A after another." Miss Alma was the more experienced-- and more conservative--teacher who taught religion to the upper classes.
"But isn't that a good thing?," I asked, "Doesn't that mean that you successfully communicated the material to the whole class, and that they all got it?"
"Well, I guess you could look at it that way," she answered, "But don't you think that if everybody does really well it means that the test was too easy?"
And here is the problem. If everyone does well on a test is that a good sign or a bad sign? Does it mean that the teacher succeeded in the two goals of effectively communicating and assessing the students' knowledge and understanding of the material? Or does it mean the assessment is flawed: "too easy"? To what extend does a test measure the student’s success and to what extend does it measure the teacher’s? How can we tease these two things apart? What percentage of A's, B's C's D's and F's would indicate that the teacher was successful here? How many A's is too many? Is there a “correct” number of B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s as well?

Part 2:
A few years before, I had been working in a different school system. At the annual in-service meeting just before school opened for the year, there was a presentation about the new assessment system we were all to implement, effective immediately. The problem this new system was trying to solve was the problem of too many A's.
The new philosophy was: if a student does everything they're supposed to do, gets all their homework in on time, behaves, etc, that's an average student, and the average grade is a C. If the student really does well on tests and reports, and goes over and above expectations consistently, that student can get bumped up to a B. A's were to be reserved for those very rare cases when the student is truly exceptional, consistently goes way above and beyond what is required or requested or expected.
The real kicker for me was that even the "specials" teacher were supposed to implement this. We're talking Art, Music, PE, Computer. I was appalled. What on earth were we trying to tell these kids?
I couldn’t do it. My policy, which I articulate to my students at the beginning of each year, is that everyone walks into my classroom with an A because I naturally assume that each of them is a wonderful student who will do a wonderful job in my class. Why would I assume otherwise?
Fortunately for me, I discovered that no one really monitors or cares about what the “specials” teachers do, as long as the students are being occupied, the regular classroom teachers get their breaks, and the annual programs come off well, you can do and grade as you like in a music classroom, a luxury other teachers don’t have.

Part 3:
In my last year of teaching in K-8 schools, I went into school to return my keys after the school year was over. The people in the office were very happy to see me, as there was a problem: the grades were lost in the computer program and could not be found to register on the permanent record cards. Did I have a copy of my grades? I said, "No, they were all in the computer program, so I threw away my grade book, but if you want you can just give everyone the highest grade possible."
This caused a flurry of rapid, shocked responses.

The bottom line seemed to be, they wanted me to supply a bunch of grades, and they wanted these grades to be of a certain expected range and proportion. They were perfectly ready to accept faked grades within these parameters, but not within the parameters I was offering (all “A”s)--presumably because this would look fake. Since almost all of my students had received the highest grade possible, to my mind this would be the most accurate and fair way to resolve the issue. This was the only solution I could offer them in good conscience (and I have no idea what actually happened in the end).

A discussion ensued. Had I seen the recent article on the "acceleration of grading"? --The percentage of A's has gone up. Had I seen the other article, discussing whether participation in class should even "count", proposing that all grading should reflect "achievement only"? I submitted that grades are problematic, since a C from one teacher may be the equivalent of and A from another "Yes, well, that's always been true" one replied, "but, without grades how do you know what they've learned?"
To me this was like saying, "yes, I know my measuring tool is completely inaccurate, but if I don't use it how will I be able to measure anything?"
I wonder, do we have some compulsive need to measure, to compare and rank individuals? Is this need so powerful that we insist on engaging in acts of measuring even when we know we’re not really measuring what we’d like to be able to measure? What then, is the purpose of grades, and are they ever valid? Do teachers and educational materials companies create tests so that the resulting class ranking chart fits onto an expected bell curve scale? If every student gets an A, should we doubt or praise the teacher or the materials or the assessment? Does such a system allow for us to ever believe that it’s possible for every student to succeeded?