Pigeon Holing Kids Down to A One Hundredth of a Percent

(Day 5 & 6)

We’ve all seen report cards like this I’m sure.  Littered with percentage grades.  This is a report card from 1919.  It makes me wonder how they calculated grades back then, but that’s not my point today.  What struck me about this image is that even in 90+ years of education since this report card was written, we don’t seem to have advanced very far.




What’s the purpose of a percentage grade?  I would argue it’s mainly for sorting, categorizing, and ranking kids.  Those who would argue with me and say that it isn’t have never listened to a group of kids get a test back and self rank.

“What did you get?”

“An 87.”

“Haha!  I got 89!  I beat you…..”

Or even better…..the conversation over who should be valedictorian.  In some schools they have moved to an application process to choose this person, but many schools (including my own) pick a valedictorian based on their percentage average.

A few years back, the top two students in our school were separated by a mere half a percent when it came down to their overall averages.  The conversation revolved around the fact that it was arrogant to believe that as teachers we can assess SO accurately that we can distinguish to the half of a percent who the “better” student is.  That year two valedictorians were selected.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation in our school.  And I was reminded of it very recently when one of our new middle school students (from another school in another country) showed me her previous report card.

Not only did it contain percents, the percentages were to the hundredth!!!  I was astounded to look down and see things like: 89.07%, 91.89%, 80.48%…..

To me this is the height of arrogance when it comes to assessing children.  Giving them a percentage grade is nothing new, but to say that your assessments are so accurate that you can label a child right down to the hundredth of a percent???

I used to wonder, what’s the difference between a kid who scores a 65% and a kid who scores a 67%?  But scrap that…..

What’s the difference between a kid who scores 80.07% and one who scores 80.22%?  Or even more devastating to a child…..

One who scores 49.89% and one who scores 50.12%?  The difference between a traditional pass and fail….

I asked our new student if these scores were used to rank them and determine awards.  She told me yes.

I sat back in my chair and was completely speechless.  Gobsmacked, might be a better description.  Somehow this just seems border line cruel to me and, as I said earlier, an extreme case of arrogance.

I’m a teacher but I’m also a human being.  My assessments are flawed.  They also get re-worked every single year.  Very rarely do I “test” the same way 2 years in a row.  I don’t have a binder of tests I photocopy each year because I change how I teach and how I assess every year.  In fact, this year I handed out my first math assessment this week and there wasn’t a test paper in sight!  It was a project completion and an individual conversation with each student at my desk to decide together how well they had accomplished the three goals of the unit.  Then they told me how well they had done on a 1 – 4 scale.

No tests and no percentages.  Certainly nothing that would define them to a degree of a one hundredth.  I wouldn’t have a clue what that looks like!

Competitive swimmers and runners need timing down to a hundredth of a second.  Leave the “precision” scoring to them.  I can only hope that one day universities might eliminate this need for percentage entrance scores and then perhaps we can finally teach in a world that is focused more on learning and less on grading.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
This entry was posted in 180 Days of Teaching, Grading. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pigeon Holing Kids Down to A One Hundredth of a Percent

  1. This is a great post. Brought back memories to me off comparing % marks with classmates. So what if I got 89% or even in the nineties? Someone always, always did better. And I always, always felt worse. The absolute worst one was when I proudly presented my SAT scores to my mom. You see, I hadn’t believed I was very smart before those marks came out – those percentile marks were outstanding. I was very excited and proud. My mom said: “I think you did better than your brother on the English part (Critical Reading & Writing) but I believe he beat you in the Mathematics.” I walked away and tore up that piece of paper. My joy and pride punctured, I was completely deflated. In one school results of standardized exams (UK O-levels & A-levels) were posted for everyone to see. Somewhere in there, the learning got lost.

  2. Nordin Zuber says:

    You may be interested in Standards Based Grading. Think Thank Thunk is a good starting place if you haven’t come across it yet: http://101studiostreet.com/wordpress/?page_id=114

  3. He’s perfect in spelling !??? o.0 That’s awesome, except he got almost a failing grade for Geography. :”>

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