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Mr. Hanko is a teacher at Hope Protestant Reformed School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

So here it’s report card time again. This is a hard time for teachers (ignoring for the moment that it’s also, often, a hard time for parents and students.) It’s not just that there’s a lot of work connected with averaging all those numbers so that I can put all those letters on the cards. What makes it hard is all the concern that goes along with those little letters. Every teacher wants to make those letters as fair and honest a reflection as possible of the performance of the student.

The letter grade system was originally set up with the intent that the letter C represented the performance of the average student when he was working well. This sounds really good in theory, but has not worked out so well in practice. Part of the problem is that of identifying the average student. Then the average student had a disconcerting way of being average in only a single or a few subjects and non-average in others, or even of being average at one time and not at others.

Letter grades below C are relatively rare for primary and elementary students. This is due to the fact that the material in those grades is taught for mastery. The intention is that every student learn the skill or the facts being taught. In those grades the teacher can’t be satisfied until every student has learned how to read and every student has learned the addition facts or the multiplication tables. Since every student should have mastered the material, the grades represent the ease of mastery and somewhat the degree of mastery.

When the student moves into middle school, his grades are more nearly a reflection of the degree of skill he has attained or the percentage of the facts that he has mastered. Mastery is still necessary as far as possible in mathematics and in at least certain areas of the other subjects, but we expect more variation among the students in the quantity of material that they have learned. In the higher grades, then, the performance of the students is measured more easily and accurately in percents which are translated into letter grades.

Some parents wonder why their child, who received consistently high marks in the primary grades, now receives lower marks. This is often due to the fact that the teaching is no longer being done for mastery of all students. Nearly all students receive grades of C or higher in the lower grades, while the distribution is broader in the higher grades.

Some would say, “Why not teach for mastery in all grades? Why not teach so that everybody, regardless of ability, can get an A if he works hard.” Good as it sounds, there are several reasons why this doesn’t work very well. One important reason is that we would have to progress much more slowly than we do now and would teach much less material. While this might be nice for the slower students, the average and more able students would not receive the education they are able to master. Then these students would be shortchanged. Another reason that lowered standards would not work is that all students would work even less. I have tried a number of times to teach some material more slowly and spend more time in explanation and practice. I have found that there is very little difference in the distribution of grades. Because the work was easier, everybody worked less, and most learned even less than before.

I think it’s important that the grades we give students have real meaning and are not given just to make students feel good. The students themselves are quick enough to recognize cheap grades and to take advantage of them. Giving everyone good marks only devalues the marks and, like the devaluation of currency, makes them worthless. Both students and parents are entitled to know exactly what the students’ performance is as compared to others. It is important to them in making decisions about their future in advanced education or career. Because the devaluation of grades has happened in some grade schools and high schools, it has been done in some colleges as well. Soon the diplomas become meaningless.

The greatest problem of all with marks and report cards comes from the fact that we don’t interpret correctly their meaning and don’t use them properly. Consider some of these cases from the past:

There was a student who was extremely intelligent. He rarely got any grade lower than a straight A and became quite upset when it did occur. Looking with pride upon his own abilities, he gave me no pleasure from the “good” marks he received. He was greatly admired by his parents and relatives who reported with awe to all who would listen the young man’s distinguished college career. The last I heard of him he had left the church and was determined to gain wealth and fame in the world. The church of God will not benefit from his great intelligence.

I knew another young man also having great intelligence. He reported proudly to all others that he “never cracked a book.” He often laughed at those who worked hard; he was perfectly content with the better-than average grades he could get by working as little as possible. Proud of his abilities as if he had received them because of his superior qualities, he could boast of his intelligence but was unable to show any accomplishments resulting from it. He got “good marks” in school, but his teachers had no pleasure in giving them to him.

Oh, I have known a few students who were especially talented but were yet able to escape the snares of pride or laziness. They were willing to work hard beyond the demands of assignments they could handle easily. They recognized the fact that from those to whom much is given much is also required. They have been willing to devote their talents to the benefit of the people of God, Such people are rare. My experience has been that those who are rich in talents, like those who are rich in material possessions, hardly enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have known many students who have worked hard to get the grades they have received. They have been diligent in their efforts to gain the knowledge and skills they have been taught. Because they have been diligent, they have also learned valuable habits of regular study, organization, and effort. Some of them having average abilities have earned better-than-average grades. Some, having lesser abilities, have worked very hard just to earn passing grades. Whatever grades such students get, those are good grades, indicating that they have learned not only the things they have been taught but also the habits that will make them successful n other activities as well. Chances are that such students have attitudes as well that will make their abilities useful to themselves and to the community of believers.

The point of all this is that we iced to adjust our own attitudes and values toward the performance of our children and the marks that are given to indicate that performance. We need to get rid of several false leas: “My marks show that I am better than you are.” “He gets good larks. The teacher must like him.” “I got these bad marks because the teacher doesn’t like me.” And we need to promote proper attitudes toward grades. A student’s grades are no indication of his value as a person. Good grades” are any grades that re the result of the student’s best efforts. A student’s abilities are a measure of his responsibilities rather than of his importance.