In How to Grade for Learning, Ken O'Connor writes,

"Lowering grades simply because of poor attendance, misbehavior, or lateness distorts achievement; grades then do not have clear meaning.  Bobby's C may reflect his consistent achievement at that level, whereas Ann's C, although she consistently achieves at an A level, results from her absences, frequent lateness, and misbehavior." (89)
Ask any secondary teacher about emails from parents or conversations at parent/teacher conferences.  My guess is that the majority of them revolve not around what a student understands or does not understand, but rather the "soft skills" of being a student such as turning in work on time or participating in class.  These skills aren't unimportant, they're just misleading when we report our grades.  We (educators) say that our grades reflect a student's level of understanding or mastery of course content, but the way we report our grades is flawed.  Ann, as referenced in O'Connor's quote above, has a grade that suffers from grading pollution.  Discipline and responsibility issues should be taken care of via other mediums, not including the grade book.  We've been tricked into thinking that by lowering a student's grade because he/she doesn't turn in a project on time, that he/she will magically learn a lesson and magically become better prepared for the working world.  All the while, parents and students are confused when Johnny receives a B:

  1. Johnny knows everything, but didn't turn in a few assignments on time. He needs some help with meeting deadlines.
  2. Johnny knows quite a lot, but did not turn in the final project by the required deadline.  He needs very little help meeting deadlines or made an untimely mistake.
  3. Johnny knows everything, but does not participate in class conversations.  He needs some encouragement to share his ideas with others in classroom discourse.
  4. Johnny knows and can do nearly all of the course objectives, but has a very poor understanding on one big idea.  He might need additional time and assistance to better understand a difficult or challenging learning goal.
Johnny's parents are unable to decipher which scenario describes their son by looking in the grade book.  It is a complete mystery to them, because grading practices from classroom to classroom vary widely - our grades are often polluted.

What does a B represent in your classroom?  Are your grades polluted?

(My solution to grade pollution?  See commentary on Standards-based reporting)