Grade averaging is the practice of calculating semester, end-of-term, or end-of-year course grades by taking the sum of all numerical grades awarded in a course and then dividing that sum by the total number of grades awarded. Using this process, teachers calculate the mean—or average—final grade for a marking period, which may be recorded as a numerical grade or a letter grade that reflects a numerical equivalent (for example, a grade of A– may be equivalent to a 90). Grade averaging and the cumulative calculation of grade point averages (or GPAs) are among the most common grading practices used in American public schools.
While grade averaging is a straightforward mathematical process, variations in grading systems from school to school may introduce layers of complexity. For example, some schools used weighted grades, the practice of assigning a numerical advantage to grades earned in higher-level courses, and others may assign different levels of importance or “weight” to certain grades earned in a course—e.g., a final exam may represent 30 percent of a final grade, while a homework assignment may represent only five percent. In addition, some teachers also base grades on non-academic factors such as student behavior, in-class participation, timely homework completion, or attendance. While the examples above reflect a few common grading formulations, grading systems and GPA scales may vary significantly from one school or school district to the next.
Since grading systems typically reflect the particular structure of an academic program, and they be calculated in different ways from school to school, reporters should investigate how grades are calculated, what rationale is being used to support them, and what advantages or disadvantages may result for students.
In recent years, grade averaging and other traditional grading practice has become the target of reform, which has made the practice a source of debate.
Advocates may argue that grade averaging has been standard practice in public schools for decades, that it’s a simple and easily understood system for calculating grades, and that students who perform poorly on assignments or fail to meet course expectations should not be given the opportunity to earn a grade that is comparable to or potentially higher than students who performed well throughout the course and fulfilled all course expectations. In this view, averaging grades not only rewards consistent performance, but a failure to base final grades on consistent performance would be unfair to students who performed well throughout the semester, term, or year.
Critics of grade averaging, on the other hand, may argue that the practice not only presents a misleading or inaccurate picture of student achievement, academic effort, and learning growth over time, but that it can have harmful affects on student motivation, self-confidence, and educational attainment. While the arguments against grade averaging are both numerous and nuanced, the following represent a few major points of criticism:
- Grade averaging does not accurately represent academic effort or learning growth. If the grades earned at the beginning of a course or semester count the same as the grades earned at the end of a term, if a student struggles at first, works hard, and dramatically improves over time, the grades awarded earlier in the course will bring down the student’s final grade. Consequently, the effort and academic progress made over the course of a semester or year will not be reflected in the final grade. The same rationale would apply to grade point averages: if students fail several courses during their freshmen year, but then they make a dramatic turnaround and earn all As for the remainder of their high school tenure, their final GPAs will not reflect that improvement because those early failures are factored in to the final average. In addition, teachers may not have the autonomy when averaging grades to consider non-academic factors such as an unforeseen health issue or a family crisis that may negatively affect a student’s academic performance for a certain period of time.
- Grade averaging introduces a disincentive to improve. If a student fails a few assignments early in the year, those early failures will impose clear mathematical limits on the final grade a student can ultimately achieve. Consequently, students may not be motivated to work harder or overcome past failures because their final grades won’t reflect that effort or learning progress.
- Grade averaging advantages students who begin a course prepared and disadvantages students who begin unprepared. Since learning progress and effort may not be accurately represented when grades are averaged, students who begin school with more education, skills, or family support have a strong advantage—in terms of their likelihood of earning a good grade—than students who arrive less prepared. And since academic readiness tends to mirror demographic factors such as socioeconomic and minority status, grade averaging may also raise concerns about equity.
- Grade averaging does not accurately capture what students have learned or failed to learn. Advocates of proficiency-based learning, for example, might argue that averaging grades is an inadequate method for measuring and reporting on academic achievement and learning progress. If grades are not tied to established learning standards, and student work is not consistently evaluated from course to course and teacher to teacher, then grades not only convey little information about what students have learned, but they may in fact present a misleading or inaccurate picture of academic accomplishment. In this view, grade averaging only exacerbates the potential for misrepresentation.