Grades as communication

Let’s pretend you’re an Algebra 1 teacher, and this week you’re teaching your class how to factor trinomials. You know, turning something like 2x² + 10x + 12 into 2(x + 2)(x + 3).

You check your email Monday morning and see that you’ll be getting a new student in your fifth period class. No sweat — that kind of thing happens all the time.

Fifth period rolls around and you welcome the new student, threading the fine line between not putting him on the spot for being new but also not pretending like he’s invisible. Over the course of the week, within your time in the class and halls you make it a point to chat with him and get to know him a bit. You also make sure to work with him one-on-one for a bit so that you can get a feel for what kind of student he is and what he already knows.

That’s when you realize there’s a big problem here.

The student doesn’t know what’s going on with factoring trinomials. Not even close.

When you say the words “x squared” out loud, he doesn’t know what that means. When you point to it on the paper, he asks “you mean x two?”. He doesn’t know what “terms” are, nor how many would even be in a trinomial in the first place. When you ask him about the coefficient of a specific term, he stares at you blankly. You teach him what a coefficient is and he picks that up and everything is feeling slightly better until he sees a standalone x, with no number in front, and he tells you the coefficient is 0 “because there is no number there”. That's when your heart fully sinks. There is absolutely no way he's going to be factoring trinomials any time soon, much less in time for the quiz coming up in a few days.

By this point, it has become clear that this student — let's call him “Liam” — is not right for your class. He simply doesn’t have the prerequisite skills. If he doesn’t know how to properly parse a trinomial, then there’s no chance he’s going to be able to properly factor one. Can he even multiply binomials? Doubtful, if he’s not aware of the hidden 1 before a lone x.

It’s not Liam's fault, or yours, you tell yourself. This is a product of circumstance. He was thrown into the deep end of the pool and you’re doing your best to keep him afloat there, but the reality is that he should be in the shallow end learning the basics of swimming. He won’t survive in the deep end on his own, but he’s here anyway, so we have to deal with what we’ve got.

Quiz day arrives. You give your classes the assessment on factoring trinomials. Liam, of course, absolutely tanks it. Nearly everything on his paper is wrong.

What grade should Liam get?

1. Communication of mastery

The most obvious way to think of grades is as reflections of mastery — the ability to demonstrate full command of a particular subject. Education represents a core set of skills and knowledge, and grades are measurements of their acquisition.

We can infer that a student getting an A in your algebra class, for example, has demonstrated a high level of mastery of the skills taught. She has repeatedly scored well on your quizzes and tests, and she’s been able to do that because she can correctly apply and execute mathematical thinking and procedures. Unlike Liam and his lack of mastery in factoring trinomials, she can tackle that subject fluidly, with ease. She's able to complete problems where a > 1. She can recognize perfect square trinomials on sight.

Meanwhile, Liam, under this lens, should receive a failing grade, right? He lacks mastery of the target skills, and that's exactly what his low grade should communicate: low mastery — an inability to command certain skills or knowledge.

When he hands his quiz to you and sulks back to his seat, you quickly grade it. His score is a lowly 15%. Out of 100, of course. He was able to factor a simple trinomial — one he saw before in classwork and probably memorized — and he got partial credit for coming close on another one. The rest of the test wasn't just wrong, but incomprehensible. He was putting exponents where they shouldn't go and variables where they shouldn't be.

Do you hand him back the paper with 15/100 on it, right there in red ink? Do you just write an inconspicuous F instead, hoping to be honest about things, but in as mild a way as possible? You find yourself surprised at the idea that, somehow, that feels worse. You search for some other thing to write — some way of softening the blow. Not yet mastered feels clinical and lacking in sting, but is that giving him false hope? After all, is there any chance he's going to master this skill any time soon given how much prerequisite knowledge he's lacking?

2. Communication of worth

The reason you're second-guessing yourself right now and dancing around the idea of dishonesty with Liam's grade is that grading communicates far more than just mastery.

Consider, for a moment, being in Liam's shoes.

He's a young kid — a high school freshman — and he just transferred schools mid-year. It's his first week here, he doesn't have any friends, doesn't know anyone, and is clearly already struggling academically. He doesn't have the pre-algebra skills to be the slightest bit successful in your class, but you also can't just move him to another class. Where will you send him? Back to middle school? Algebra is the introductory math class at your school — all the other ones are harder!

If you hand him back his grade, a blisteringly low F, you know that Liam's not going to read that grade as a mere evaluation of his proficiency. This isn't just because Liam's a kid — even fully grown adults don't look at the professional evaluations they receive as something so impersonal. Part of who we are is what we do, and when someone is explicitly assigning value to what we do, it helps us develop our sense of who we are.

Instead of commenting on his academic output, he's likely to read into it something about himself, or something about you. “I can't do anything right” might be his response, or “I suck at math” or “my new math teacher hates me” or “I can't let anyone else see this or they'll figure out how dumb I am”.

Liam, as a student, is more likely to view his grade as a measure of worth than a measure of mastery. The source of and anchor for that worth can come from many different places — himself, from others, etc. — but an F on that quiz will hit him in a way that you, as a teacher, probably aren't intending for it to hit.

Furthermore, when we zoom out, we see that Liam's not just looking at one grade on this one topic in this one class. He's adding that grade to a chain of others that stretches back years, through much of his personal development so far. This isn't the first F he's gotten, and it won't be the last. How many Fs did he get in math classes before yours? How long ago did he internalize, through F after repeated F, that no matter how hard he tries, there's no path to success for him?

3. Communication of instruction

Fast forward the year, and Liam is able to scrape by in your class with lots of extra support, some under-leveled work that you give to him plus a few others, and a healthy dose of grade inflation.

Spring rolls around, and he takes your state's standardized test. You know he's going to tank it. He knows he's going to tank it. The questions, even with all of the efforts you've both put in all year, are simply too hard for him. Nevertheless, he tries his best and then it's over. You forget about it and he forgets about it, because scores won't be out for another five months from now anyway.

Fast forward five months, and your principal sits down with you to discuss your standardized test performance. By “your” performance, he means that of your students, of course. Grades, after all, aren't just measures of mastery for students — they're measures of instruction. How good of a teacher are you? “Let's look at your students' scores to find out.”

The principal points out Liam individually, noting that he had one of the lowest scores in the entire grade. The principal checked his attendance, and Liam was here every day, not one of those students whose absences reveal a lack of buy-in — the ones who are on the fast-track to dropping out.

“Why,” your principal asks, “were you not able to teach him? What could you have done better? Do you not care about his success? What about his future?”

How do you respond?

4. Communication of opportunity

Liam, after all, wants to go to college, and colleges look at grades from your class with a microscope. Math as a subject tends to have the hard skill-gating they like. Numbers are less “squishy” than writing and the arts, and math is highly skill-based and associated with problem solving and critical thinking. That, and math has just been plain en vogue ever since “STEM” became an educational buzz-acronym. You know that an F or a D on his high school transcript for your class is going to close doors for him.

And it's not like Liam isn't college material. You talk to his other teachers and find out he's a rockstar writer. He turns in some of the most creative writing assignments his literature teachers have ever seen. He writes fanfiction in his spare time as a hobby, and he's learning the guitar so that he can try to put some of his poetry to music. He's always on time to class, never absent, never disruptive, never combative. He tries on every assignment and is motivated to succeed, and in many other settings success is attainable for him — just not in your class.

Giving him an F is the honest thing to do. He'll have to retake a watered-down version of your class over the summer to get credit for it before he moves on to Geometry next year. He'll sink there too, because Geometry assumes you have mastery of Algebra 1, which we know, of course, Liam doesn't and won't despite his and your best efforts.

Giving him a C, meanwhile, is dishonest, but it doesn't limit his opportunities as much. Those doors in his future remain open.

But giving him a C also feels like a slap in the face to other students who worked hard for the Bs and As they got in your class. Some of your students fought for those grades, dedicating themselves to the work and to achieving a mastery that, for them, felt elusive, difficult, and at times nearly unattainable. Why should they work so hard for a lowly B- when Liam is effectively able to skate by merely one grade lower?

Of course, giving him an F feels like a slap in the face to him. After all, it's not his fault he's not in the right math class.

Fudging his grade was his only path to success in the first place, and if he at least tried, which he did, isn't that worth honoring?

1.1: Revisiting mastery

Liam is, of course, a fiction. He's not a real student whose story I'm using with the name changed. I invented him and his details. The obvious solution to Liam's situation is for Liam to not be in your class in the first place.

Unfortunately, this too is a fiction.

If you're a teacher, Liam is probably recognizable to you. If you're a teacher in the United States, I'll dare to say that you probably have several Liams in your classes right now. Given my experience as a teacher in the US, that's going to be my focus moving forward. I of course can't speak for every school in every district in every state, but I can highlight some patterns that appear to be relatively consistent nationwide.

The reality is that, systemically, education is not set up to ensure that students like Liam end up where they are supposed to be. The “solution” of ensuring Liam is enrolled in a class at his academic level isn't an attainable one.

To highlight this, I'm going to turn to standardized testing data. There's a whole other argument that can be made about whether or not this data is good or right or valid (and without arguing against myself too much let me say for the record that I don't believe that it is), but in order to stay in scope I'm going to, for the moment, take the data on its own terms. Let's assume for the moment that this data measures and communicates what it intends to: student mastery.

High school for many in the US starts at Grade 9, which is often the year students take Algebra 1. Again, this varies by location and state, so we're not in a place to do full apples-to-apples comparisons here, but even looking at states in isolation, without comparison, can help us understand Liam.

As such, I took a look at data from different states for their 8th grade math assessments — the ones students would take before they went into 9th grade and, presumably, your class. I took these from 2018-2019 school year so that we can avoid any disruptions introduced by COVID, and the states chosen were a convenience sample based solely on ones that had easily findable and linkable data. I went in alphabetical order and stopped after I was able to find data for 10 states, as government educational data websites tend to be incomprehensible hellscapes and I flat out lost my patience to attempt more. What I'm going for here isn't rigorous methodology anyway — I just want to point to enough to demonstrate that the problem of Liam's misplacement isn't a one-off.

For an additional data point, I included the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is another standardized test that is less widely taken but acts as a corroborating data set. Here's their measurements of the same data, which I've included in a second column in the table below:

8th grade students not meeting math proficiency according to 2019 standardized test data

State % below proficiency (state testing) % below proficiency (NAEP)
Alaska 73 71
California 63 71
Colorado 63 63
Delaware 62 71
Florida 54 69
Georgia 56 69
Hawaii 62 72
Maine 64 66
Massachusetts 53 53
New Jersey 71 56

Just to be clear, these are the numbers for students who are not meeting standards — the ones who are “behind”.

And again, this table is not comprehensive, and if you're worried I'm cherry picking data then I highly encourage you to seek out missing states on your own. The NAEP data has all states in one convenient location, and there you can see that Massachusetts was the highest scoring state in the data set, and even then a full 53% of their students were found to be below proficiency! Over half of students failing to meet mastery standards is the best performance in the data set.

Again, whether or not these numbers are valid is a whole discussion in and of itself. Taking them at face value, however, can help us see why grades do not just communicate mastery. If this were the case, assuming you taught in the state with the highest proficiency rates in the country, you would still likely be giving failing grades to greater than half of your 9th grade math students.

Let that sink in.

Over half.

And this is the best case scenario.

2.1: Revisiting worth

I don't care who you are or how heartless you are, I can guarantee you that, as a teacher, you would not fail half your class, even if half of them deserved it.

Are you going to be the teacher that looks Liam in the eye and delivers him F after recurring F, all year long? Even if you're able to do that for Liam, what about all the other students in your class? What about the girl who goes home and doesn't have time to do your homework because she's stuck caring for her younger siblings after their mom passed away and their depressed dad is holding down two jobs now that they've lost an income earner? What about the child who just moved to this country and who can barely speak English — let alone read and write it? He sees math as a safe haven, as numbers worked the same in his native country, but he also fails every test he takes because he can't read the instructions or parse out the word problems.

Because grades aren't felt by students as measurements of mastery but instead as measurements of worth or value, teachers have a significant pressure to align their grades under that framework rather than the cold, “objective” measurement of mastery.

When I first began teaching, the proficiency rates for students from the previous year ranged from 7 to 8%, and yes, you read those numbers correctly. More than 90% of my students were, according to the previous year's testing, inadequately prepared for my classroom.

I began the year with a comprehensive crash-course in the need-to-know information and skills that would get them ready for the year ahead. We reviewed and practiced the high-leverage stuff, because without those my students would have been dead in the water. I saw it as my duty to make sure that my students had a path to success in my class. It didn't matter how low their abilities were or how far behind they were, I considered it my responsibility as an educator to ensure that each student knew that there was a path forward for them, and one they were absolutely able to access.

Of course, this meant effectively lying to my students about their grades. If I was measuring their progress against the grade-level standards I was supposed to use as my metric, then they would come up short every single time. The academically “correct” thing to do would have been to start each of them with an F in my class and have them work their way out of it. If that sounds callous and akin to educational malpractice — well, that's because it is! An F is not likely to motivate the student to do better. Failing grades don't work well as negative reinforcement schedules, where their removal entices the student to work harder. Instead they tend to hit exactly the way we expect them to: right in the gut. A student sees it as a failure of themself — of who they are.

This is why I so adamantly adhered to my philosophy that all students deserved to have a path to success in my class. That was essentially my evaluation of their worth — something that the grade-level standards don't take into account. I believed that a hard-working, dedicated, focused, critically thinking student deserved an A for that effort even when their outcomes fell below where they “should have” structurally. I considered it far more important that the student know, unequivocally, that their efforts can yield academic success rather than the student knowing, unequivocally, that no matter what they do or how much they try they'll still be behind and, consequently, failing.

During my review crash-course at the beginning of the year, I was observed by a district consultant. This is a person that districts with low test scores are pressured to hire as a way of showing that they are taking action towards improving their data, and they manifest as a stranger who walks into your classroom with a clipboard and then has a bunch of nasty things to say about everything you're doing wrong.

I had a follow-up one-on-one conference with the consultant in which they criticized me directly. None of the material I was covering was in the standards for the current grade level I was supposed to be teaching. I countered their criticism by pointing to the data that showed that all but a handful of my students were behind grade-level in the first place, so I was meeting the students where they were in order to build from there. Furthermore, I emphasized, the hierarchical nature of skills in my content area made it such that a failure to master prerequisite skills meant that there would be absolutely no way for them to execute skills which directly built on top of those foundational ones. The consultant then told me I was being negligent in my responsibilities as an educator and that I held “low expectations” of my students, which was essentially a tacit accusation of bigotry. I responded that my expectations of my students were not low but were calibrated to their actual ability, and if I were to teach far above their level, no student would have a path to success in my class.

The consultant then said that if I did not teach the grade-level standards I was supposed to then I would be leaving students with educational gaps and setting them up for failure for the rest of their educational career.

I pointed to my students' already existing educational gaps and asked if, because my students were so far behind, that meant that the teachers before me had failed them too?

The consultant said yes.

If you think it's tough to be a student and get repeated Fs that feel patently unfair to you, consider what it's like to be a teacher in this country. For decades now we've we are inescapably told of our failure to teach and reach students. We are constantly reminded of all the ways we come up short. This happens in aggregate, like on the standardized test data showing that the state with the best data in the country still has over half of its students behind in math going into high school. It also happens individually, like the consultant who observed me for a mere half hour before deciding I and every teacher who came before me was trash.

3.1: Revisiting instruction

There's a very famous political cartoon by Daryl Cagle about the shift over time in the perception of failing grades. That link goes to a reprint, but the one I know and that is most widely shared is the one below, dated 2010:

A political cartoon. Under the 1960 heading, parents are holding a report card with an F on it and are yelling "These grades are terrible!" at their child. Under the 2010 heading, parents are holding a report card with an F on it, and they and the student are yelling "These grades are terrible" at the teacher.

I confidently said earlier that you, as a teacher, would not fail half your class even if they deserved it, and I stand by that. If the student situations of the last section didn't tug at your heartstrings, and you still see yourself as thinking that you absolutely would give an F to every child that failed to correctly complete algebra problems in your class, then there's another much more pragmatic reality you have to contend with — one which was captured in the attitude with which the consultant approached me and my instruction.

If you fail half of your class, it will not be seen as communicating something about them but it will be seen as communicating something about you.

The idea captured in the comic is that grades are evaluative of teacher performance rather than student mastery. This has been a persistent drumbeat in American education ever since the passage of 2001’s No Child Left Behind and likely before given how eagerly “accountability” was ushered into American education in such a unanimously bipartisan manner. There's a widespread idea that bad grades are reflective of bad teachers and that standardized test scores in particular can be used to root out these terrible teachers and improve education as a whole (despite the fact that we have had ongoing teacher shortages in all states since we started documenting them in 1990).

As such, the prevailing view in contemporary American education is that a teacher with failing students is a failing teacher, and a school with failing students is a failing school.

This hyper-focus on teacher performance often comes with a corresponding lack of focus on systemic issues. The consultant who visited my classroom didn’t give an ounce of thought to the fact that students were working out assignments on paper I’d purchased myself, or that the ceiling of the classroom I was in had collapsed over the summer, allowing water in and moving an already old classroom from a state of being raggedy to one of outright disrepair.

The consultant wasn’t concerned that 70% of my students were designated as “English language learners”, meaning their primary language was one other than English and their proficiency in English was low enough that the district formally recognized it — though did little to nothing in the way of providing support for it.

The consultant also wasn’t concerned with the fact that my district, which already had a very low per-pupil expenditure, was choosing to spend a significant portion of that on consultants rather than on classrooms directly, which is probably why I was buying my own paper for my students in the first place, rather than having a basic school supply supplied by, well, my school.

Instead, from the consultant’s perspective and the one commonly held by the American public at large, because my students were failing, I was a bad teacher, as were, presumably, every teacher they’d had in the pipeline before me. As a secondary teacher in a higher grade, that meant they’d had dozens. Even if I just examine teachers in my subject area alone, the number of teachers in their lives that came before me came close to, or even reached, double digits.

Even if we agree that these teachers were bad, can we say they were bad because of their own skillsets, or did their environment have something to do with it? Were these teachers hurt by the lack of funding, the dearth of supplies, and ineffectual management? Quite possibly. Were they hurt by the fact that the schools they worked in couldn't regularly fill positions with qualified teachers in the first place? Quite possibly.

That said, regardless of your skill level at all, if you, as a teacher, attempt to fail greater than half your students, I can assure you that you’ll soon have a meeting with your principal and a plan to swiftly rectify those low grades. Your principal will not want all those Fs on the books, because that raises uncomfortable questions not just about your performance but about the school's.

This dynamic has created an inversion of ownership in education, where teachers and administrators often feel more responsible for student performance than students do. Furthermore, a student is often insulated from their poor performance, either out of necessity such as in Liam’s case, or out of precaution, as in the case of what our standardized testing says. Just like I felt the pressure to hide from my students how far “behind” they were, so too do schools across the country. The alternative is to potentially lose children entirely. Once a student fully divorces themselves from their own education, it's practically irreversible. Schools do a lot to try to keep that from happening.

As such, it’s honestly hard in many schools to even fail one student. Doing so often requires extensive documentation — of conferences with the student; of phone calls home; of multiple attempts at multiple academic, social, and behavioral interventions. Even in the rare case a student does fail, the result is often toothless, and they often advance to the next grade anyway. “Social promotion” is the name of the game, and the upward pressure on grades are maintained through a myriad of techniques.

In many schools, for example, students cannot receive zeroes, even for assignments they didn’t even do. The philosophy is that a zero is mathematically damning for them, dropping their average significantly and potentially demotivating the student to try at all. What the student instead receives is usually a 50, which is still failing but will not sink their grade nearly as much. Of course, this 50 carries with it a communication of its own: you still get some credit for doing nothing.

The same goes for deadlines. They are increasingly seen as out of touch and unnecessarily punitive. What’s important isn’t that a child learns a specific skill by a specific date, the philosophy goes, but that they learn the skill at all. Thus, an assignment turned in two months late that demonstrates proficiency should be graded as such, with no consideration for when it was turned in. What gets communicated here? You don't have to try now, because there's always later.

Being passively supported to put off work and being rewarded for doing nothing are the kinds of things that procrastinators dream of, but, more than that, these effectively systematize a process by which students can repeatedly fail to engage with education but never actually receive any feedback which says they're failing.

And it's worth noting here that failing to engage is different than failing. The latter is an attempt that doesn't yield desired outcomes, but the former is something far more inhibiting: no attempt at all.

4.1: Revisiting opportunity

This comes back to Liam and what his grade should be. He tried, so it's easy to think that he shouldn't get an F as a result, right?

But what if he didn't? What if he saw the writing on the wall, saw how difficult your content was relative to his own ability, and chose to disengage?

That makes his “deserved” grade more clear, more in line with the F aligned to his mastery, but it makes evaluating Liam as a person much murkier.

On a personal level, if Liam did check out, can you really blame him for that choice? Have you ever tried something so far above your head that just throwing in the towel is preferable? Every time in your life you've done badly at something repeatedly, have you felt invigorated, or have you, more likely, felt defeated?

When we talk about grades and what they communicate what we are really talking about is livelihoods. We're talking about feelings and efforts and growth and kids turning into adults day by day. Grades are a consistent, formal evaluation of a student along the entirety of their educational career, and while grades in theory evaluate a student's past, they, more importantly, shape the student's future.

This is something we're intuitively comfortable with on an individual level. If someone says a child is an “A student”, that alone can act as an entire character statement for the individual. We can infer that they are likely organized, conscientious, thoughtful, hard-working, etc. Meanwhile, a “dropout” is one of the most demeaning lights in which somebody can be cast. It's a condemnation, and even when it's portrayed positively, it's only done so as a contrast — as in “he was a high school dropout, but look at him now”.

Grades aren't just a measurement for schools or academics. They are a summative assessment of an individual — one which is simultaneously deeply personal yet widely experienced. Every single person reading this knows what grades feel like. Every single person reading this knows what their grades say about them or about the schools that they went to or about the teachers that they had. But, more than anything else, every single person reading this knows how their grades tied into the non-academic parts of their life.

In 2019, thirty-three rich parents got busted paying tens of millions of dollars to schools to inflate their children's test scores and academic achievements in order to help them secure enrollment in top-tier universities.

On its face, this doesn't make any sense. The parents were often paying far more than the cost of the schools themselves, just to get their students in the door. Actress Lori Laughlin of Full House and her husband paid $500,000 just to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California. For that price they could have privately hired some of the most amazing teachers in the world to give their daughters incredible educations. Why didn't they just cut the middleman?

Those parents believe what most people do about education not as a process but as an institution: education isn't just about learning on its own. It is a funnel to something larger. Education goes beyond just gaining command of skills and knowledge and becomes a process by which our society formally grants recognition, allowance, and approval. Those wealthy parents had every advantage in the world and could have operated separate from the educational system entirely, yet they still bought in, and at an absolutely staggering cost. Why?

By gaming the system, which included deliberately falsifying grades, they were attempting to influence education's fundamental alchemy: the transmutation of past performance into future opportunity.

This is the anchor of education. This is why people teach. This is why my heart swells when I watch students I taught cross the stage to receive their diplomas. I'm not feeling a mix of pride and admiration because they did well on a factoring trinomials test or because they mastered some arbitrary percentage of my content area standards. I'm feeling a profound fulfillment on their behalf because they achieved a formal, systemic designation of success — one that helps lay the groundwork for further success in the future.

This belief in education is so strong that it is almost sacrosanct. Education is put on a pedestal — nearly worshipped by some. This imparted divinity can keep us from clueing in to some of its flaws, however. Belief in education as opportunity means that we often treat education is as a meritocracy. We believe that grades are reflective of individual character merits like hard work and persistence. It's certainly true that someone getting an A in a particular class might be seen as just naturally gifted in that particular area, but it's also true that someone getting As across the board is revealing more about who they are than what they know. We like to think of education as a cure for societal ills, a “great leveler” where success or failure isn't predetermined but is individually chosen and pursued.

4.2: Revisiting opportunity again

Unfortunately, education in America is more a reflection of social ills than it is a cure for them.

If we go back to the NAEP data set, we can use this tool to explore “achievment gaps”. An achievement gap is whenever a particular demographic displays discrepant data when compared with another demographic. Ideally, if education were a meritocracy, and if education judiciously worked to ensure success for every child, as it is often seen as doing when up on its pedestal, then we shouldn't see any significant achievement gaps.

This is, unfortunately, not the case.

Going back to our grade 8 mathematics focus, here is historical data on the achievement gap between black students and white students in the United States up through 2019.

A graph showing an ongoing gap between white student performance and black student performance. The 2019 gap was 32 points.

And here it is for white and Hispanic students.

A graph showing an ongoing gap between white student performance and Hispanic student performance. The 2019 gap was 24 points.

Here are students who are eligible for free/reduced lunch versus those who aren't (this is a rough proxy for examining an achievement gap relative to poverty).

A graph showing an ongoing gap between students with disabilities and those without. The 2019 gap was 30 points.

These gaps don't just hold for the NAEP data set, by the way. Achievement gaps have been found using multiple measures and data sets, across multiple content areas and grade levels, for decades. The most significant attention has been given to the gap between white students and black and Latino students because it is the most alarming.

The continued measurement and existence of the achievement gap is some of the most comprehensive data that we have on systemic discrimination, particularly systemic racism, in the United States. We can see that these gaps manifest early in children's lives, don't close over time, persist through years and even decades, and exist across the entire country.

The achievement gap is named in such a way that it connotes a measurement of mastery. “Achievement” is used in education to essentially mean “how a student scored on a test”. But we know that grades mean so much more than just achievement. They represent a source of the worth or lack thereof that a child might feel about themselves. They represent the quality of the teachers and the system in which those teachers exist.

Above all, however, they represent opportunity.

Our current data — the grades of our students nationwide — demonstrate that opportunity in our country is still so very far from equal.

This is the hardest truth about education — our darkest skeleton in the closet. The ideals that we hold about education have us believe that learning is a freeing force — a counter to discrimination and oppression. There are lots of inspirational quotes about this posted on the walls of classrooms nationwide. But instead of education being the lever for meaningful social change, it is instead more of a measure of meaningful social status. We see discrimination and oppression not resolved but persisting across classrooms, across the country.

I am not saying schools are the cause of this, mind you. I'm only saying that we see it happen. We measure it.

We grade it.

Remember when I asked what Liam's grade should be if he failed to engage? If he didn't even try? It feels easy to say that he should get an F for that, right? But what if Liam's failure to try doesn't come from any individual failing on his part but instead a failure of the system he's in? What if life, society, and the educational system failed to give Liam a fair shake — one which it is clearly fine giving to plenty of other people, but not him? Is he wrong for choosing to check out of that?

And, now here's the real question. The one that's incredibly hard to answer.

Let's say Liam realizes he's in the wrong class and that your content is too hard for him. As a result, he checks out. Stops bothering. Stops giving a shit about your assignments, which he's going to fail anyway.

If you give him a failing grade, are you being fair?

Or are you perpetuating the same systemic forces that caused him to disengage from his education in the first place?

5: Grades as communication

There is no easy or even right answer to this question. Genuinely. It's something I still struggle with as a teacher. Sometimes seemingly fair actions that exist within the microcosm of my control are unfair in the macro environment of the world in which we live.

After all, grades don't exist in isolation, and we are all far from agreement on what those marks represent.

No matter what final grade you end up giving him, Liam will end up seeing that score differently from you and what you intended because the two of you are approaching it from entirely different roles. You're a teacher, and Liam is one of 100+ kids you have. His grade is just another in your gradebook, one of thousands you've given in your career, but you know it doesn't feel that way to him.

To him, it's potentially fridge-worthy or cry-worthy, depending on what he gets.

Furthermore, Liam's grade doesn't and can't exist independent of the social fabric in which Liam exists.

Grades, even at their most formal, aren't simply impartial objective measures — they're an entire framework for communication. Grades tell us about ourselves, about our place in this world, about our own development, about the structure of our society. They are as deep and rich and varied as one can get with only five letters. An A from one teacher can mean a completely different thing than an A from another teacher, and we can tell the difference not because of any change in the mark but because of the contextual differences that communicate everything else that comes with it. Grades may hit different because of the content area they're in, or the time at which they're shared, or the buildup with which the student anticipates the reveal. They may hit different because of the grades that have come before them, or they may hit different because of the ones that will come after.

But what we know is that, right now, and for a long time now, grades in the United States have hit differently because of who people are, and that's something that goes against our sense of justice and fairness. This discrepancy isn't something that should happen. Education is supposed to be fair and meritocratic — a level playing field for all, especially developing children.

But it isn't.

And it hasn't been.

When we consider grades as communication we can look at what they mean to individuals like Liam, but we can also look at what they mean for us as a whole — for who we are as a country. Our grades are a measure of our mastery, our growth, our instruction, and, most of all, our opportunity.

And those grades have been telling us something for a long time now.

The question for America is: are we genuinely listening?