Should homeschoolers award percentage or letter grades? Or give grades at all?

Should homeschoolers use grades?

One of the decisions we have to make as homeschool parents is to decide what to do about grades.

Unless we are trying to recreate a traditional classroom at home (something I do NOT recommend), it is important to understand how to create an evaluation system that provides valuable feedback for you and your students without misleading or discouraging your child.

You may not have considered topic, as using the teacher’s edition or answer key and grading your child’s work is instinctual. Because most of us attended a brick-and-mortar school, and grading was just part of life, we may not have even realized that we do not have to use a traditional grading system, and that we can create our own method for evaluating our child’s school work. Many of us have left the school system in order to provide our kids with an individualized education, and then we turn around and use the school system’s tools to assess our child’s academic progress.

Is there a better way?

First, let’s ask some questions about the purpose of traditional percentage and letter grading:

  • Does it provide an accurate track of academic progress?
  • Does it help you target problem areas?
  • Do good grades prove your child is learning?
  • Do good grades prove proficiency?
  • Are grades used or viewed as a reward or a punishment?
  • Do kids try to get good grades just to please parents?
  • Do parents think of their child’s grades as ‘bragging rights’?
  • Does grading help kids take their school work more seriously?

We may have taken grading for granted until now, but it is essential that we ask these questions so that we can chart a better education course for our children.

It is obvious that we need to have a way to evaluate our child’s comprehension and retention, but traditional grading often reduces our child’s work to a system of numbers that don’t offer us or our students the kind of feedback that is truly helpful.

So let’s look at traditional grading- basically, it is taking the number of answer wrong and the total number of questions,  and calculating the percentage of correct answers. This percentage is then compared to a grading chart, where, for example, a 90% is a B, which indicates an ‘above average’ grade. So if you use this method to grade your child, tell me- has your child learned anything? Are you sure?

Let’s face some issues about calculating percentages and awarding letter grades:

  • Kids can cram facts, parrot them onto an assignment or test, and then forget about them the next day.
  • Grading doesn’t appeal to a child’s intrinsic desire to learn; rather, it can distract them from the concepts themselves and reduce them to unconnected, albeit memorized, facts.
  • Kids are discouraged from tackling more challenging material because they are afraid of negative feedback via grades.
  • It draws the child's attention to what they did wrong than what they are accomplishing.
  • Kids may connect their letter grade (below average, average, above average)to their sense of self-worth and ability.
  • Parents focus on the overall grade -  if it is in an acceptable range - as proof of learning, and may not examine their child’s work to see if/where they might be struggling.
  • Gifted students may be satisfied with mediocre work because they are getting good grades on subject areas that are easy for them.

Now, let’s take grading and give it a homeschool twist.

If our main goal for our students is that they love learning, and that they continue to grow in knowledge and wisdom, our system of evaluation should reflect that.

First, instead of 'grading', think of how best to assess and evaluate your child’s individual progress. It should focus on learning, and be positive, acknowledging what they did right more than pointing out what they did wrong. It should never be used to compare your child to someone else’s, or to a sibling.

As you assess your student’s progress, survey the curriculum and learning methods being used. Are children being challenged with interesting, meaningful content? Is it presented in a way that is consistent with how your child learns best? Do kids feel the content is worthwhile, valuable?

Do you give your kids concise, tangible goals to work towards? Do they understand how they are exercising important skill sets?

Here are some examples of what to evaluate in your child's work:

  • Reading fluency and comprehension
  • Following instructions
  • Content knowledge
  • Organization
  • Presentation
  • Analysis and critical thinking
  • Creativity and originality
  • Neatness and timeliness

Give feedback in each of these areas using measures such as:

  • Needs help
  • Beginning skills
  • Continuing improvement
  • Increased proficiency
  • Mastery
  • Advanced

Help them see the intrinsic value of learning, and motivate them with the desire to improve themselves. Good grades are sometimes the result of reluctant cooperation, and not real learning.

When kids are in the middle of learning a new concept, that is NOT the time to try to grade their progress. Wait until they are demonstrating comprehension to give them any sort of ‘graded’ assignments.

Instead of giving them grades, ask:

  • “Did you learn something new today?”
  • “How is what you are learning now building on what you’ve already learned?”
  • “Do you have any ideas about where what you’ve learned might lead you next?”
  • “What part of your assignment was easy for you? What part was difficult?”

Don’t use grades as a measure of a ‘good’ student. Some kids can get high marks without really trying- do we want to reward that? Some kids try hard but don’t get high marks- do we want to discourage them?

Be careful not to ‘grade’ behavior. Being able to sit still and listen is a developmental milestone that is different for every child. It is also something that should be taught by the parent long before the child has reached school age. If it is a character issue, then the parent should deal with it as a character issue, and not as an academic one.

Don’t label struggling kids unless they have been professionally diagnosed with a disability or developmental delay. Then get them the help they need for their particular learning problem.

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Here’s a helpful hint I have learned over the years- Don’t assume that the teacher’s edition or answer key is correct! There have been many times my kids have been about ready to pull their hair out over a problem, only to realize that the solutions given in the curriculum were incorrect! When that happens, ice cream often helps restore balance to the homeschool Force.

It's true that when a child reaches high school, and the transcript process begins, awarding letter grades becomes almost essential. But you do not have to bind your child's learning to a faulty evaluation system. Continue to assess your child's work with useful measures, while beginning to teach the test taking skills that they will need for college. At this point you can introduce traditional grading to your students so that they understand that if they attend college, they will most likely receive letter grades based on percentages.

As with many other aspects of education, grading is something that homeschoolers can choose or lose or change to fit their needs. What method of evaluation do you find most helpful for you and your children?