Giving High School Grades

Are you lying awake in bed at night worrying about giving high school grades and putting them on a transcript? Do you envision finally destroying your children’s futures by getting this wrong? There is no need to fear. Ordinary moms (and dads) can give high school grades, and do a good job of it, with just a little thought and research. If God has made you competent to educate your children, you are certainly competent to evaluate their learning and transcribe it into a letter grade. When you finish this article, I want you have confidence; you can do this! And you will do this because assigning high school grades is absolutely necessary.

You must give high school grades

There is almost no situation in which your home educated graduate will not need a transcript filled with completed courses, grades and a grade point average. Whether your child is looking at the military, police academy, trade school, or college, your child needs a transcript. Grades are a non-negotiable component of a transcript. So, no matter what your schooling style, you must figure out a way to assign high school grades.

Don’t let high school grades become a source of stress

While it is absolutely essential to give high school grades, you can relax because grading is highly subjective, and varies drastically from school to school. Grading varies so drastically that college admissions departments rely almost exclusively on ACT or SAT test scores to determine admissions and scholarships. The ACT and SAT scores, while not without flaws as evaluating tools, are attempts at objective, standardized measures of student academic success. When we create a high school transcript and submit it to a college, the letter grades will have little impact compared to the test scores.

When our oldest daughter was a high school freshman, my husband noticed the panicked look in my eyes and stepped in to help. He worked as a college coach and had walked hundreds of athletes through the admissions process. He had seen hundreds of transcripts and test scores. Needless to say, he had plenty of examples of grade inflation to help me relax.

One player from a public high school had an excellent GPA: 3.5. My husband was excited to recruit her. Everything was going well until she took the ACT. She scored a 14 on the ACT. Now, understand that a 3.5 should roughly translate to a 21 or 22 on the ACT. An ACT score of 18 was necessary to be admitted to the college. A score of 14 was so low she could not even be admitted on academic probation to take remedial courses. She tried to raise her ACT score but the numbers wouldn’t budge. Her grades and her test scores told two different stories. But the test score wins.

If public schools can’t get grading right, will homeschool moms make mistakes? Sure we will! However, grades that are a little off will not destroy your child’s future. If you fail to educate your child, you will destroy their future, so educate well. Having educated well and knowing that assigning letter grades is essential, relax and give it your best guess.

Use test scores to guess at high school grades

Standardized test scores are an excellent way to judge if your child is working at grade level. Of course, there are weaknesses of standardized tests. The test measures student performance on one day. What if your child has a cold and can’t think clearly? Testing procedures create stress. What if your child doesn’t handle stress well? Timing requires students to work quickly and efficiently. Some excellent students are slow and methodical workers, and are not good test takers. And standardized tests measure one type of intelligence not a person’s compassion or creativity. But then, grades are a measurement of the same type of intelligence.

Grades should reflect how well your child would perform in academic subjects compared to other students of the same level.

As a homeschool mom making this type of comparison is difficult. We understand this in subjective subjects like composition. When your child writes an essay, you are not deciding they merit an “A” based on a universal writing scale. How does your child compare to Charles Lamb or Samuel Johnson? That’s ridiculous! You should be thinking about how well your child writes for a tenth grader. Comparison is even difficult in objective subjects such as math. Your student can be an “A” student at home in a grade level math curriculum, then test and score in the thirtieth percentile nationally. (You should probably switch curriculum if this happens.)

Your child may take several different tests in junior high and high school that will give you a good idea of what kind of student they are and how they compare to other students. Use that information to help give high school grades.

Attendance or participation grades

Attendance and participation are common components of high school grading rubrics. These make sense in a classroom. Homeschool attendance is 100%. You could say participation is as well – if I ask a question there’s only one student to answer it. If you are in a situation where you need to report how you calculate grades (see “Exceptions” below) you may choose to use participation scores. For example, an answer with minimal information might merit a five out of ten. Whereas, a detailed answer might merit ten out of ten. Just don’t let these factors artificially inflate your child’s grades so that they are inconsistent with test scores.

A bad grade is a real option

Don’t automatically give your child all “A’s” because you think they’re a great kid. They are a great kid no matter what grades they earn! Love them and think they are amazing, just use their grades to reflect academic performance.

You may have a child who assumes you would never actually hurt them by giving them a bad grade. I had one child who was consistently ignoring their foreign language. I tried asking a hundred times.  Then we had a talk. When that child understood that an “F” on the report card was a real option, there was a behavior change.

Grading math and science

Assigning high school grades in subjects like math and science is simple. In math, we just add up all the scores (lessons and tests separately because they have different numbers of problems), turn those into a percent, and give a letter grade. We don’t mess around with weighted averages, but you could if you wanted to. In science, we rely only on their test scores.

But, here’s a true confession. Anytime my kids score below our established limit on a math or science test, they go back and repeat the previous five math lessons or the science module. I want my kids to genuinely understand and master the material. Our focus is on learning, not grades, and learning sixty percent of the material is unacceptable. And our focus is on learning not on sticking to a pre-determined schedule. When my kids know they risk falling “behind” and working into the summer, they tend to give their best effort to math and science tests.

Grading everything else

This is where high school grades become a little tricky, just remember that there is no need to stress. If you have a curriculum that gives you guidelines, use those. If you want to create a detailed syllabus, feel free. Do an internet search and you will find lots of people who have written about creating clear expectations.

But what if you school just a little differently? Then you will need to grade just a little differently. Your goal never needs to be to educate just like the schools. Here are a few things we do differently:

Failure is not an option

Our kids don’t have the choice of not doing their school work. Even though I mentioned above that getting an “F” was a real possibility, refusing to do what your parents ask would have real life consequences. When I assign a history reading list, my kids are required to read every book on the list. If they get behind they keep reading on Saturdays, and holidays, and into the summer. Once I planned way – way – too much reading for my daughter. She made a desperate appeal. But I could see how much she had been reading, and how much she had left, and I adjusted my requirements. That was my mistake.

Now it’s time for a true confession. My college freshman just admitted he skipped significant portions of Herodotus and Thucydides because they were boring. What can you do? I just laughed and told him it was a wonder he succeeded at all. That’s the wonder of homeschooling. You will always be an overwhelmed parent, never doing enough. Your kids will never give exceptional effort. And yet they can grow up and be exceptional and successful people.

We expect well done work

We expect work to be well done. Sometimes it isn’t done well the first time, so we try again. And again, if need be. We work and rework sentences, paragraphs, and essays. There is always room for improvement. As I said above, in math my kids repeat lessons if they don’t score well enough on a math test. When we talk about their history reading and they don’t seem to remember it, the obvious remedy is to read it again. If I ask my daughter to write a page a day about her history reading, I expect to see a page a day. And I expect to see it every day – or almost every day. So that’s what she does, and she does a good job.

We rely on conversation to determine comprehension

There is nothing better than a good talk. A multiple choice worksheet might be a quick way to see if your kids read the material, but they will not remember it for long. Ask your kids questions about their economics chapter. If you hear a news story about minimum wage laws, share it with your kids. Then discuss it. According to their economics book, what outcomes should we expect to see? How would they vote if they were voting on the issue? Then you know your kids have learned the material, remembered it over time, and applied it to real life.

Just don’t let evaluating in this way become an excuse to never really evaluate at all. A day or two can go by with your kids on autopilot, but you have to regularly ask about their reading, or standards will slip. And they’ll end up skipping significant portions of Herodotus. Sigh.

I evaluate attitude

There is no need to create a rubric for evaluating attitude. You know when your kids are trying hard or when they get right to work. You know when they’re procrastinating and giving you halfhearted effort. A good attitude matters far more than an easily measured grading scale. A good attitude is an expression of your child’s character, and training good character is one of the most important tasks of a homeschool mom. Address a bad attitude right away and try to work through it with your teen. And consider a great attitude a mark of success.

An exception to all I have said

When you create a system – whether you write it down or it’s sort of nebulous in your head – you never include that on your transcript. The transcript is brief and to the point. Courses and grades. You won’t even include your grading scale. And colleges won’t really use the grades, except to be sure a student has passed all the required courses for admissions. But there may be situations in which you have to explain how you arrived at the high school grades you awarded.

For instance, student athletes who plan to compete in NCAA  Division I or II athletics must register with the NCAA Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse requires a description not only of which courses were completed, but also course content, and how grades were calculated. So be sure to carefully read their requirements if you homeschool an elite athlete. (Incidentally, there are homeschool curricula that the NCAA Clearinghouse does not consider “college preparatory.” Make sure you choose curriculum that prepares your kids for college – and not all curriculum does.)

We focus on learning, not grades

Every day we focus on learning. How did we do today? Could we have done better? How?

We don’t worry about letter grades until the end of the semester, or even the end of the year. Letter grades are an expression of whether or not we spent the year learning. So at the end of the year, with all the math papers in order, in a notebook, we tally up a grade. Then we consider reading lists or completed essays. We assign some letter grades. We don’t spend long. It is quick and easy.

Then we can get right back to our real goal of creating life-long lovers of learning.



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