Now that we are past homecoming and at the end of the marking period, I had been wrestling with what to blog about. A simple case of writer’s block–mixed in with just trying to keep several different balls in the air. Then, during a lunch block, a student asked me about the blog and what my next topic would be and I shared how I was stumped at the moment. She made a simple suggestion, which embarrassingly was an obvious one. And the perfect one. She offered, “Why don’t you write about the 50 floor?” I paused for two reasons: 1) I wasn’t expecting a student to suggest that, and 2) see my original reaction. She incisively observed that probably not a lot of people understood it—herself included. When I finished talking with her about it, her decision was cemented: I should write about the 50 floor and the power of zeroes. So here we are.
But before we can examine the 50 floor, it’s important to make sure we are on the same page with the purpose of grades. First, they are not compensation or rewards; rather, they are feedback. Their purpose is to communicate progress or present an accurate report of what happened.
With that established, the thinking behind a 50 floor is that there is an inequity in the math in the typical 100 point grading scale. And now we need to again establish some background information: before we can approach the 50 floor, one first has to understand the traditional grading scale. As far as I can tell, it is a pretty arbitrary value system. We treat it as sacrosanct, yet there is nothing divine about it. In fact, over the years, various school systems have tinkered with it because it is kind of arbitrary. For example, if you recall, in some places a 94-100 was worth an A. Then it became a 93 and up. In its most recent incarnation, it is a 90-100 that is an A. The point is that there is no reason why those markers were chosen—or moved. But what is clear is that the bottom portion of the grading scale is worth almost six times as much as the top end. We give degrees of F as we would give degrees of a B. And so the inequity is how much more weighted the range of an F can be.
Now where we don’t see that is in a four-point grading scale, or what you would most recognize as a grade point average. While high school GPAs can extend beyond the four points because of weighted courses, the bottom line is that generally speaking, a student’s GPA will be anywhere from 0-4. How does that factor in with the traditional 100 point scale? Well, the four point scale has equal increments: the math is equitable. The 100 point scale does not. The passing range has even increments of 10 points—until you reach 60, that is. Can you imagine having a GPA that was -6.0? That is what occurs in the 100 point scale; a zero is a -6.
And so the question of course is, what does this mean for students? Well, in the 100 point scale, the inequity of the math has a punitive effect. Consider a student who on her first two tests earned 100s. Great student, right? Straight A student in fact. But what if on her third assessment she bombed it. She did so badly that she scored a zero. Granted, this sounds a bit extreme, but it’s worth driving home the point of the inequity of the math. Well now her average is a 66%. Does that seem fair? But what if instead that failing score was bumped up to a 50? Because we don’t need degrees of F-titude. An F is an F right? Well that puts her average at an 83%. That equalizes the math and is probably a little more accurate of a gauge of what she knows and can do. But more importantly, when you establish that an F is an F and assign a floor, it gives students a fighting chance to bring their grade up.
Some people have said, but if you give someone a 50 for doing nothing, is that fair? Well, first we have to examine that idea of fairness again. We already established that the traditional grading school is not fair and is in fact punitive. But the other important response is that students aren’t “getting something” for having done nothing. They still receive an F. They haven’t “gotten” anything but a failing grade. What we’ve done instead is equalize the impact that it can have. And the reason we do so? If we are about students and helping students learn, then why wouldn’t we want to have them be in the most recoverable range of an F instead of the most irreversible range of an F (and there is much that could be said about how damaging that range can be for both the student and the teacher but that would be too much here).
Another reason goes back to the idea of feedback. A common example is if someone asked you for the average temperature one work week in July in Aldie. So if you recorded an 88, 85, 90, 84 but had a zero for Friday because you forgot, that would give you an average temperature of 69.4. Is that an accurate reflection of what occurred? As feedback or data, it is not only inaccurate, but it is also terribly unhelpful.
The same holds true with grades. We need to strive to communicate an accurate report. Usable data. The 50 floor better helps us accomplish that.
And so that was the conversation I had with a student in a loud, crowded cafeteria one lunch block. It made sense to her; I hope it makes sense to you.