What happens when you give an A* student a B grade?

Teachers owe it students, parents and themselves to hold the line on grades - but it's worth taking time to explain why

Lewis Mason

Exam grades: What happens if you give an A* student a B grade?

"Sir, why did I only get a B?"

When reports have been dispatched, a phrase along these lines may be all too familiar, especially from a pupil used to receiving top marks.

Working in the international sector especially means such comments are frequently heard – after all, the sector attracts parents and students for all sorts of reasons, including a desire to acquire an excellent academic resume to help compete on a global level.

The parents are often successful business owners or highly qualified individuals, too – and expect their children to achieve very high standards across the board. The children usually also have high expectations for themselves.

Exam grades: Learning is a process

As teachers, we then do our best to help them achieve this – but how do we also support students and families in understanding that learning is a process that requires a particular attitude and that sometimes a B grade, or a C grade, is part of that process? 

Consider something that you have invested time into learning – painting, playing the piano, running, playing badminton, cookery…how do you know how much further you have to go to be able to classify yourself as "good" or "able" in that skill?

People may have differing opinions on this but the main point is that you know that you have not learned everything there is to know about that thing – and so are able to accept and appreciate that you are a person involved in a long-term learning process.

Any individual who has acquired a high level of skill or knowledge has appreciated their limitations and continually worked on improving them. This is the recipe for excellence. 

Can everyone be excellent all the time?

The second issue we must consider is: should it be possible for all students to achieve the highest grades in all subjects?

There will always be the rare individuals that achieve this but is it healthy for us to encourage an expectation for students to be gifted in every subject?

As teachers, we know that we are not only teaching facts and skills but instilling positive values and good wellbeing in young people.

Perhaps an individual who believes they are gifted in every area because they have the grades to prove it will turn out not to be that likeable or humble – and when they perceive that someone is achieving more than them and cannot understand why or feel like a fraud, they can become very unhappy.

In fact, I already see this happening to students of a young age, scared of letting their parents down or themselves. 

Perhaps the idea of people being better at different things is old-fashioned but it is a sentiment with some benefits, particularly in high-pressured international schools.

How can we improve this? 

Well, "over-grading" to avoid upsetting students is not the answer – this only escalates and prolongs the unjustified belief that students may be excellent in all areas when they are not.

The key is being truthful and realistic, both in terms of the student´s attainment and in trying to make them understand how their journey in your subject could extend beyond school throughout their lives.

Providing them with lots of examples of skills, knowledge and exercises, and using critical assessment for learning frequently is helpful. They should be able to be critical of their own work in a useful, productive way.

This can go hand in hand with helping students to develop an appreciation of patience and the understanding that it takes time to acquire ability.

Trust the journey

I often show my students examples of highly realistic drawings. Usually, when they see such a drawing, they see the amazing result and perhaps even feel frustrated they cannot do something similar.

But they may not be aware of just how many stages in time the drawing has gone through – how many failures and false starts.

We then look at exactly this as I demonstrate every single stage that it took to reach this level of skill so they can really get a sense of what was before, how it develops and feel confident in understanding the process.

This is about showing that a "B grade" or "not bad" piece of work is sometimes the outcome of our efforts at that moment – but it is all helping us grow and learn. 

Engaging parents 

We must also have honest and realistic conversations with parents about this – that their child will not receive an A* every time and that this is OK.

Most parents I have talked to about this understand this and realise you are actually doing your job by being honest, constructive and engaged in their child’s learning like this.

Where the conversation can be harder is with senior leaders internally.

At a previous international school I worked for, the management used to argue with teachers, in an attempt to get them to increase grades because they were afraid of the backlash.”

In one grade meeting when this happened to me, in front of the whole school staff, I said I refused to increase the grade as it devalued my subject and was disrespectful to students that really deserved those grades.

After all, teachers love giving A*s for great work – but we know their power comes from using them for those truly exceptional pieces that warrant such acclaim.

Lewis Mason is an art and music teacher at The International English School of Castellón, and has taught internationally for two years

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