Yesterday, my dear friend, Grammatically Delicious Designs in North Dakota wrote the post, "I Hate Grades." I had so much to say about this, that I decided to respond via post. So GDD this one's for you!
Grades (of the A, B, C variety) have long been these arbitrary letters assigned to a student based on their ability to match a certain set criteria, some of which the students have never actually been presented with. The deficiency lies in the fact that these grades do not assess students on the most important factors: effort, progress, and comprehension.
There are several things to consider when discussing how grade implementation should change. I'm going to talk from the point of view where we will not be able to eliminate them any time soon and instead, focus on creating meaning for grades.
One of the biggest problems is that the students (and parents) don't understand the grades, their purpose, and how they effect them. Grades have never been explained in a way that they can really put any value to. In my classroom, however, we use grades as a way of measuring progress in the subjects in which it is easy to do that. Math, for example, is fairly cut and dry (and even still, my students are given points for demonstrating comprehension of the process even when the answer is incorrect). When students receive grades, they chart them on a simple bar graph. We talk (several times over the course of the year) about what it means to show progress. This becomes very important in determining a final grade for them.
I also have the luxury of working with the WIDA standards which are the guidelines for assessing bilingual students in the state of Illinois. Those standards specifically state that I am allowed to measure students based on what can be expected of their own personal ability. That means I am not measuring a student against their classmates or against the state's version of the perfect 4th grader. Instead, I am monitoring progress and effort and making decisions as I see fit. I can refer back to the standards at any point if someone were to contend my grades and I would be willing to bet that other teachers in other states could use their own standards to back up their grading system as well.
Finally, I use goal setting as a major tool in instruction/assessment. Not only does it give students something to aim for, but it makes it clear to them whether or not they are progressing. This takes a bit of work and time to conference with each individual student. However, the results are the my students understand what is expected of them and what they need to achieve for themselves (not compared to everyone else).