As a student I rarely questioned the grading system. I accepted it as a largely fair and objective evaluation of my performance. Only when I became a teacher did I start to struggle with the idea of grades. Growing bodies of research point toward project-based learning and feedback-based assessment as best practices. Using these approaches in my classroom, grades have increasingly felt like an arbitrary and restricting square peg that I have to force into the round hole of my goals for my students.
Between adopting concept-based assessments in math, developing a real-world problem-based engineering course, and participating in discussions around the Mastery Transcript, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years thinking about grades.
Here are just a few of my conclusions:
1. ALL Grades are Subjective
One of the main arguments I see in favor of maintaining grades is that we need an objective way to compare students to each other. The glaring flaw in this argument is that there is simply no such thing as an objective grading system.
All grades are subjective. What we choose to grade is subjective. How we weight grades is subjective. Whether and how we choose to assign partial credit is subjective. Whether we give students opportunities to revise assignments or complete extra credit is subjective. The list goes on. And worse, as author and lecturer Alfie Kohn points out, “what grades offer is spurious precision – a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” (I highly recommend reading the entire article, as Kohn beautifully illustrates many more problems with grades than what I’ll elaborate on here).
What grades offer is spurious precision – a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.
2. Grades Don’t Tell Us Much
Let’s start by considering a straightforward and traditional example: a student earned a B in Precalculus. What can you tell me about this student? You might want to tell me that this is an “average” student, but this statement still holds no meaning. What is an average Precalculus student? Todd Rose illustrates at length the flawed logic of averaging people in The End of Average, so I’ll instead just illustrate several different ways in which I’ve seen students earn a B in Precalculus.
What does a B in a math class tell you about a student? We toss so many different topics and skills into a given year of math class that a single overarching grade could mean many different things. Maybe the student struggled a little with all concepts. Maybe the student is really good at algebraic manipulation type problems but struggles with more conceptual type problems. Maybe it’s the exact opposite. Maybe the student does well all-around on assessments but never does homework. Maybe the student started out the year earning A’s and ended earning C’s. Maybe the student started earning C’s and ended earning A’s. The list goes on and on, but hopefully I’ve made my point.
All these scenarios represent very different students. As teachers, tutors, or parents, we want to know those differences because our approach to supporting each of those students will be drastically different. We might assume that students know those differences, but ultimately that can get lost as well….more on that below.
What about a student who earns an A? Surely that is straightforward — the student does well and has mastered the subject, right? Even then, different teachers’ and different schools’ definition of what constitutes an A varies just as much as the attitudes and aptitudes of their students. The only thing a letter grade tells me is that the student successfully met whatever requirements were expressed by his or her specific teacher to earn that grade. And that really tells me very little.
Not only do grades not tell us much about student academic performance, but they also tell us even less about a student’s capacity to succeed in college and beyond. Some prominent employers are coming to the same conclusion. Google has stopped requesting transcripts and test scores from applicants, determining that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.” Laszlo Bock elaborates further, explaining that “academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment.” One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer… You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.
G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.
3. Grades Don’t Tell Them Much
Students are inclined to focus on the grade they got rather than what they did or didn’t understand. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard students ask: “What can I do to bring my grade up to a ___?” While this can lead to a fruitful discussion about what the student does well and where they need to improve, the premise of the question needles me.
What is the first thing nearly every student does when they get a test, paper, or project returned to them? They look for the grade. Some – possibly a majority – of those students won’t even take the time to look at any specific feedback they received. Even when we attempt to separate the feedback from the grades, the knowledge that there WILL be a grade coming tends to color the feedback sessions in my experience.
Students’ near-obsession with their grades — or concept scores, or any other quantifiable rating system — distracts them from what they are actually learning, or struggling to learn, in class. An essay by Northwestern’s Dean of Engineering offers a fantastic analogy: “While these students think they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.”
4. Grades Undermine Classroom Culture
There is a substantial body of research to demonstrate the ways in which grades distract from feedback and growth, reduce students’ intrinsic motivation, and discourage innovative thinking. Hmm…those are all the things I’m trying to foster in my classroom.
I also find that grades alter the types of relationships I build with students. At best, grades make student-teacher relationships transactional. Many a well-meaning teacher, myself included, has had conversations with students about “what they can do” to improve their grade. Too often those conversations boil down to assignment arithmetic. Well, you can do this assignment you missed for half-credit; you can take another quiz on these three concepts; you can revise this paper; etc. Often absent from this conversation is a meaningful discussion about the student’s growth or actual learning.
In my class, grades work to undermine the culture of feedback and growth I’m working to establish with my students. I can have positive and productive conversations with my students about what they are doing well and where they need to grow, but once I have to tie that feedback to a grade, much of the focus on growth is lost. Grades elevate formative feedback to summative assessment. They introduce a sense of finality and place limits on students’ perception of how much they can improve.
The best workaround I’ve found currently is to have conversations where a student and I will together decide on an appropriate grade. But stepping back, all this is doing is taking our existing feedback sessions and adding on, “Okay, so what grade do you think this looks like?” All the meaningful discussion about the student’s learning and growth has already occured. The assigning of a grade adds no value, it is just paying lip service to the idea of grades. Can’t we just leave it at “Here’s what you did well, here’s where you can improve,” and call it a day?
We Need a Better Way
We spend a concerning amount of time and energy in the world of education finding ways to sort and rank students. Grades and GPAs, class ranks, and test scores suck too much joy out of the high school experience.
In the world of work, most companies have moved away from ranking and grading systems, coming to the realization that ranking employees hurts culture and motivation.
If we recognize that grading and ranking adults is bad practice, why do we still think it’s acceptable to grade and rank children? Of course we want to differentiate students, support struggling students and recognize those who excel, but we only have to look beyond schools to see plenty of effective ways to do all of those things. Successful companies, sports teams, and informal or extracurricular education organizations accomplish similar goals without grades. We can take cues from them and foster intrinsic motivation and growth by focusing on individualized feedback and goal-setting, emphasizing persistence and growth, and building a culture that values individuality, supports creativity, and embraces failure as a crucial part of learning.
As we recognize that we need to prepare students with a new set of skills, it’s time to leave behind the 19th century grading system and adopt something better aligned with the goals of a 21st century education.
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