Welcome to school, the place where grades are made up and the points don’t matter! That’s right, the points are just like the Super Bowl aspirations of a Cleveland Browns fan!
If everybody jumped off a bridge…
When it comes to school, everybody grades. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a traditional A-F scale, or something more “progressive” like standards-based grading, 1-4 numbers, Grade Point Averages, percentages, or literally anything else, just about everyone does it. There are a few new-age schools that disassociate themselves from grades, but even Montessori schools begin adding in grades to “prepare students for high school.”
I mean, grading is so ubiquitous that there is very little academic research about the merits of grades (Alfie Kohn aside). When I was doing my teacher preparation courses, grading students was something we spent a grand total of five minutes on. The professor said, “You can keep a tally of total points or you can run an average of all student’s assignments. You do what you’re more comfortable with. Now, about aligning a lesson to the appropriate standards…” It was never a question of whether we were going to grade or not, it was just accepted that you will. Figure out the best way to keep track of ‘em.
Since grades are so central to the student experience in school, there has been a largely uncritical view of grades within the profession. Of course, if educators are supposed to teach critical thinking, then at the very least we need to model it ourselves; and if we can’t even think critically about the very bedrock of our practice, then how can we do so for anything else? Whether you agree with traditional grading or not, a healthy skepticism is good for improving your craft.
Talk to any educator (or adult, or student, or anyone who’s been inside a classroom ever), and I think we can safely add Grades to the other inescapable realities of life, along with Death and Taxes.
When it comes down to it, grades help us compare apples to oranges.
The question is: should we be comparing apples to oranges?
So whose great idea was this in the first place?
Something so absolutely essential to the education experience must have a solid foundation of scholarly application, right? I mean, if we all use basically the same method of evaluation, then it must have been designed by educators on the cutting edge?
Ehh…maybe. You’d be surprised how little professional input there was in the creation of grades. They just sort of…happened. Our modern grading system was very much a grassroots evolution out of the Progressive Era of administration (not to be confused with the Progressive educators, like Thomas Dewey and Maria Montessori).
You science teachers might now be screaming that evolution by means of natural selection leads to organisms that are best suited to their environment. I’d say that this evolution has stalled in the last 50 years or so. Of course, maybe that’s more a critique of the school environment than grades themselves. But I digress…
Fair warning: I’m a history teacher, so here’s a wildly oversimplified history for you.
In the 1790s, early elite American universities began the grade crusade by looking to the European model of using scores to rank students. Over two hundred years later, schools…do the exact same thing. Because that’s just the way things have always been done, so why rock the boat?
Half a century later, Horace Mann brought a lasting innovation to primary and secondary schools: the report card. Issued on a monthly basis, these cards communicated student progress to parents. (Interesting side note: this also gave rise to the phrase “the head of the class,” as students who performed better actually changed seats to the front of the classroom.)
As compulsory schooling met the Industrial Revolution, grading became even more widespread. This time period saw massive levels of immigration from outside the US as well as in-migration from farm to city. With so many students moving and transferring and entering and dropping out and doing who-knows-what-else, schools needed some way to track the progress of students. How will we know what students are learning? Grades.
By the 1920s and ‘30s, educators began questioning whether these mass grades were standard across the country. Does the same grade equivalent have the same value across different teachers? In different schools? Different states? We’re all using the same numbers (or, rather, letters), but how do we know they even mean the same thing?
Yes, those questions were posed a century ago. Anyone come up with a good answer yet? Someone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
Instead of answering the question, schools simply continued course. By the 1940s, the three main grading systems fused into the one we have today, where a letter equates to a percentage band and a number on a 4.0 scale. Because numbers are obviously objective and they don’t lie, so the more numbers we can apply to performance, the more accurate our assessment is, right? I mean, that’s totally how statistics work, right? (Another sidebar: it blows my mind that prospective teachers aren’t often required to take a Statistics course.)
And that’s where we are today. The same place we were during World War II. Because it’s always been like that and it’s just how we do things.
What’s the point, anyway?
If you ask teachers why they grade, you’ll likely get one of a variety of comments (or some combination thereof).
“Grades help motivate my students.”
“They communicate to students and parents how well the child is doing in school.”
“They keep track of how well students learn the topic.”
“Without grades, how would I ever know who’s mastering the material?”
While all of those may be true, they can all be answered — more effectively, I’d argue — without grades.
Let’s start with motivation: it’s a common misconception that students are motivated to perform better by grades. Actually, let me clarify; I’m being a bit disingenuous. Grades absolutely do motivate students — to get better grades. Grading doesn’t motivate students to learn more, or to think creatively, or to problem-solve; grading just motivates students to do what it takes to get better grades. It incentivizes the wrong thing: memorization and regurgitation instead of true learning.
In fact, grading may actually have perverse incentives on student growth. Not only is grading (an extrinsic motivator) a less effective motivating force than more intrinsic models (individual autonomy, mastery, and purpose), but they can actually have the effect of stifling students’ creativity and other critical and analytical thinking skills.
This isn’t anything new; this topic has been studied for nearly 50 years. In fact, in one interesting experiment with med school students, a program switched from traditional grades to a simple pass/fail system. Researchers found no statistically significant decrease in student performance, but they did find that it fostered a sense of collaboration instead of competition among colleagues.
Failure is one of the essential steps toward mastering a new skill. Unfortunately, traditional grades do not allow for failure; or, at least, they do not allow for growth and learning from that failure. When you fail, you just…fail. That’s it.
Next, on to grades as a means of communication. Sure, on some level grades do communicate student progress on a task. At a very simple and marginal level, wide grade bands communicate in general how a student is doing.
But if the purpose of school is learning, then grades are a pretty poor communicator. Let’s just ignore the fact that different grades mean different things from different teachers. An A in Mrs. Smith’s class doesn’t mean the same thing in Mr. Jones’s class, and it’s definitely not the same as in Ms. Frizzle’s room. And we’ve all had that one teacher who proudly refuses to give out As, because reasons. With all of that variation, what’s the point again?
As researchers in Wisconsin showed in a middle school science classroom, a more effective communicator than grades is teacher comments. It turns out that telling students what they did wrong (or right) and how they can improve their work goes a lot longer towards helping students learn than simply giving them a letter or a number. File this one under “No shit, Sherlock.”
Finally, about grades showing mastery. I don’t have too much to say about this, other than one question: shouldn’t mastery be self-evident? I mean, if our lesson involves students learning a certain skill, and we lay out concrete objectives for that lesson, shouldn’t it be obvious whether or not students meet those objectives? The way I see it, grades just complicate what should be a simple practice.
But really, what’s the point?
Grading is the epitome of what I view as one of the biggest problems in education: an uncritical atmosphere of “that’s just the way we do things.” People are afraid of change, and parents, educators, administrators, and politicians are much more comfortable with what’s familiar. If we want students to be better than that, then we need to be better than that.
Also, I freaking hate grading.
Pink, D.H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.
White, C. B., & Fantone, J. C. (2010). Pass-fail grading: Laying the foundation for self-regulated learning. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 15(4), 469-477.
Zhang, B., & Misiak, J. (2015). Evaluating three grading methods in middle school science classrooms. Journal of Baltic Science Education, 14(2), 207-215.