Should students have grades?

Disclaimer: The following is a work in progress. I am writing an essay with/for my Core 3 students about the following question: Should students have grades?

The first six letters hold an inordinate amount of power, and frankly, it makes me sick. The A’s, B’s and C’s have too long had a stranglehold on our schools. They hold students hostage all in the name of describing proficiency. The teacher in me has had enough inscribing a student’s ability onto the top of a paper and then watching students see it as a judgment of them as a person. Grades are supposed to foster growth, but instead they tear down self-worth. There is no purpose for grading students in a modern school because the process is inherently subjective, it promotes unnecessary competition, and it takes away time from authentic feedback that is necessary for student learning.

Grading lacks purpose in today’s schools because teachers are incapable of making completely objective grading decisions. Every time that a teacher looks at the student’s name on a paper, recognizes a student’s handwriting, or thinks about a student while entering grades, he or she is making a judgment call. It is difficult, even if only on a subconscious level, to dismiss all of the previous experiences with an individual students while grading. The heated argument with a teacher, the broken promise of making up work, the ridiculous disruption of the classroom that distracts all other students, these are all things that weigh upon a teacher. The fact is that teachers are human, and all humans have preferences. Playing favorites, although a universally despised practice, is alive and well in our current classrooms. The only thing that will solve this problem of subjectivity is getting rid of the entire grading process.

The worst kind of competition is also supported by modern grading practices. By wost kind, I mean the kind that promotes cheating, plagiarism, and outright intimidation by students who wish to maintain the edge against one another for the few A’s given at the end of each semester. There is so much pressure for students to do well that all emphasis on learning gets completely left behind. Grading, at its core, is all about incentives: you do this level of work, and you will get this grade. Well, what happens if you can find all of the answers to a test or worksheet on the internet? The incentive to do the work on your own simply disappears. The grade has become an end in itself, the goal for all students. It is no longer the well defined marker of success it was dreamed up to be. It does not show students where they are floundering, instead it is a measure of how well students can work the system and best other students in a competition for “Most Shortcuts Found in Learning Process.”

Authentic feedback is the backbone of any successful learning experience. Learning exactly how good you are at something from someone you respect and trust is essential. It allows you the opportunity to look critically at your work, making it better with each moment you spend collaborating with a well intentioned teacher. What I have just described is the ideal situation for modern education. The only problem is that it cannot exist due to grades. Authentic feedback is circumvented because a teacher must spend all of his/her time deciding how many points something should be worth, which standard an authentic learning activity falls into, and which stiff sounding descriptor vaguely defines where students are at in their work. Questions that cause students to dig deeper into a subject will never be asked so long as teachers must submit to the torture of grading every piece of paper that students put their names to.

Grades are holding back America’s children. These impressionable youngsters must constantly compete, many times dirtily, to maintain their standing amongst their peers. They must forgo any type of authentic information from teachers that would help them to engage further in their learning. They must even be labeled with subjective levels of proficiency, showing a complete lack of understanding for self-worth or purpose. So, if not grades, what else is there? I have shown here the beginnings of a comprehensive form of assessment, one that is authentic, intrinsic, and student directed. Students should always know their A, B, C’s, but their lives should never be defined in such trivial letters.


  1. Pingback: Daily Lesson Plans » Blog Archive » 11.08.06

  2. iwthswtl

    I disagree. You made some very strong arguements though. Grades don’t always diminsh one’s self-esteem. If you get a recognition for working hard it isn’t a reward but it lets you show others what you have accomplished. Getting rid of grades would be the same thing as getting rid of any sort of reward awarded to people who had workied hard for it. With any ‘reward’ comes the ‘cheating, plagiarism, and outright intimidation’. This will also introduce students to what will come in more severe cases when the reach the adult stage. Grades are like an adult’s ranking in a job. Illiminating grades would be equvilent to getting rid of the career ladders.

    I agree with you with the point that teachers may be bias when they make the grades but I don’t think an ‘A’ quality work could be faded out by a bad day from the student. And most of the time the kids who are goofing off in class and being disruptive won’t be creating ‘A’ quality work.

    For the student who find the answers online, they will not benefit from this at all. If that student is not a 100% student and on the test lo-and-behold it is an ‘A’ than the teacher will get suspicious of this and investigate further to prevent this. And if they find the answers online then they must memorize them so with that they must know the material in order to recollect it on a test. If they choose to write it down then they will caught so in turn no cheating even takes place.

    Authentic feedback is also important, as you stated, but most teachers cannot complete this. But if teachers were to only ‘grade’ certain major assignments for academic qualities and for homework check to see if they attempted to complete it, than this would allow this ‘authentic feedback’ on the fewer major academically graded assignments. If then after that the student has questions than they will ask to do well in their major assesment on the topic. Also self assesments will help the teacher ‘see what the student sees’.

    And if the student doesn’t understand something, without any sorts of gradeing, than waht will push them to learn? What other insentive would push a kid to want to do good on a test? What would represent a below grade level quality, what would show the advanced person? Without grading Discovery wouldn’t exist because there would not be advanced students. You could try to bribe them with candy and sorts but than money becomes an issue. But a simple letter representing their work quality will push them to work harder to get that sort of recognition from their peers. And the ‘labeling’ of the kids by their grades is like lableing adults with a ‘Ph.D.’. It isn’t fair to have the ‘F’ student and the ‘A’ student be on the ‘same level’, same goes for a highschool drop out and a college graduate. Different abilities call for different ‘labels’ if you will.

    So a simple grade pushes kids to try to accomplish more and when they acheive an ‘A’ they are recognized for their hard work. That grade also shows improvement for the year. That grade will show an employer how much effort a person has to offer. Would you want to take the chance of having an ‘F’ student do your knee surgery? Without grades it could be possible their would be no backround for any employers to go off of. Grades are important and a necessity of how modern society works and functions. Without them students would have less to modivate them and would not alow for students to be proud of their accomplishments. These letters are not ‘trivial’ they represent the abilities of students and their capabilities.

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