Why Grades Suck – Part 2

Experiment: Bring some analysis into a world that is usually unquestioned.

This is part 2. Check out part 1 if you are interested in the data theory behind why I think grades suck.

There are several incredibly important questions about grades that I feel are rarely discussed. Grading procedures are clearly defined for teachers, grades are reported by schools, and students work for grades. Procedures and expectations are not the same as justification. So, the big question is, why?

There are only a few possible reasons for giving students grades; to track student progress, accountability of students or teachers, to identify students who need extra help, and external needs like college admissions or transfers. I would argue that for each of those possibilities, grades either don’t work or there are other indicators or strategies that work better.

So, quickly, let’s bust some myths.

  1. Grades are not a good way to track progress. From part 1, grades are not the right kind of measurement to be used for a growth model. Raw scores or percentages are especially bad at tracking growth because changing the total points possible means it is a different, non-comparable scale each time it is reported. Even systems like the IB Middle Years Programme that use criterion referenced grading are not acceptable measurements for tracking growth. Letter grades and single digit numbers are ordinal measurements and not a continuous scale like you would use to track physical growth. Imagine if we called you 4 feet tall until you reached the threshold for 5 feet. It would seem like years and years went by that you didn’t grow at all, but the truth is that it is just not the right kind of measurement model!
  2. Grades are not the same as accountability– This one is distressing to me. If we really thought that grades caused students to improve, then grades would work very differently. Should we just under-represent achievement so everyone works harder? Or be kind so everyone is happy at school? Do either of those actually make students better? Grades are not the same as learning, assessment, feedback, or good teaching either. Any teacher who has used grades as a motivator is manipulating students. Teacher accountability can only be measured by grades if the standard is “the teacher does what they are told to do”. There is no way to check if a teacher’s grades are accurate to hold them accountable!
  3. Grades do not identify students who are struggling – Or at least, it is not the best way to identify them. Personally, I think that it is fairly clear to teachers who is struggling and needs extra help in their classrooms. Often those students are not getting the lowest grades, so a cutoff grade is not useful. Sometimes the students who are struggling the most, or not meeting their potential, are in the middle and upper ranges of grades. Personally, I think most underachievement in the classroom is not related to content. It is usually related to personal characteristics that may not be revealed accurately through grading. There are much better ways of identifying students who have disabilities, behavior difficulties, or emotional issues than assigning them a grade. Focusing only on achievement of learning content doesn’t help a student who is struggling with focus, dyslexia, or mental health.
  4. Grades do not transfer well – Even if we wanted to use grades to transfer to other schools, without a clear description of the content scope and difficulty, grades are meaningless. Similar to what was mentioned in part 1, a grade point average disguises what kinds of courses were taken and isn’t a complete picture of a student’s experience at school. Even an “English grade” is not enough to tell a school where a student is located in their achievement and understanding.

So, why do we do grades? Is it just tradition? Are there really other uses that I’m missing?!

I frequently make this same statement in my writing; maybe lots of people don’t mind that grades are meaningless and useless. But I do! One thing that we frequently forget is that grades are not an automatic readout that happens when students walk out of the classroom. Teachers spend all day assessing students in the classroom and bringing them on the journey of understanding. On top of that, they spend countless hours doing assessment for learning, the productive feedback that helps students learn and develop. This may take the form of grading assignments or analyzing student work. Many teachers probably think that those hours are a useful and necessary part of their job. But few teachers should be okay with the hours and hours that are poured into grade reports. Several times a year, the multi-faceted, holistic assessment approach gets boiled down into a few silly letters or numbers that are turned into permanent records and sent home as a measure of a student’s worth. No teacher should feel comfortable that a series of symbols on a page accurately represents what has happened in a classroom or for a student. I am very passionate about this because the only message that grade reports send is that ability is fixed, that a person’s value is quantifiable, that discrimination or hierarchy is a necessary part of life, and that we don’t care about the experience of education, just the output. I think all of these are horrible. Any school that believes that students are constantly growing and are human beings should take a serious look at grading practices. Procedures, tradition and expectations are just not enough to justify this.


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