Are Grades The Devil?

Here’s a provocative thesis for you: grades are the devil. They’re evil. They’re evil because they’re oppressive and overvalued. And they’re dumb, not stupid-dumb (although, that’s kind of true), but rather mute-dumb. They don’t tell us anything. They don’t tell us what we need to know about what’s been taught or how, what’s been learned, the qualitative nature of that learning, or the progress the learning represents. They’re arbitrary and unreliable. And they don’t motivate—and if they do motivate, they do so for the wrong reasons.

Are you fired up? Here’s a true confession: I grade students. In part, because I have to, because parents, students, and administrators expect me to, and because it’s part of the job description, I give grades—although I’m fond of the adage, and I use it hypocritically from time to time on my students, that teachers don’t give grades—students earn them. I give grades in the guise of points for things done or accomplished. These points add up over time. And then, at the end of each quarter, and then again at the end of a semester when the thing sticks like stink on something stinky forever, I translate these points into a letter grade. You earned 90% of the possible points possible in this semester. You have earned the letter A. A is for awesome. A is for axcellent. A is for advanced. A is for abracadabra. A is mostly nonsense. And if you earned anywhere between 0% and 59.999%, you’ve earned the letter F. F is for failure. F is for f***k-up. And, in part, because there is no distinction made between 0% and 59.999%, F is also mostly nonsense, pure foolishness.

Do I believe what I’m saying, actually? Let’s try it out. This is what I believe about students who earn an A in one of my English classes: They completed all of their work thoroughly, thoughtfully, punctually. They followed instructions. They did what they were asked to do in good faith. They were leaders in the classroom. They demonstrated mastery over the skills and core knowledge represented by the curriculum, I hope. And, they worked hard, I think. What’s wrong with ANY of that, you might ask. Aren’t these admirable qualities, all of them? Certainly, they are. But perhaps you’re reading a tone of uncertainty about some of these things. I hope they mastered all of the objectives? I think they worked hard? Don’t I have foolproof assessments that tell me they’ve mastered this stuff and worked hard toward that goal? Does it matter? Is it just, more than anything else, that an A student is a very compliant student and an F student is not? And what’s wrong with that?  Well, to begin with, I don’t want compliant students.  I want students who are engaged.

Here’s another confession: I wish I did not have to give grades. I think the world of education and the world at large would be a better place without them. Let me back up first, and try to clarify some of the accusations I have leveled at the grading process in that opening paragraph.

Oppressive? I sometimes fear that the chief purpose behind the time-honored grading process is simply to sort human beings. It’s a kind of sorting that is distasteful and oppressive, because it essentially mirrors and possibly promotes a social and class structure prevalent in our society at large. It gives kids labels and then sorts them by these labels. It separates the smart from the dumb, the successes from the failures, the beautiful from the ugly, mostly, the rich from the poor. It determines, in large part (but not completely), who’s going to college, who’s finishing a degree, who’s going to be gainfully employed, whose earning potential will reach 70,000 dollars a year, which is, I’ve recently read, how much money a person needs to be “happy.” I find this sorting process to be oppressive. It’s ugly. It seems to me somehow that schools might be, or could be, a sanctuary from such sorting—that, in a perfect world, if we really want the same thing for all kids, and that is, to bring them to their fullest potential while we have them, grades seem counter to this. Let adulthood sort people. Let the job market sort people. Let advertising and corporate interests do that—but if I have done my job creating a classroom that represents the dignity of the individual and the principles of democracy and a place to learn and grow without fear—let adulthood, the job market, advertising, and corporate interests try to sort my students. Maybe they will fail.

Overvalued? Yes, because there are actually colleges out there in the world that don’t care about them. Yes, because they don’t necessarily speak to potential success at anything in the future. Yes, because they are dumb—mute-dumb—as mentioned above. Do you want to know what the student studied? Grades don’t tell you that. Do you want to know what the student learned, grappled with, explored, discovered, loved, hated, found useful or relevant? Grades are silent on that point. Do you want to know if the student made leaps and/or bounds over a period of time? Grades can’t say. All grades can say is that a student accomplished 90%, 80%, 70%, 60% or a lower % of some mysterious thing about equally mysterious subject matter. But A’s are inherently good, aren’t they? They give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. We want them on our transcripts and on our children’s transcripts.

Arbitrary and unreliable? Sure. A student may get a C from one teacher and an A from another in the same subject. A student may earn an F in a class for which he or she has already mastered the core knowledge and skills. A student might earn an A in class for working really hard but not mastering the objectives of the course. In one class a teacher grades participation and it’s worth a certain % of a total grade. Another teacher believes you shouldn’t grade behavior at all, and while participation is important to this teacher, it’s a behavior, and a student could have her hand raised for 18 weeks to chime in to the discussion and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in her overall performance.

Grades don’t motivate? Listen to Dan Pink. Read or listen to (but try not to watch) Alfie Kohn talk about the studies that have been done on motivation. The jury is in: the higher the reward in terms of money or grades, the less a person is motivated. And this is borne out in my experience as a classroom teacher in almost every conceivable way. The students who fail are not worried. They’re not afraid. The threat, and that is exactly what it is, of an F, forever on their report card and transcripts, does absolutely NADA to motivate them. And most of my A students do what they do because they find value in doing it and would do the same thing if all they got at the end of the semester was a polished stone—or maybe even a lump of coal. Now, with the latter category, the A student category, there are students who ask me about  what they’re “getting” on a regular basis, (but now they don’t have to ask me because they can go on the interwebs and check their own progress, in which case they don’t have to ask me what they’re “getting”, but instead, how they can “get” something better), who are motivated by the actual LETTER “A”, or who are fearful of unrealistic parent expectations, or who are working hard for some other external goody, like a driver’s license, insurance money, extra-curricular activities, an x-box, an iPod—but what we know from the research is that these motivators are short-lived—they do not result in lasting, intrinsic motivation toward life-long learning or toward quality work. So for some people, money and grades work in the short-term. No one who is serious about the education of a child wants any of their efforts toward this end to be short-term.

In conclusion, then, grades are the devil and I wish I did not have to give them.

So, you might be asking, what’s in place of grades, Mr. Smarty-Pants? Another day, another blog.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

4 thoughts on “Are Grades The Devil?

  1. Bravo!
    All my students know: “in Mrs. Rizor’s fantasy world there are no grades.” Mostly we agree (the students and myself–certainly it seems after reading this piece you and I); grades hurt relationships; grades don’t capture learning; and grades get in the way of focusing on the learning, the growing, the moving ahead as individuals toward our goals and our relationships with content, learning, and each other.
    Thanks for being so thoughtful and for making the time to write and share those thoughts :-).

  2. Nailed it. I’ve been reading a lot of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Grace Llewellyn since I realized I was going to have children and we would have to make educational choices. Currently my very extroverted, gregarious 5 year old is nearing the point of Kindergarten, and I’m asking myself: how can I give her the social interaction she craves while preserving her love of learning? I have several solutions for this. One is simply being involved in the early years while she attends public school, advocating for her personal learning journey while not putting any stress on the grades.

    Another choice is home school (or unschool!), taking advantage of the community around us for social gatherings. We know quite a few secular home schoolers, and have already started doing some OMSI home school group classes. It’s coming down to what school she is accepted for. We’re in PPS and our “neighborhood” school is not actually close by, so we’ve applied for a school that is more accessible, and she already has a friend there.

    For me actual learning taking the time to really study and ponder and absorb a subject, was often in direct conflict with earning good grades. If I really wanted to figure out something difficult to understand, usually in math or science, I tended to spend too long on it and turn it in late. The grade in no way reflected the effort I put forth. In fact, working, putting aside, letting my subconscious do some work, and coming back to it is very much my learning style and works for me as an adult.

    My 5 year old is very different from me, though, and she may thrive in the public school atmosphere. She doesn’t have a strong opinion either way at this point, so the decision is mostly on me.

    1. I’m biased, obviously, but I recommend public ed. We have a 5 year old, too, and are in the process of getting him registered for this fall. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like I have no concerns about this, but all I have to do is think of my own experience as a student, feeling excessively lucky, and thinking also about the best of my kids at Putnam, who lack for almost nothing educationally, despite–or in spite of– their lowly public education histories. Yes, be involved. I think that’s the key.

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