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Answer Sheet: The Big Problem(s) With Grades

In the early 20th Century, K-12 schools began developing and implementing systems to grade students, with many of them adopting what was already in use in some colleges and universities — the A-F system. Students have been complaining about them ever since, and education historians have noted their virtues as well as their many deficiencies.

In their new book, “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To)” Jack Schneider and Ethan L. Hutt write about the influences of grades, test scores, and transcripts on schools and students as they map out ways that assessment currently undermines student learning and offer ways out of the predicament.

Following is an excerpt from a chapter about grades. Schneider is a historian, policy analyst, and a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has written several books, including, “Beyond Test Scores,” and co-wrote “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School.” Hutt is a program director and associate professor of education at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored a book titled “Absent from School: Understanding and Addressing Student Absenteeism.”

Here’s the excerpt from “Off the Mark: How Grades, Ratings, and Rankings Undermine Learning (but Don’t Have To)” by Schneider and Hutt, published by Harvard University Press (with footnotes):

How Grades Fail

The most obvious problem with grading is the fact that it’s so effective at motivating students.

That may seem counterintuitive. How can success be a problem? Yet consider what, precisely, students are motivated to do when they strive for an A. It often doesn’t have much to do with learning.

Grades function as a kind of crutch in K-12 and higher education. Rather than instilling an intrinsic love of learning in students, our system for the most part motivates them extrinsically — with grades. As a result, students may learn something as they progress from kindergarten through higher education, but often only incidentally, in the pursuit of the rewards they’re actually after. This isn’t to say that students don’t develop academic skills or that they never develop a real passion for the things they study. But as any teacher who has been asked “Is this going to be on the test?” can tell you, students’ decisions about how they approach their schoolwork are strongly influenced by strategic considerations around grading.

In the eyes of students, education often has value only because it can be traded for something else — namely, social and economic advantage. The badges and honors of school, students have been taught, will gain them access to good colleges, good jobs, and good lives. As a result, grades have become like scrip money or Disney Dollars. They may not be legal tender, but they are certainly tokens of exchange, securing access to everything from gifted and talented programs to car insurance discounts.

This may seem harmless enough. But the emphasis on grades, rather than on learning, undermines the inherent value of education. We may tell young people that we want them to develop a love of learning, and that school is a place where they can discover, develop, and realize their potential. Yet what we incentivize them to do is usually quite different. When students stay up late cramming for an exam, when they copy their friends’ homework, and when they pester their teachers for higher marks, they are showing us the messages they’ve received.

To be clear, getting good grades doesn’t preclude students from developing a deep love of learning. Moreover, straight-A students may learn some important skills and develop productive habits as they scramble to compile their perfect report cards. But the crucial point is that our system is set up in such a manner that learning may be incidental to most of what happens as young people progress through the education system. Here, one of our mentors, David Labaree, is worth quoting at length:

“Students at all levels quickly come to the conclusion that what matters most is not the knowledge they learn in school but the credentials they acquire there. Grades, credits, and degrees — these become the objects to be pursued. The end result is to reify the formal markers of education and displace the substantive content. Students learn to do what it takes to acquire the necessary credentials, a process that may involve learning some of the subject matter (at least whatever is likely to be on the next test) but also may not … The payoff for a particular credential is the same no matter how it was acquired, so it is rational behavior to try to strike a good bargain, to work at gaining a diploma, like a car, at a substantial discount.”

The reality of this situation is so deeply ingrained that even the smallest deviation under the most extraordinary circumstances produces backlash. Consider, for instance, the expression of dismay from Oregon parents when that state’s department of education decided to suspend grading during the initial coronavirus outbreak of 2020. Many parents, no doubt, took the policy in stride. But signatories to an online petition were irate. Some wanted to know how to motivate their children without the brass ring of grades. As one mother complained: “How do I explain to my child that has great grades that she should keep working hard when anything that is D- and above will still ‘pass’? This is ridiculous.”

Other parents were more concerned about the grades themselves. In short, they wanted their children to receive the tokens they were owed. As one parent commented on the petition: “GPA matters, let students earn their grades and be rewarded.” And as another parent noted: “My HS student has worked his butt off for his grades and the wind was sucked right out of his sail.”

The upshot of this system is that for many students, school is simply the context in which they work to collect grades. In that sense, they aren’t really students at all — they’re employees. Their job descriptions are written on course syllabi and determined by the assignments that will be graded. Their pay, in turn, comes not in the form of a weekly paycheck, but in the form of quarterly grades. One student, making the case for assessment in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, argued that letter grades provide “compensation.” And as one parent noted: “My daughter deserves the opportunity to receive grades to remain competitive with other HS students in other states and receive the appropriate accreditation for her hard work.”

In sum, grades motivate students, but they don’t always motivate learning.

Rational students, irrational outcomes

In pointing out that students are motivated to earn good grades irrespective of what they learn, we want to be clear that we are not blaming students or their parents for this behavior. Collectively, in the United States and around the globe, we have accepted a system that strongly incentivizes students to act strategically — to hustle their way to good grades by working smarter, rather than harder. While some might argue that this is itself a useful life skill, we think most people would agree that such an outcome is not what school is all about.

Consider the phenomenon of grade grubbing — the practice of pestering instructors for higher marks, particularly on high-stakes assessments. Writing on the website of the academic journal Science, Adam Ruben reflected on his own experience as a grade-obsessed student: “The grade was everything. The grade was the all-important, all-consuming, all-powerful proxy for my identity as a student. I wasn’t about to let it slip through my fingers when I had a possible shot at a higher one.” What did he do, then, when he received a grade lower than what he aspired to? He confronted the instructor and “argued the hell out of that one point.”

From his perspective as an instructor, Ruben observed that his own students were no different than he was at their age. They begged, bargained with, and berated their instructor in pursuit of better grades — not “because they like points,” but rather, “because the education system has told them that these points are the currency with which they can buy a successful future.” Ruben was stunned by the fact that his students were simply responding as rational actors, operating intelligently within a system that rewards this kind of behavior.

Grade grubbing of the kind that Ruben describes may be relatively rare. Many students are likely to simply accept the grades they’re given, even if they’re dissatisfied. But the fact that grade grubbing happens at all is evidence of the value that young people place on grades as the ultimate end product of education.

Cheating is the most extreme manifestation of this attitude. Whatever it may indicate about students, it also shows us something powerful about the incentives created by grades. Consider, for instance, a study that sought to understand whether and why college students decided to cheat. As the authors of the study concluded, “The most important reason why the students in our sample cheated was the ‘desire to get ahead.’” To the surprise of the research team, that motivation was more important than variables like “attitude towards cheating,” “opportunity to cheat,” “cultural or moral acceptance of cheating as an established norm,” “low risk of detection,” or “heavy time demands.”

As instructors at all levels know, it isn’t just college students who are motivated to cheat. As another researcher studying the motivations of cheating put it, the problem of cheating “starts early and increases as students move through school.” As he found, grades played a central role: “Many students told me they know cheating is wrong, and they are not proud of their behavior. However, they feel they have to cheat to get the grades they need.”

Who cheats? Such questions are difficult to answer, given the powerful incentive for students to keep that information to themselves. Nevertheless, it seems that a majority of students find themselves operating outside of the rules at some point. According to one survey, 64 percent of students reported that they had cheated on a test. And as one researcher found, parents were often complicit, doing “most of the work” on important take-home assignments.

Even the most morally upright students are often looking for the quickest way to earn the most points. For evidence, look no further than the persistent inquiry from students about whether a particular topic will be on a subsequent test. What they are saying, in essence, is that if they know what they’ll be tested on, they can avoid wasting their time studying things that won’t “count.” It’s a classic shortcut that allows students to focus on what really matters: their grades.

Unequal Exchange

Schools are widely perceived as meritocratic institutions. That is, they are presumed to reward talent and hard work rather than inherited advantage. Yet the highest grades are all too often the reserve of a privileged minority of students. Why is that?

One factor is parents. Aware of the uses to which grades can be put, middle- and upper-class parents are a backstop against bad grades, and, as noted in the study above, a quiet driver of grade inflation. As David Labaree writes, “It is elite parents that see the most to gain from the special distinctions offered by a stratified education system, and therefore they are the ones who play the game of academic one-upmanship most aggressively.” Those least in need of academic support, in other words, are the most likely to be the squeaky wheels. Privileged parents will urge their children to reach out to teachers for help, will connect their children with tutoring, and will themselves intervene to ensure that grades never slip below the B-range.

The greatest inequities, however, may be a product of unconscious influence. As indicated by a large body of educational research, the strongest predictors of student achievement are family and neighborhood context. Teachers, of course, matter; but not as much as the out-of-school environment. To some extent, this is a direct function of resource inequality — of the difference between what can be purchased by higher-income earners and lower-income earners. But it seems that parental expectations matter more than family resources. That doesn’t mean that affluent parents are better at raising children. Instead, they are more likely to exert pressure on students — in forms both subtle and overt — to succeed in school and bring home high marks. As research indicates, they do things like make regular inquiries about their children’s marks, and are likely to discuss the importance of grades for all manner of life outcomes.

While grades can motivate some students to work harder in school, at least at particular kinds of tasks, they can also have a demotivating effect. Students with 4.0 grade point averages (GPAs) have a lot to lose. By contrast, their lower-scoring peers — students who are often already systematically underserved — often see little to gain by exerting additional effort. If you’re a C or D student, working harder seems like a bad bet. If learning is presented as work, and grades are presented as pay, why would you labor for a reward that never arrives?

Students from all backgrounds can be demotivated by grades. But once more, it tends to play out in ways that exacerbate inequities. Young people from low-income families and historically marginalized racial groups are more likely to start school behind their more privileged peers. And, as research demonstrates, they are likely to stay behind. This is a complicated matter, associated with a number of variables. But key among them is what researchers refer to as “academic self-concept.” As one set of scholars notes: “academic self-concept refers to individuals’ knowledge and perceptions about themselves in achievement situations.” In other words, it describes the extent to which students view themselves as academically capable. Young people who start behind are likely to view themselves as less capable. And schools are often designed around competitive or individual processes that reinforce such perceptions and stereotypes about who succeeds in school. Even those students who do succeed are burdened with the responsibility of navigating multiple cultural codes among peer, community, and school environments.

Many educators recognize this problem. In fact, there are school models that seek to disrupt and reshape students’ academic self-concept. The Comer School Development Program, for instance, is rooted in the idea that schools must first help children develop “positive emotional bonds with school staff” and “a positive attitude toward the school program.” Only then, the model suggests, can learning occur. But this is hardly typical. More often, existing systems send the message to students that they don’t have what it takes. Bad grades make official what many students already feel about themselves: that they are not good at academic work. This isn’t to say that student self-esteem should come before academic challenge. But academic challenge can be encouraged without grading, ranking, and rating students.

Of course, even the best students at the most elite schools are not well served by this state of affairs. Talk to these students about their schoolwork and you’re likely to get an earful about the strategic considerations surrounding their choices of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the general state of competition for grades in their schools. Even schools that have tried to lower the temperature on the competition among students — for instance, by capping the number of AP courses each student can take in a year, which also places a cap on the highest possible GPA. But that does not eliminate the competition; it only restricts the playing field.

The rate of inflation

Students aren’t the only ones to alter their behavior in response to grades. For at least two generations, observers have been wringing their hands over the scourge of “grade inflation.” Teachers, they argue, are watering down standards in an effort to make everyone happy. The result, according to one scholar, is that teachers are depriving students “of appropriate academic challenges or an accurate picture of their knowledge, skills, and abilities.”

Yet instructors aren’t simply being nice. Another way to understand grade inflation is as teachers’ reasonable responses to the increasing “weaponization” of grades. Aware of the tremendous weight that grades can play in students’ academic careers and their lives beyond school, instructors are often wary of issuing grades that will permanently label students and haunt them via their transcripts for years to come. The more enduring and summative a grade is — that is, the more it functions as a final evaluation of what a student knows and can do in a subject — the higher the stakes are. Will a D-plus on a three-question reading quiz alter a student’s life? Almost certainly not. But a single D-plus on a student’s high school transcript might be the difference between attending a dream college or a safety school.

The more that hangs in the balance for students, the harder it can be for instructors to “hold the line” and ignore the larger ramifications of their grading decisions. Consider the college professor who teaches an introductory course at an institution with a large percentage of first-generation students eligible for federal grant aid. The professor knows that such students often struggle academically in the first year as they make the transition from high school to college-level work. She also knows that in order to maintain eligibility for their Pell Grants, the students need to maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 — the equivalent of a C. Is the professor being unreasonable in thinking that grades in her first-year course ought not jeopardize students’ ability to continue their college educations? A similar conundrum, if not outright moral dilemma, hung over nearly all grading decisions during the Vietnam War, when instructors knew that a student who flunked out would lose his draft deferment. Not surprisingly, colleges around the country saw a very steep rise in student GPAs during the period.

Though not wanting students to be drafted into an unpopular war might be an extreme example, it nevertheless underscores the extent to which large and small dilemmas like these — where course grades become bound up in much larger, more consequential societal systems — suffuse our education system. Bad grades can keep students out of advanced coursework, can block them from participating in sports, and can even prevent them from graduating. Beyond that, grades play a role in university and graduate school admissions, and they play an important role in the initial screening for many employers, including the military.

Consequently, teachers and professors are leery of giving bad grades. There has been a steady upward shift in grading — a phenomenon that has played out in both K-12 and higher education. According to one analysis of college and university grading, 43 percent of all grades at American four-year institutions have been either an A or an A-minus. At some elite schools like Harvard, the median grade is now an A-minus, which puts it only slightly higher than the average for all private institutions, which see just under half (48 percent) of their students earning As.

Researchers have found a similar upward trend in high school grades. According to a comprehensive study of grades in North Carolina between 2005 and 2016, the median high school GPA rose consistently throughout the decade. Though both affluent and less affluent high schools saw an increase in GPAs during this period, affluent high schools saw their GPAs rise at a faster rate. While less affluent high schools saw student GPAs increase by 0.17 (on a 4.0 scale), more affluent high schools saw an increase of 0.27.

Some schools have responded to grade inflation by trying to place student grades in a larger context. For instance, many high schools provide information about class rank — a way to place a student’s GPA in context. Similar efforts have been undertaken to varying degrees at the college level. A proposal by the Cornell University Faculty Senate in the 1990s, for instance, sought to publish the median grades for all courses, as well as to include the median course grade on student transcripts — allowing any reader of the transcript to understand the overall grading difficulty of the course. The policy, however, was only partially implemented: the course information was published on the internet for those willing to search for it, but it never appeared on transcripts. The result? Students used the newly available information to seek out more leniently graded courses, and soon the median GPA was once more on the rise. Ironically, a policy aimed at suppressing grade inflation managed to fuel it instead.

Unfortunately, teachers’ efforts to disarm grades by compressing the grading scale is only partially successful, because the shift in grades does not address the underlying competition in the system, which makes small distinctions among students highly consequential. As a result, the cycles of grade inflation become self-perpetuating: each uptick in the average grade places more pressure on both students and instructors to respond in kind. If one’s peers are strategically selecting courses to maximize their GPAs and their relative class rankings, a student is forced at least to consider the wisdom of doing the same herself, lest she compare unfavorably when competing for graduate school or a sought-after job. Educators, likewise, find themselves pressured to make do with an increasingly narrow band of the grading scale. Few reputations precede an educator quite like one’s reputation as a tough grader. College and university instructors, particularly those early in their careers, are especially sensitive to being seen as engaged in a rearguard action against grade inflation, especially given the evidence that student grades correlate with student course evaluations. The higher the grades, the higher the course gets rated.

With the incentives aligned the way they are, it is easy both to explain grade inflation and to see why it continues. The few pockets of resistance to grade inflation — an economics department here, an “old school” English teacher there — are little match for the systematic forces that perpetuate these trends.

Decoding the mixed messages: short-haul and long-haul communication

Having laid out some of the key uses of grades in schools, we can begin to see the problem: we want grades to do too many things. We want grades to motivate, to communicate to audiences near and far, and to record these messages succinctly for posterity. It is no wonder that we find that grades are not always up to the task. As we think about how we might better understand and improve this situation, it is useful to disentangle these purposes and to develop some language to speak more precisely about these differing functions.

In particular, it is useful to distinguish between two kinds of communication conveyed by grades: “short-haul” communication and “long-haul” communication. Short-haul communication is the communication that grades facilitate between the teacher and the student or between the school and the family. It is this short-haul function of grades that is envisioned by school policies requiring teachers to issue “progress reports” or that require parents to sign or acknowledge the receipt of a student’s report card. The whole idea is that parents and students receive these communications in a timely way and can respond to the information — by making a plan to work a bit harder, by getting some extra help, or by establishing clearer parental oversight. At the end of the year, such communications can also be the basis for conversations among families, teachers, and counselors about next year’s course schedule.

In contrast to short-haul communications, which generally occur within the several blocks or several miles that most students live from their schools, long-haul communication travels much farther. Carrying information via the official transcript … grades end up communicating with unknown audiences — college admissions boards, scholarship committees, employers — at great remove from the specific school or community in which the grades were originally issued. One characteristic of long-haul communication is that the immediate context in which the grade was received is no longer readily evident. Yes, some schools try to include some contextual information in these long-haul messages; but these small bits of information — class rank, average GPA, instructor name — only underscore the extent to which substantive context has been stripped away.

While counselors, teachers, and families are often well aware of all the academic and nonacademic influences on students’ grades, the grades on the transcript appear pristine on the page. This is obviously a major reason why students engage in strategic behavior around grading. If students, often with the help their parents, can get the “right” teachers, or at least avoid the notoriously hard graders, they can reduce the risk that bad grades pose to their futures. Likewise, the student who coaxed a higher grade from her teacher ultimately has a transcript indistinguishable from the student who earned the grade outright.

There is a long-running debate among admissions officers and scholars about the value of students’ GPAs in the college and university admissions process. On the one hand, some argue that GPAs embody the collective judgments of multiple educators across multiple years. On the other hand, some argue, GPAs represent a muddled signal full of subjective teacher judgments about effort, improvement, and, worst of all, local norms around grade inflation. These critics argue that this is why the information provided by standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT is a necessary addition to student applications. Advocates on both sides of this debate can point to rigorous evidence supporting the competing propositions that GPAs are a better predictor of student success than SAT scores, or that SAT scores provide additional, independent information about the likelihood of success not captured by GPAs. Wherever one stands on this debate, though, what should not be lost is that both sides are expecting a new and different use of grades: they are thinking about grades not as an indication of past performance (though they are that), but rather, about their value in predicting future performance.

Employers are another audience for the long-haul communication provided by grades. Over time, we have seen a steady increase in both the formal and informal education requirements for jobs ranging from lawyer to barber. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that employers have strong preferences for people with good grades and credentials even when they have no direct bearing on the job requirements. These preferences tend to rise and fall with the overall state of the labor market: when the market for employment is tight, such requirements fall away; when there are lots of people looking for work, employers rediscover their preference for credentials.

Human capital theorists, and economists more generally, have their own explanation for this. Grades, they argue, provide a useful signal about a person’s skill set. The same is true about credentials and degrees, which at their most basic level represent a bundle of at least passing grades. Depending on the instance, a credential may be enough of a message about one’s qualifications for a job. In other cases, an employer might want to know not just whether someone passed her classes, but whether the grades on her transcript indicate that she excelled and ranked at the top of her class. To be sure, even with this additional information, the signal offered by grades is a noisy one. But when we consider the alternatives, relying strictly on personal referrals, fleeting impressions, or, worst of all, stereotypes, the use of grades makes sense. Indeed, there is evidence that if employers rely on signals like grades or credentials, they will be less likely to rely on gendered and racialized stereotypes about workers’ potential productivity. Nevertheless, it remains true that grades tell employers very little about what an individual knows and can do relative to a particular set of work tasks. This makes students’ obsession with maximizing grades both more legitimate — employers do consider them signals — and also more absurd, as the underlying substance that the grade represents is hardly relevant except in the broadest possible sense.

Miscommunication and garbled messages

These multiple messages, conveyed to audiences near and far, are what place teachers and students in such a difficult position. A report card full of grades once carried home on a pieces of paper to be read, discussed, and discarded now have an uncomfortable permanence — a record that can be difficult to outrun. No wonder instructors have used a smaller and smaller range of grades over time. For some students today, a B-plus is a disaster. What, then, is an educator to do?

One response by teachers has been to use written feedback to communicate with students. If grades can no longer really function as communication devices, then perhaps actual words can. The challenge, however, is one of scale. Most teachers at public high schools, for instance, teach five sections of roughly twenty students each — one hundred or more students a day. If teachers spend just over a minute reading and commenting on each student assignment, grading will take two hours. If they dedicate more time to the effort — spending ten minutes per student reading an essay, for instance — it can take an entire weekend.

The result can be burnout. Certainly not all teachers face such intimidating grading burdens. But for those who do, it can be the worst part of the job. As one teacher wrote online: “I love teaching. Grading? Not so much. There have been plenty of times when my family has found me pounding my head on my desk, asking why I assigned so many written assessments. (The bottom line is that they help my students grow and become fully ready for college or career, but I digress.) … I’m estimating that teachers spend between five to 10 hours a week on grading.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is that students often don’t read this feedback. Because the grades are what really matter, students often flip to the back of their papers — right past any commentary offered by teachers — to see their marks. Once the prize has been fetched from the bottom of the metaphorical cereal box, papers often end up stuffed in the bottom of backpacks or tossed in waste baskets. As one writing instructor reflected: “As a high school English teacher, and later as a teaching assistant for a writing-across-the-curriculum program, I often was frustrated by having to repeat the same comments to many students, and I resented the time spent writing the same comments on students’ second and third papers as on their first.”

Research has found that students infrequently act on instructor feedback. And why would they? Once the grade has been recorded, students turn their gaze to the next task. This is not to say that clever educators haven’t devised ways to try to coax their students into attending to feedback — requiring students to submit multiple versions of their work, for instance, or incorporating a reflective component after assignments are returned — or that some students aren’t intrinsically motivated to strive for personal growth and improvement. But to the extent that educators do this as a countermeasure, we must concede that we have built a system in which our assessment technologies are dictating pedagogy and not vice versa.

Surprising benefits and disturbing distortions

If our goal is to create a better system, we need to be as clear about the virtues of our grading system as we are about its faults. Though grades have many drawbacks, and despite the fact that they often reward strategic gaming rather than deep learning, we need to point out that there are some upsides as well.

While many people critique grades for being too subjective, our willingness to accept grades at face value should be acknowledged as one of the core strengths of our system. The willingness of educators and schools to honor the professional judgments of fellow educators — expressed in the form of grades — is a key part of why grades serve as an effective currency. Imagine what would happen if the University of California system, citing the considerable achievement and resource disparities among high schools in the state, decided that students who receive grades lower than a B-minus, and who attend lower-achieving high schools, would no longer be considered as having passed those classes.

If this strikes you as grossly unfair, it’s because you have some sense of the necessity for establishing the formal equity of grades — that is, declaring by rule that all identical grades will be treated the same way within the school system. In this case, we give credence to and leverage the decontextualized character of grades. We may know in reality that not all As are the same, but the fact that we officially treat them as if they are the same lends a modicum of fairness to the system.

This isn’t a mere hypothetical. Establishing the equity of grades at the system level and fostering the mutual recognition of these judgments is actually the basis for a number of laws intended to counteract the inequities in our system. States like California and Texas, for instance, have developed “percent plans” for admission into their state university systems. A student who graduates in the top 10 percent of her class in a Texas high school is automatically granted admission to a University of Texas campus of her choosing. This is not because people think that an A at one school represents the exact same amount of learning as an A at another school. Instead, it is a recognition that the grade should stand within the context it was given and not be subjected to additional questioning. The same basic approach is enshrined in virtually all community college systems, where admission is offered on the basis of securing passing grades in prior coursework rather than on an additional external benchmark. Though many colleges and universities still rely on placement examinations to adjust for differences in students’ academic preparation, the fact that this assessment happens after enrollment only underscores the extent to which the equality of grades and schools is honored throughout the system. A student who needs remediation in a specific subject in order to advance further is not prevented from being recognized as a high school graduate or a college student.

This kind of formalized equity in grading preserves a degree of lateral and upward mobility in a system rife with inequality. These practices are also key parts of our education system and help prevent the system from falling further out of balance. We highlight them because, as we consider alternatives to our current practices, we need to make sure we do not undermine supportive features of the current system.

Making the Grade

Grades are a distortive force in American schools. Whatever their benefits, and there are benefits, it is hard to escape the fundamental truth that grades only periodically motivate deep learning. More frequently, they encourage students to go through a series of motions: turning in daily assignments, preparing for exams, participating in class, and producing assessments that align with expectations. As we have experienced ourselves as students and educators, learning can and often does occur along the way. Much of the time, however, learning is beside the point, at least in the minds of students. Young people, smart as they are, learn quickly that a grade is valuable not for the learning that it reflects, but for its future exchange value — that it can be traded in for parental praise, college admission, or a good job. This kind of commodification is directly in tension with the goal of many educators and the hopes of many citizens, that schools will foster an intrinsic love of learning in students.

As we have tried to highlight, a key source of this distortion — the emphasis on grade attainment rather than on learning — is the result of the short- and long-haul messages we have asked grades to carry in our system. We want them to communicate intimately with parents and students, offering them a heads-up or a nudge on the need to improve. But at the same time, we want them to communicate in a formal way with audiences that are years in the future. In this mode, they must offer an official judgment about how students rank among their peers, about their knowledge and skills, and, by extension, about their likelihood of success at future endeavors. It is no wonder, then, that teachers and students feel that grades occupy such a prominent place in schooling. As much as we might like to believe that grades are just conversations about work done in the classroom, it’s always clear that something bigger is at stake.


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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Jack Schneider

Jack Schneider, Ph.D., the Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a historian and policy analyst who ...

Ethan Hutt

Ethan Hutt is Associate Professor and Gary Stuck Faculty Scholar in Education at the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. His re...