Grades Do More Harm Than Good

Grades Do More Harm Than Good


by Chris Crouch

Before you click onto the next article in disgust or disbelief, please give me a chance to explain. For decades, grades have been the primary form of communicating and reflecting student mastery. A myth that has taken hold, but ironically no one thinks grades are able to communicate learning with any sort of accuracy or consistency. Teachers feel compelled to “grade,” (the verb form) any and all student work, believing that a letter or percentage will indicate to students and parents a measure of skill. Students feel conditioned to only pursue summative values and to get “As and Bs” to make mom and dad happy. Parents feel reliant upon teachers to instruct, assess, and communicate learning outcomes through the assignment of grades.

Somewhere along the line though, all parties have lost sight of what grades are supposed to represent. Depending upon who you ask you are likely to receive a wide range of responses. Teachers feel boxed in and forced to report grades, students are trapped “earning” them, and parents understand what “good” and “bad” grades mean. But none of those understandings are close to the role they were meant to play; their primary function is to communicate mastery of performance and today they do anything but that. It’s a mess.

What’s a better, more accurate way to reflect student skills and competencies, growth, and indicate level of performance?

First, I get that grades are so entrenched in our system that they will not go away overnight. That they matter to Higher Ed because of the admissions process includes GPA, (Grade Point Average) but that metric only applies to high school. I’m asking you to suspend that refutation for just a moment and consider the entire scope of the system.

Grades are Inflated.

Ask most teachers and you’ll probably hear the same insight. Part of the reason is the cycle of interaction that happens between teachers, students and parents. Parents rely on grades to communicate their child’s progress (more on this in a bit). Students feel pressured to get “good” grades and work hard. Teacher assesses work and assigns a grade. That’s the typical cycle, but there is a next step. If the grade assigned by the teacher does not align with the parents’ perception of their child’s work, there is usually an awkward conversation that ensues. One way teachers avoid this awkward conversation is by inflating grades, either through awarding “bonus” points or by skewing assigned grades toward the higher end of the spectrum. So by “padding” the results of the student’s work, the true picture of a student’s learning gets lost.

Grades Remove Intrinsic Motivation

Grades and the havoc they impart on the teaching and learning process impacts the desire to learn for learning’s sake. When the goal of education is the grade at the end of an assignment, a specific period of time, or course, the intrinsic motivation to excel in other realms of life that may not have extrinsic rewards is much more difficult. How do we encourage our children to work toward a goal that may not have a tangible benefit at the end? By focusing and stressing grades as parents and teachers, we force our children to believe that the destination is more important than the journey. This message comes across loud and clear to our kids. Many kids feel pressured to cut corners, sacrifice ethics, and take easier courses, all in an effort to achieve better grades instead of better learning.

Now, teachers own a part of this cycle as well. Do we always assign meaningful work? Do we always assess for growth? Do we always communicate expectations? I believe we are getting better at this but we certainly have some work to do. We complain about students only being interested in grades, but how much of that do we, as teachers, create ourselves? Reflecting back on my practice, I warrant to guess that we contribute a great deal.

Grades Are Poor Communicators

Somewhere along the way, there became an unspoken agreement that grades are effective communicators of student learning. And somehow we as a society have taken this bait; hook, line and sinker. The variability of student grades from teacher to teacher, course to course, school to school, and state to state are so great, I can’t believe that we realistically put any stock in what they measure and what they communicate. At best the are an accurate snapshot of where a student is but they do not provide parents or students meaningful feedback for improvement or even growth.

If we want our kids to be better learners, the adults in their lives have to demand for a better way to communicate individual learning. It’s difficult for all parties involved in this dilemma to be transparent, but shouldn’t we put the needs of our students at the forefront of our decisions? What if a learning community asked for a better way to talk about student learning? What would that look like? Parents, what do you need to know about your kids learning? How could that best be communicated?

So parents, as those report cards come home in the coming weeks, ask yourself and your child, what do these grades tell us about your learning? Can we create in our children a mindset of growth and intrinsic motivation that will allow empower them for a lifetime?

Let’s all work together to make this happen.

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2 thoughts on “Grades Do More Harm Than Good

  1. I agree. Besides, a teacher’s role is to improve student learning. Assigning grades does NOT improve learning. If any thing, it damages learning! Like you said, every one gets hung up on the letter or number score, and grades don’t always represent the amount of effort a child has put it, or the amount of improvement they’ve shown. My nephew nearly always gets As and everyone always gets so excited about it, yet I was the only one (typical, being the only teacher in the family), that was over the moon when my usual D-grader niece received an end-of-year C! The best way to communicate ‘learning’ to students is through feedback. Face-to-face, one-the-spot, instant, USEFUL feedback that they can use to improve their learning. Giving them a letter or number a week after they’ve handed in an assignment, whilst communicating how well they completed a task against the marking criteria, will not do much to improve their learning. I often feel like the only reason I’m forced to assign grades is to make parents happy, which is ridiculous! Not to mention the amount of TIME teachers spend pointlessly grading work.

  2. Like free markets, the system of “grades” has never actually been implemented. As applied to colleges, the system was supposed to work like this: for large classes of freshmen the average grade should be a “C” (roughly), as students progress through the years, or the courses accumulate prerequisites, the average grade was supposed to go up, as it was assumed that less accomplished students would have fallen by the wayside (given up on the subject, reached the limit of their ability, flunked out, whatever) leaving behind more accomplished students, so that by the senior year courses are being taken the average grade was then a “B.” The grade of “B” was considered to be an average grade in garduate school.

    As a teacher of college freshmen I made several checks of whether this system was in place: my course had three prerequistes (high for a freshmen level course) and had a institution wide average grade of C+ (two different colleges), just about right. Several other courses, with no prerequisites, had institution wide averages of A-, WTF? And of course, these “grades” were averaged to give a student a GPA which is a faily meaningless statistic as it has no marker for course difficulty. (My course “Freshman Chemistry” was voted at Georgia Tech as the most difficult course in that university at one time.)

    Similarly, my son got all the way through a PH.D. program and virtually never saw a grade less than A and neither did his classmates, which is about as useless as a system can be (and an admission of gutlessness on the part of professors who didn’t want to have to defend their grades).

    I am not completely opposed to grading, but I am opposed to most the uses to which they are put. In their simpliest form they are a very simple form of one person’s judgement of a student’s accomplishment and thus are a form of communication.

    As a student I didn’t care very much about grades, I was more intrinsically motivated, or that’s how my ego defends not getting the top grades in many of my classes. But education is a whole series of extrinsic sources of motivation. Missing classes has consequences, not doing homework has consequences, not trying hard has consequences, not showing up to meet your study group has consequences, etc. The whole purpose of these extrinsic rewards and punishments helps keep students on track to complete a program. I suspect that the number of students intrinsically motivated to learn is a smaller percentage of the total than we might like to believe. Whether we could help the others learn to be intrinsically motivated to study and learn is very debatable. If one had to be intrinsically motivated to suceed, I think we would have way fewer college grads.

    When I was young, some students were considered “bookish” and others not. The extrinsic systems are there for those who were not and to quide those who were. It is interesting when academic structures are adapted to allow for more student-lead processes, they almost always had very mixed results. When we tried “self-paced” learning, that translated as “slow” (of course, such courses were usually embedded into or were alongside the forced pace curriculum), etc.

    In Alaska a high scool experiemented with student set standards. Almost exclusively the standards set by students (collectively) were higher than those set by staff. And when students struggled, they almost aways adopted a “we are all in this together” approach and help one another suceed. Maybe that is a good place to proceed from to find a better system.

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