Grades don’t take into account what a student is dealing with at home and outside of the classroom. Sure, there are some students who have no issue sharing their problems with their friends, but too many students don’t talk to an adult about their issues. They certainly don’t share their concerns with teachers. Sadly, some teachers don’t care what is happening at home; they only care about whether or not a student turned in the homework and the score they received. A poor score can reveal many things about a student: not understanding the work, an environment at home that is not conducive to learning, a job that helps parents pay the bills, taking too many advanced classes, student bullying, etc. Putting a poor final score in the grade book is a punishment that may look like it fits the crime but really doesn’t. Grading, ultimately, is not equitable.
Most grading scales are a seven-point or ten-point scale with the majority of the scale at failing. What message are we sending to kids with a scale like this? My school currently has a seven-point scale. This means that a 69% and lower is a failing grade. When this scale is questioned, schools, students, and parents tend to look at this and say, “Well, my district just has higher expectations than other schools,” so the underlying message appears to say that they hold their kids to a higher standard. This is the message that we think we are sending, but what other messages are kids receiving that we haven’t thought about?
- It’s a lot easier to fail than it is to pass. You only have a 31% chance to pass this class.
- If you get yourself into trouble, it’s really hard to get yourself out so you might as well stop trying.
- Yes, we hold you to a higher standard, and you are a loser if you can’t meet our high standard.
Sometimes the grade is not a real reflection of student mastery. When we offer extra credit or grade assignments based on completion, it’s not a genuine reflection because some of the grade is just fluff. This also means that when they move on to a teacher who doesn’t offer fluff, the students are confused because they had such a good grade the previous year.
Students cheat. When the focus is the grade, students will cheat to get the points. The learning is lost when grades are the focal point of school. It doesn’t matter how many times you might tell your kids to focus on the the learning and the grade will follow. There is too much pressure from coaches, parents, administration, and other teachers for teens to play the game of school, so genuine learning tends to be lost on the quest for a better grade.
The roots of grades are based in intelligence testing. In his book, Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman (2019) discusses the history of grading and how our current system came to be established. Its roots are based on “a seemingly scientific explanation and justification for racist beliefs” (p. 20). When marginalized groups scored lower, the information was used to categorize them as less intelligent instead of looking at upbringing or inequities within society.
As much as I dislike grades, I think there will always be a struggle to get rid of them. Too many parents want to see how their kid compares to others. Too many students think that good grades equal success. Too many colleges look at GPA for admissions. Grades have been so ingrained in the education system that it’s going to be a very difficult battle to change the public perception of the necessity of grades.
That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting the good fight.