Grades are everything in academia. They delineate achievement and motivate students to study hard and perform well. Or at least, that's one theory.
The debate about whether grades help or hinder student learning is as old as the U.S. grading system itself, dating back to the late 1800s. Surprising as it may seem, some teachers don't think grades are a useful tool.
Many educators, especially those involved with the U.S. grading system, bemoan the A-F grading scale because they feel it inhibits learning. These critics argue that grading incentivizes students to pursue good marks at the expense of meaningful learning.
Supporters argue that grades hold students accountable for their work, and provide a simple frame of reference for their standing in class.
That approach can cause problems. Students often see grades as the major obstacle to getting into college, earning their degree, or landing their dream job. For many students, this pressure sparks anxiety and stress.
Of course, many educators and most universities still favor the traditional grading system. Supporters argue that grades hold students accountable for their work, and provide a simple frame of reference for their standing in class.
Most schools rely on grades to assess student performance, though some colleges and universities have banished them entirely. Alverno College, Bennington College, and Brown University are just three of many institutions that favor methods like a pass-fail grading system, self-assessment, and professor assessments instead of letter grades.
To help make sense of the ongoing discourse around grading, we collected a few of the common arguments for and against grading.
Pro: Students Would Feel Less Stress
In a 2018 survey by Pew Research Center survey, academic pressure topped the list of stressors for teenagers. Even the fear of a bad grade — to say nothing of a bad grade itself — can be a source of anxiety and stress, and that fear can inhibit learning and harm academic performance.
In a 1996 paper titled, "Giving up the Grade Chase for a Competency-Based Education," Donald Mowrer wrote: "...requiring students to focus on their performance can interfere with their ability to apply scientific principles to new situations, frequently reduce their creativity, and suppress self-esteem."
Con: Grades Are Easy to Understand
The grading system has at least one clear advantage over other models: It's easy to understand. According to researcher Robert Feldmesser, the simplicity of a letter grading scale makes it effective.
"There is...an important role to be played by the 'summative evaluation' we call a grade," Feldmesser wrote in a 1971 research paper. "It gives the student some sense of how good his performance has been on the whole ... whether, all things considered, he did 'well' or 'poorly.'"
Everyone knows what grades mean. Receiving an A is a success; an F is a failure. Grades make it easy for students to understand where they stand in a class or on a particular subject.
A bad grade on a test gives students a clear idea about their weaknesses and what areas need improvement. Conversely, a string of good grades demonstrates where they excel.
Pro: Students Would Stop Cheating for Good Grades
Cheating to get good grades is another negative consequence of the grading system.
The International Center for Academic Integrity surveyed 70,000 high school students nationwide between 2002-2015 and found that 58% had plagiarized papers, while 95% admitted to cheating in some way. In 2012, 125 students at Harvard University got caught collaborating on a final exam. (Harvard forced about 70% of them to withdraw.)
—ICAI survey of 70,000 high school students between 2002-2015
According to Carnegie Mellon University, students cheat for different reasons, many of which reflect badly on the grading system. Some students cheat because they're "highly motivated by grades and might not see a relationship between learning and grades." Others do it to prevent a bad test score from sabotaging their GPA.
Con: Grades Make Students Responsible for Their Work
While scary for students, low grades serve an important purpose: They make students feel responsible for their work.
Some experts believe low grades are a good thing because they promote effort and diligence. Without the risk of getting a low grade, the level of effort and responsibility can drop.
Feldmesser argues that while grades can be a source of anxiety, they also help students become better learners. In this way, grades become an opportunity for achievement rather than a negative obstacle.
Pro: Putting an End to Grade Inflation
Grade inflation has become a salient issue at colleges and universities in recent decades. From 1963-2016, grade point averages steadily increased, rising at the rate of 0.1 points per decade. Before the Vietnam War, C was the most common grade on college campuses. Now it's A.
Before the Vietnam War, C was the most common grade on college campuses. Now it's A.
According to researchers Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor, and Christopher Healy, a Furman University professor, there are two major reasons for this trend:
- Treating students as "consumers" who are entitled to better grades due to the high cost of education.
- Faculty members facing pressure to award high grades to ensure tenure and promotion.
Why is grade inflation bad? Rojstaczer and Healy argue that it weakens intellectual rigor and grading standards, leading students to disengage from learning at a high level. In more practical terms: Grade inflation defeats the purpose of the grading system itself.
Con: Grades Have Widespread Impact
You can't eliminate the grading system without causing a few cultural disruptions. Grades are ingrained in our educational system and many other systems with ties to education.
The widespread use of the grading system leaves employers with few other reliable metrics for academic aptitude and policymakers with few illustrative indicators of school performance.
Colleges often pay attention to a student's GPA when considering an admissions offer. Grades are also typically the main consideration for competitive evaluation, such as scholarships and entrance into degree and graduate programs.
In the professional world, grades carry significant weight, too. Large corporate employers still rely heavily on GPAs as they evaluate applications.
The widespread use of the grading system leaves employers with few other reliable metrics for academic aptitude and policymakers with few illustrative indicators of school performance. For all of its flaws, a GPA provides a simple, easily understood way to measure achievement, both for individuals and for student bodies.
The grading system remains one of the most debated subjects in all of education. There is no simple right or wrong answer to the question of whether schools should eliminate grades; that's a choice each institution must make for itself.
As schools evaluate the future of grading, students stand to benefit: A variety of assessment models give students more of a choice in finding the right academic environment for their needs and learning goals.
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
Header Image Credit: Alyson Aliano | Getty Images
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