Eliminating the Grading System in College: The Pros and Cons

| Dave Tomar

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Letter grades are deeply ingrained in the educational system. From elementary school all the way through graduate school, students are evaluated using a letter grade scale, or its closest relation, the grade point average. In a lot of ways, grades offer a very simple solution to the very complex challenge of assessing student aptitude, performance, and improvement. But are letter grades the best we can do? And does it even make sense to assign letter grades at the college level or beyond? We consider the pros and cons of eliminating the grading system in college.

Education is complex and nuanced. Grades are simple and arbitrary. So, how did we come to rely on this simple five-point letter grade scale for something as important as evaluating academic aptitude? And can we do better?

In school, all things are subservient to the almighty grade. It is the educator’s most powerful bargaining chip, at once prized and feared by students, the unyielding hammer of judge, jury, and executioner compressed into a single unflinching letter.

But the reality is, our five-letter grading system isn’t necessarily that informative, it generally isn’t very effective, and it certainly isn’t educational. Bad grades can stigmatize and discourage those who need help. Good grades tend to reward and elevate those who already have all the intellectual and cognitive advantages. And ultimately, grades are a gross oversimplification of what students are capable of learning and doing.

The grading system is inherently subjective. It’s inherently punitive. And it’s inherently reductive. But it’s also deeply entrenched. The strongest argument in favor of keeping grades around is the fact that it would take an absolutely enormous amount of infrastructural and systemic change in American education to come up with, let alone implement, something new. So much of the way we understand and approach education hinges on grading. So, even if the rebellious teen in me would probably say something like "grades are stupid and we don't need 'em," the adult in me can see the enormous practical challenges that would come with trashing the whole system.

But I think if we’re all being honest with one another, we can acknowledge grades aren’t exactly driving us to greater heights of educational enlightenment. They sure do cause a lot of stress though. It’s not entirely clear this is the best tradeoff, particularly at the college level.

College is, by its nature, intended to inspire students to a higher level of discourse, knowledge, and personal growth. Shouldn’t it be incumbent upon us to be equally as imaginative, effective, and inspiring in the way we evaluate these endeavors? If there is to be a rational consideration of moving away from the grading system, college is probably the place to incubate such an experiment.

We don’t intend to propose abolishing the grading system, at least not yet. But we think it’s a conversation worth having. The grading system and its unchecked authority are both long overdue for reconsideration. While we aren’t at the stage of proposing an alternative, this is a good point in the conversation to at least weigh the Pros and Cons of eliminating the grading system in college.

Once we weigh the benefits against the practical considerations, we may have a better sense of how to proceed. And if not, we can at least provide you, the student, with the semantic tools needed to lobby for a better grade from your professor.

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Otherwise, read on for a look at the Pros and Cons of Eliminating the Grading System in College.

Con: We Actually Don’t Know How To Learn Without Grades

We’re deeply conditioned by grades, and perhaps we don’t even know it. Sure, grades cause stress and anxiety. But you know what else causes stress and anxiety? Not getting grades.

Check out the results of Starr Sackstein’s fascinating three-month experiment: a classroom without grades. High school senior Markella Giannakopoulos offers a telling assessment of the experience, explaining that "It feels really weird. I am used to finishing an assignment and then getting a grade so that I know how well or bad I did on the assignment. Without the grades, I don't have that ability to get the grade, but I believe I get better feedback.”

Giannakopoulos and many of her classmates concede that they are conditioned to expect grades and that without them, they are left with a feeling that one might call academic emptiness. One of the best things you can say about grades is that students and teachers are accustomed to them. We know what they mean, even if that meaning lacks nuance. Students can use grades to gauge where they are on the continuum between excellence and failure.

And as Sackstein writes in Education Week about her grade-free experiment, some students were simply too uncomfortable with an arrangement that did not result in an easily digestible evaluative metric. For the students in Sackstein's experimental group, grading had simply become too ingrained. One of Sackstein’s students articulated this exact challenge, noting that as a senior in high school, she was far too deep into her education to adapt to the new model.

This means that if we ever do want to move students beyond letter grades, we have to start young. By the time we get to college, we’re basically Pavlov’s dogs, salivating for formal evaluation.

Pro: We Could Learn for Learning’s Sake

In spite of their initial discomfort, some of Sackstein’s students acknowledged that this new strategy had required them to think about their school work in a different way. The intrinsic merit of learning for its own sake began to take precedence among Sackstein’s students.

As they adjusted, students were forced to find motivation in something beyond a readily quantifiable score. In the absence of either this score, or the closure it provides, the motive for completing assignments, contributing to discussions, and mastering subjects became the assignment, discussion, or subject itself.

Sackstein’s experiment demonstrates that there are other, possibly more effective ways to evaluate student comprehension, progress, and aptitude. Her approach favored self-regulation, self-assessment, and self-advocacy. This strategy proceeds from the idea that students are in the best position to evaluate their own comprehension, growth, and progress, and that without the stressor of grades, they have the freedom to make these evaluations honestly and objectively.

In this regard, Sackstein’s experiment suggests that grades could have the effect of preventing students from learning for the sake of enrichment. By removing the grading goal line from the end of every project, we have the ability to place learning on an unending continuum, and possibly one that the student will remain on for a lifetime.

As an added bonus to all that personal enrichment, you might be interested to know that Lifelong Learners Live Longer!

Con: Grades Carry a Lot of Weight in the Outside World

The concept of ranking by grade actually originated at the university level. Until Yale University came up with the idea of grading its students way back in 1785, the class valedictorian was actually elected by classmates. In 1897, Mount Holyoke College became the first school to correlate letter grades with percentage points. This was the root of the modern grading system. By 1940, the five-letter grading system had become the de facto mode of student evaluation at the elementary and high school levels, according to The American Society for Cell Biology.

Today, the grading scale is ingrained in our educational system, which means it’s also ingrained in all the other systems that correlate to education. College administrators, politicians, and job-makers all hold grades as sacred. According to USA Today, large corporate employers still rely heavily on GPAs to sort out the cream of the crop.

We are all subject to a nearly religious acceptance of this system, a condition which leaves employers with few other reliable metrics for academic aptitude and policy-makers with few really illustrative indicators of school performance. The grading scale provides simple quantification for the capabilities of a student body.

As a result, your grades may be deeply consequential when you're applying for graduate school or filling out job applications. As for colleges, student grades may be equally important when it comes to fundraising; solicitation of endowments; and courtship of prominent professors, researchers, and administrators.

Student GPA — both for individuals and across whole college communities — can be treated as short-hand for a sense of qualification and potential. This means that it isn’t just the educational system that would be forced to adjust to the abolition of grades. Businesses, policy-makers, and a whole spectrum of other stakeholders would be impacted by such a sweeping change. There would be considerable growing pains.

Pro: We Don’t Need Grades To Train In Practical Skills

With that said, education at the college level — particularly in technical or practical disciplines — should mature beyond using the grading system alone. The simple ranking imperative of the grading scale is an outdated holdover from America’s industrial era.

Today’s post-industrial America is built on ideas, ingenuity, information, and knowledge. The Chronicle of Higher Education points to a rising emphasis in some circles on "competency-based education," an approach which naturally requires a more nuanced assessment than grades can provide.

Some online models of education are demonstrating the particular value of this approach. The Chronicle points to Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University, two colleges that have restructured their academic approach with a focus on competency-based assessment. Enrolled students engage in pass-fail online courses, working at their own pace. Only when a student demonstrates mastery of a particular set of skills will he or she be allowed to move on to the next lesson.

Other liberal arts colleges that don’t issue grades include Alverno College, Antioch College, Bennington College, The Evergreen State College, New College of Florida, and Hampshire College.

This model offers evidence that certain subject areas may lend themselves more readily to non-punitive evaluation. It also suggests that educators can motivate students without the controlling mechanism of grading.

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Pro: Removing the "Facade of Coherence"

In the years since their inception, we’ve come to assign grades so much more meaning than they deserve. The American Society for Cell Biology article quotes one professor who refers to the grading system as an effort to “create a facade of coherence.”

Grades have been given the impossible task of neatly quantifying the abilities of all students. But in attempting to reduce all students to quantifiable units on a five-point scale, we fail to evaluate students in their nearly infinite qualitative variations. Grades are a symptom of an educational philosophy that treats intellectual and artistic diversity as inconveniences to be classified rather than as virtues to be cultivated.

In most public school and college settings, grading uses a 100-point scale. This scale correlates letter grades (A, B, C, and D) with ten-point ranges on this scale. An “F” (or “E” depending on the language used at your particular institution) is conferred for a score anywhere between 0 and 59%.

While letter grades present the illusion of qualitative assessment, they are merely a quantification of abilities. The idea of quantifying knowledge or ability is a dubious premise at best. The passage of time has normalized this way of assessment, but just a quick reflection on the idea of human diversity suggests the approach is actually quite irrational.

We’ve placed a singular level of faith in the ability of grades to tell us everything, a faith that allows grades to conceal much about students and what they might actually be capable of achieving. At their worst, they don’t just conceal what might be achieved, but they stand directly in the way of it.

Con: Professor’s Would Lose Authority

At their core, grades were designed to control students. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education sums it up perfectly, noting that while most college professors aren’t particularly enamored of the grading system, most recognize the capacity of punitive evaluation to motivate. Without grades, goes the argument, students would be less likely to complete homework assignments, would exert less effort, and would decline to study for their exams.

The grading system’s capacity to dole out punishment is among its strongest features. Speaking practically, grades are the simple solution to the complex problem of how to push students into action. It may not be the best answer, but it’s the easy answer.

Professors draw a significant amount of institutional power from the ability to assign grades. Few things impact a classroom like the threat of failure. Whether addressing disciplinary matters, poor study habits, or low attendance, the educator’s last line of defense against insolence or indolence is that very threat.

Equally so, the ability of an educator to command the attention of a classroom, to invoke participation, and to create a studious environment can hinge on the promise of an excellent grade. This arms the professor with a degree of authority that is completely separate from his or her ability to engage, enrich, excite, enlighten, etc.

Of course, an educator who can engage, enrich, excite, and enlighten will command an authority that isn’t propped up by the power to grade.

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Pro: Grades are Inevitably Subjective

The inevitable variance in professorial attitudes and grading approaches makes grades necessarily unreliable. There is an inherent subjectivity that comes with professorial grading. Grading is not an exact science, even if it pretends to be. And we’re staking a lot on this subjective measure.

Laura Rediehs, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Lawrence University — a school that de-emphasizes letter grading — says that "Students themselves are in a better position to judge many of the qualitative dimensions of their learning, as well as some quantitative dimensions, such as their sense of improvement, the intensity of their effort and engagement, whether they did all of the reading, how well they paid attention in class, and how significant their learning was for them. But traditional grading can discourage the development and refinement of students’ abilities in these respects, because strong self-motivation and keen self-awareness of one’s own learning can bring a student into conflict with professors’ judgments."

Your percentage of correct answers on a mathematics or physics exam may offer a concrete measurement of your subject mastery. But what about the many university-level subjects that require complex analysis, creative problem-solving, personal insight, or lucid discourse on controversial matters?

How can we possibly ensure that a professor’s experiences and expectations won't factor into the process of assigning letter grades?

A quick personal anecdote: I once took a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I understood the subject well and was fully engaged in class discussions. Though my professor and I never clashed in open discussion, it was clear that we had different positions on the subject. The final exam was an in-class essay. I was wholly prepared. I offered my position, presented the counter-argument, defended my view, and produced eight blue-book pages of coherent analysis.

I got a "C".

I'm not a grade-grubber. To be honest, I was never really that hung up on grades. I wasn't the type to argue with a professor over a middling mark. But she hadn't written a single word of feedback, so I was compelled to at least ask the professor the reason for my mediocre grade. She told me simply, and in as few words as possible, that she found my position unpalatable. Then she picked up her valise and left the room.

Ideological prejudices, and any number of other subjective variables, may play a role in a professor's perception of your work. In spite of the quantitative illusion that comes from connecting percentages and letter grades, the variation of possible grading outcomes is as infinite as the number of professors out there with red pens.

Don't let grades stress you out. Check out these Strategies for Coping with College Anxiety.

Pro: Grades Are Easy to Fudge

It’s not just that grades are subjective. There’s also evidence that, in some cases, they are being awarded under false pretenses.

In 2013, The Harvard Crimson reported that the median grade at Harvard College was an “A−“ and that an “A” was the most frequently assigned letter grade at the venerable institution. Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay M. Harris confirmed the fact.

According to The Washington Post, grade inflation has been a part of the Harvard tradition for decades now. In 2001, 49% of undergraduate grades were “A's,” up from 23% in 1986. And it’s not just at Harvard. A study in the Teachers College Record notes that in 2012, 43% of college letter grades were “A’s,” up from 31% in 1988 and 15% in 1960.

I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not because we’re getting smarter. Indeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education says that grade inflation is actually rampant at the college level. One reason is the direct impact that student evaluations can have on the job stability of those grading them. Professors are under intense pressure — and a pretty bright spotlight thanks to websites like RateMyProfessors.com — to avoid displeasing their students.

But this is not the only dynamic driving grade inflation. College is a trillion dollar industry. Competition between universities is fierce, as is the competition for post-graduate job placement. Inflated grades lead to inflated rankings, contribute to better employment rates, and generally promote the illusion of academic rigor while achieving exactly the opposite effect.

More than anything, the very real trend of grade inflation dashes to pieces the notion that each letter grade carries a clear and useful meaning. If at an institution such as Harvard, no less, the meaning of a letter grade must be cast into doubt, what reason do we have for confidence in the wholesale ability of educators to assign grades without conflicts of interest?

Con: We Can Make Improvements Without Throwing Away Grades

Perhaps we can at least agree that grades are deeply imperfect. But does that mean we should trash them altogether? There’s a case to be made that grades can be de-emphasized without being dumped.

If you've read anything about the international education scene, you're probably sick of hearing how awesome Finland is. The Nordic nation routinely ranks at or near the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment and was used as a positive point of comparison against America’s failing education system in the noted 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner once advised American educators to "Learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States."

Finland’s system is noted for its dedication to equality, its progressive curricular versatility, the complete absence of nationally administered standardized tests, its elevation of vocational pathways, its provision of free higher education and, where we’re concerned, the fact that a nation which prides itself on not promoting competition is roundly kicking the ever-loving Dickens out of the U.S. in math, science, and reading.

And they’re doing it with such a bare minimum emphasis on grades that you have to wonder. An article in Open Education noted that in many schools, teachers don’t even begin to assign grades until the 9th grade. Before then, learning is experiential and driven by activities and hands-on opportunities. Evaluation is qualitative, feedback is dialogic, and education need not be pursued under the pale of punitive consequences. Where grades are used, it really is to provide a metric for understanding growth and progress, not as a punitive device around which completion of all tasks revolves.

In other words, grades are there. They just aren’t everything. The emphasis is on learning, a novel idea to be sure.

But it’s not just the Finns. A few notable colleges and universities in the U.S. have at least partially moved away from the unilateral tyranny of grades. Most notably, Brown University did away with Grade Point Averages in 1969. As part of its New Curriculum, Brown said that the University would instead promote “the use of criteria for assessment and evaluation that go beyond grades and GPA. These include portfolios of a student’s work, Course Performance Reports, and letters of recommendation.”

The University would go on to observe that while its unique grading system makes it difficult to compare Brown transcripts to those from other schools, employers tended nonetheless to seek out Brown grads for their analytical ability, independence, creativity, communication, and leadership skills.

Naturally, it’s easier to argue that your students boast these qualities when you are a vaunted school like Brown. But even schools without Brown’s sterling reputation are capable of offering communicable qualitative evaluation of their students. Even employers that don’t mine the Ivy Leagues for talent should be capable of making decisions based on more detailed and nuanced methods of academic evaluation.

In addition to Brown, schools like St. John’s College, Reed College, Sarah Lawrence College, Prescott College, and the College of the Atlantic use grades, but in a largely de-emphasized manner. Proceeding from the belief that grades alone cannot offer a clear picture of academic aptitude, these schools pair traditional grades with narrative reports, perhaps a far more telling indicator of who students are and what they may be capable of.

All of this amounts to the conclusion that grades could still be used to satisfy the most rudimentary imperatives of ranking and evaluation, that they need not be abolished, that they simply must be supplemented with more useful and nuanced ways of making evaluations. Reduced to a less unilateral role, grades could be useful without overstepping their real-world value.

The final point above, that we actually have the power to improve student evaluation without trashing grades altogether, is probably the best way forward…for now.

It’s clear why grades are preferable. They offer clean lines of demarcation between types of performance, types of student, and types of future outcomes. They point us in a few clear directions. They tell us that a student needs help. They tell us that a student has talent. They tell us when a student is just skating by.

But grades don’t tell us how to help, how to cultivate talent, or how to push students beyond the bare minimum. All we know is who to reward and who to punish. But punishment should have no place in college. College is meant to challenge students, to help them look for deeper meaning. Educators should take up the same gauntlet and accept the challenge of providing richer and more meaningful evaluative feedback.

If you'd like to take up that gauntlet, get started by finding out What You Can Do with an Education Degree.

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