The Lasso

Do we really need grades?

Evan Jones

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“Unpopular Opinions” are exactly that. These opinions are those of the authors alone, and do not represent the opinions of The Lasso or of George Mason High School.

Grades are Good

Your grades are letting you down

By Evan Jones

I understand the occasional hatred of grades as a student. Your teacher gives you an unfair grade on a project. A rubric is too vague to actually demonstrate your understanding. Or your grade drops for (seemingly) no apparent reason. However, despite what you may think, grades are beneficial to your education.

Many students connote the rigidity of a grade with something negative, but these people miss the many benefits.

Because grading provides a scale that is used across all courses, you can easily compare your performance across time and classes. Students can identify classes and units of weakness and strength by comparing all of their grades, providing a more balanced education by allowing students to focus on areas where they lack understanding.

College admissions offices compare student applicant grades, selecting those that most accurately fit the rigors of that specific college. Schools identify standout students of their own by looking at their grades, and reward them on academic achievement.

In addition, teachers can identify which students need more help by observing the progression of students’ grades. They can also easily indicate areas of student weakness. This gives teachers an indication of which units they might need to go back to review with the class.

Grades also provide motivation to students who might otherwise ignore schoolwork. Some people may argue that students should be self-motivated to work and try hard in school out of appreciation for learning, but this is ignorant to reality.

Grades function as a tangible goal for students because if a student devotes time and effort to their work, they receive a tangible reward that benefits them in the long term.

Alternatively, a grade can send signals to a struggling student that they need to focus more strongly on their schoolwork. Replacing grades with a more ambiguous form of evaluation loses this benefit by stressing the importance of student performance.

Revoking the grading system not only removes the motivating nature of grades, but it sends the message to students in schools that their performance is not as important. Although people in the workforce do not receive grades for what they produce, employers still evaluate their employees. Unless replaced by a system that similarly rewards and penalizes students for the quality of their work, students will be led to believe that the final product is not important in the real world.

Complaints with the way the grading system is implemented do not prove that it should be ruled out entirely.

Neerav Kingsland, the CEO of the Hastings Fund, an organization devoted to increasing the number of students who have access to rich and holistic educational experiences, noted that parents better understood the quality of schools when they presented data in the form of letter grades. This makes sense, as letter grades have been the norm for evaluation in the United States for decades. Eliminating grades for something else will lead to misunderstanding and confusion for both students and their families.

Grades can be rigid and blunt. But they are also a clear, tangible reward system. They allow students to easily and quickly evaluate the complicated process of learning. This process is naturally imperfect, but the simplicity of grades allows for the palpable understanding of a student’s success. Evaluation requires that both sides understand the flaws and successes of the product, which is best accomplished under the clear, simple system we already have.

By Colter Adams

Sometimes a system is so deeply ingrained in a society that it seems absurd to even consider what life would be like without it.

Letter grading is an example of such a system, and has existed long and prominently enough in education that it is no longer challenged or questioned. However, grades are, in reality, incredibly rudimentary tools to be used for a process as sophisticated and multifaceted as assessing how well students are learning.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that grades, or more accurately the recorded assessment of knowledge, have a place in the education system. After all grades are so perfectly attuned to the way many students know how to learn (rote memorization), and many teachers know how to teach (repetition of facts) that the removal of the system would be both chaotic and detrimental to our society as a whole.

One argument that I cannot stand on behalf of grades, however, is that they are used to fill in for a supposed “gaping hole” in the education system: extrinsic motivation. Advocates of a grade-based system often claim that while in the real world, employees are motivated by pay checks, positive feedback from superiors, and personal ambition, students have no compelling reason to bother learning other than in preparation for a career years away.

Where students would normally slack and not bother to retain information, some claim, grades encourage students to be more thoughtful in their studies, and responsible in their worth ethic.  After all, according to grade-based system advocates, intrinsic motivation to succeed as an adult or become more knowledgeable in general is not reliable enough.

In reality, however, grades don’t actually provide the extrinsic motivation they are claimed to fill in for.  After all, under the grade based current system, more than 30% of students fail classes, and 40% of students report being chronically disengaged from school.  If grades are not enough motivation for many students to bother studying and learning, then we should replace, or at the very least reinforce them with tangible motivations like well-paying jobs.  

However, simply incentivizing real-world motivations alongside a grade based system may not be enough to solve the problem. This is because the issue with grades themselves is that they distract from life-applicable motivators like pursuing a career track and developing a broader understanding the world.  This is in part indicated by the notable drop in reported engagement for students moving from less grade-centered elementary schools to the more grade-centered middle and high schools.

“For kids, motivation, and engagement in school on average drops as they move from the elementary school into the secondary school system,” said Jacquelynne Eccles, Ph.D., an education professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Grades perpetuate the misconception that students are incapable of being motivated by long-term rewards.  If parents, teachers, and colleges taught students to value their future and intellect in and of itself as much as they currently teach us to value grades, would we not be just as motivated to learn?

In replacing students’ motivation to learn based on their future success with motivation to learn based on grades, our education system is actually actively discouraging students from caring about their futures, in favor of short term rewards.

The only real value of grades comes from the medium of which they are determined.  Tests, not grades, allow students to assess what they specifically need to work on to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a subject.  

With an incentive system for students based on realistic motivations such future career options, as opposed to artificial motivations like grades, students would gain a better understanding of what purpose their education serves. Tests, and potentially even the letter grades themselves could remain, but they would only be visible to students, and would not carry any intrinsic value.  Instead, they would indicate to students and their teachers alone how well they are retaining information, and what they need to work harder to understand.  

This may seem like an insignificant distinction from the current grade based system, as many would argue grades serve this purpose already, but this is not the case.  Society, and more specifically educational institutions drill into students’ minds that grades are the most important element of personal success.

And while it is true that grades do have long term consequences for students, necessitating this drilling, these consequences can be traced back to the same institutions that do the drilling in the first place. For example, students will carry bad grades with them via a low GPA even after they have mastered the subject they received a poor grade for.  The education system could hypothetically eliminate the pressure instilled on students in the form of grades, but instead it chooses to perpetuate the notion that grades are beyond its control, and it is simply preparing students for a grade-based job market, which in actuality, doesn’t even exist.

In conclusion, while grades can act act as benign tools to determine how well students understand content, they can also harm students’ self confidence and cause intense anxiety due to the effect they can have on future success.  

If grades lose their academic weight, students can and will be incentivized to learn by more realistic, applicable motivational factors.  The only reason students are not currently incentivized by anything but grades currently is because they are taught not to, through a combination of social stigmatization of those with low grades, and academic benefits provided for those with high grades, such as greater chances of college acceptance.

As a fairly high performing student myself, I can attest that students can be just as motivated to learn for success’ sake as we are currently motivated to be successful by grades, if only we are given the opportunity to prove it.

 

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