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Opinion: Letter Grades Are Failing Students and Schools

Many educators argue that it’s time to retire the letter-grade system once and for all, because it’s inessential, subjective, needlessly competitive and a distraction from actual learning, among other things.

I am not the first person to submit that the use of letter grades in educational settings is a terrible idea. Grades are harmful and meaningless, destroying effective, student-driven learning, among many other negative effects.

If you don’t trust me on this, it’s easy to do your own research. One of the best resources is On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas Guskey, Ph.D., a highly respected professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky. It is impossible to fully summarize his work putting to rest the various arguments in favor of grading. He knows what he is talking about and understands the concerns of educators, students and parents. If you read his book, you will learn about research that challenges traditions and unsupported assumptions.

A faster option is to read a 2014 article in The Atlantic, “Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F,’” written by Jessica Lahey, a contributing writer and English teacher who knows of what she speaks. Her opening paragraph tells quite a story:

“Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, (they) are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.”

I found an interesting article written for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in 1994, “Making the Grade: What Benefits Students?,” that raises the same concerns we have today. It provides five well-researched points of agreement:

  1. Grading and reporting aren’t essential to instruction.
  2. No one method of grading and reporting serves all purposes well.
  3. Regardless of the method used, grading and reporting remain inherently subjective.
  4. Grades have some value as rewards, but no value as punishments.
  5. Grading and reporting should always be done in reference to learning criteria, never on the curve.
Are grades the worst thing about our current education system? Quite possibly, because they drive so many other illogical practices and harmful traditions. Letter grades make education a competitive activity! I’m not the first person to notice this. A 2020 blog on the ed-tech company Turnitin’s website notes:

“[Speaking of early universities] ... even though these schools had a marking system, many hid these marks from students so as to discourage a competitive environment that would distract students from learning (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

“Pedagogical figures such as Horace Mann worried about the message of competition within grading sent to students and its effect on student learning and intellectual development. Mann wrote in his ninth annual report, ‘If superior rank at recitation be the object, then, as soon as that superiority is obtained, the spring of desire and of effort for that occasion relaxes,’ adding that students might prioritize exam outcomes ‘as to incur moral hazards and delinquencies’ (Mann, 1846 pp. 504-505). The debate around the merits of grading has been around for as long as grading has existed.”

While this debate has been around a long time, that doesn’t mean both sides have equal merit. My review of the literature and my work in the field of education for almost 50 years tells me that letter grades and the letter-grade system have got to go. As noted earlier, grading and reporting aren’t essential to instruction. I often tell my audiences: young children have learned to easily and effectively manipulate adults to achieve a range of desired results without any formal classes or letter grades.

Does this mean I’m opposed to measuring students at all? Of course not. But as I discussed in a previous column, we want to measure student progress using proficiency or mastery as the standard, not hours in class, a bell curve or meaningless grade-related insanity such as extra credit. A driving instructor doesn’t assign grades during a driving test, but they do use a scoring system so if you do poorly, you know what you need to work on.

A score on a valid assessment, if it represents an actual demonstration of skill and ability, is fine if used to help the student master and move on, and never to compare that student to others. One analogy is the baseball card, which uses stats to tell you all about a player but is never reduced to a single number, because that would make no sense. Any workable scoring system must have a requisite level of achievement and performance, and let a student know where they stand. Most students start behind, many severely behind, and need a personalized program to get them caught up as rapidly as possible.

In that vein, next month I will further argue the destructive nature of the letter-grade system and propose some effective alternatives.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.