From Earning to Learning
The purposes of grades in education systems is to measure how well students are learning by creating motivation for students. If we take a closer look, grades can have the opposite effect on both of their main purposes. If grades are supposed to measure learning, but they actually take away from learning, then grades really accomplish nothing. They are also supposed to create motivation to learn, but actually end up just creating motivation to earn good grades, especially in college. Without any type of grading system in place for grades K-12, we wouldn’t know how well students are making progress in the classroom or understanding the topics that are being taught to them; however, many times the focus of students is not on the material they are learning with our current grading system. Grades measure the ability to get good grades, and little else.
According to James D. Allen states in vol. 78 of The Clearing House’s Grades as Valid Measures of Academic Achievement of Classroom Learning, that the main goal classrooms have is to gain academic knowledge in a particular subject. By grading students’ work, teachers get to see who is absorbing the information they teach. Kyle Spencer states in Education Digest’s Standards-Based Grading that “grades were designed to see which students should be promoted to the next level.” Recording grades is a way to this. Writing grades on a academic report displays the student’s academic achievement over a course of study, and compares students to one another so we know where the bar is supposed to be set for the entire class. Since a written record of grades is recorded for each student, then guidance counselors, other teachers, parents, employers, and colleges have access to see what level of knowledge students have in a certain subject. Several different grading systems exist, and the one used commonly today is the ineffective.
The system currently used in most schools is the traditional A-F letter scale system, where students are rewarded with an A for satisfying the teacher’s standards, and those who do not satisfy standards are left with an F, leaving the work in between with a B,C, or D. Each subject they take earns one letter. This system often takes missing assignments, homework, attendance, compliance to rules, and participation into consideration. For example, let’s say that a 7th grader finishes with a B+ in a science class. We don’t know how much of that grade is determined by factors other than academic knowledge, which demonstrates how students easily manipulate the system. We don’t know whether that student actually absorbed almost all of the course material, gathered just enough material to make good arguments, had perfect attendance and completed all assignments but didn’t do particularly well on tests, or gathered little and argues poorly but did better than other classmates who are even worse. Allen notes that some teachers believe that “effort, student conduct, and attitude” should influence final grades, since they want students to be well-rounded. Each teacher sets their own standard to what they perceive is a good student. Yes, they still measure academic knowledge, but include other factors that are not relevant to that knowledge. This can potentially leave grading practices unpredictable. Sometimes important life decisions are made based off a student’s grade, so it’s critical that grades are predictable and valid.
One important life decision that is directly impacted by grades is picking a college to go to. Corrine Ruff states in Why Do Colleges Still Use Grades? that grades are a “quick and dirty way of summarizing student outcomes for parents, graduate schools, and employers. ” The main factor colleges look at when deciding whether to accept or decline students is their GPA. Colleges want to see how students performed in subjects to see if they will be a good fit for their school. This provides motivation for students to achieve high grades. If students want to get into their dream college, then they need to work hard. The belief behind using grades as a motivation that is that using grades as consequences motivates students to want to do well. If students earn good grades, they will be rewarded, and if they don’t, there will be negative consequences. By placing so much pressure on students to earn a high GPA, learning is not a main priority for students. They don’t focus on how they can understand complex topics, but more on how they can get an A on their next test or assignment. If grades are supposed to be used as motivation to get into a good school or impress your parents, then why are they still used in college?
Corrine Ruff states in Why Do Colleges Still Use Grades?, that grades originated in the 19th century in an industry-focused economy. Employers wanted to hire people who understood how to process things, so using a traditional method of grading was efficient. In our current economy, jobs are more information based. Instructors and employers are more focused on what information students learn and what they can do with that knowledge, which is why employers aren’t necessarily concerned with GPAs. They know that a GPA doesn’t define what a student has learned. A more modernized system, especially for colleges, might be beneficial.
Most college students aren’t as concerned with their grades as they were in grade school and high school because the motivation factor is gone. They already got into college, so they don’t need a high GPA. They are adults now, so approval from their parents is less concerning to them. They also that know employers usually don’t look at GPAs. College students are more self-motivated. They are paying for their education, so not taking advantage of it would be a complete waste of money; therefore, actually wanting to learn becomes more prominent. College students want to learn the information and skills that will help to land them a successful job, and grades can actually get in the way of that. Ruff notes that, “grades actually get in the way of student learning. When professors cap the number of top-end grades, he argues, students enter into a fierce competition with one another, and so their interest in learning the actual material wanes.” So why not change the system? Making a more modernized system that measures mastery in each subject specifically, and maybe employers will be interested in looking at grades.
The traditional grading system, which rates students on a letter scale to measure their learning, is not effective for measuring how well students learn. Not only is the system pointless for college institutions, it can actually prevent students from learning in the grade school and high school level. Most of us agree that there needs to be something in place to measure how well a student learns for teachers, parents, and employers. Alfie Kohn states in “The Case Against GRADES,” that collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.” In other words, better options are available to share a student’s learning with those who are concerned. The traditional grading system measures how well a student can earn grades based on a teacher’s standards, and hinders them from learning.
Kohn, in the “The Case Against GRADES,” points out that one of the reasons
Students know how to work the system when it comes to grades. It is easy for them to quickly pick up on how a teacher grades. With the current system, teachers grade very differently. They can set their own standards and expectations. Most teachers include other factors in their curriculum that have nothing to do with how much a student learns in a subject. For example, students can realize that if they show up to class, are on their best behavior, and show that they are putting in at least some effort, they can earn a good grade without not actually learning much at all. For example, students could possibly earn an A in a social studies class by being loud and aggressive in classroom debates. Or maybe students can earn a A on english paper by figuring out that adding in a lot of quotations in their work will impress their teacher, but the overall quality of the paper isn’t good. Being loud in debates and copying quotations doesn’t show mastery in any academic subject. This teaches students the wrong mindset for the future. If students know how to get good grades, then there is no motivation for learning. After all, parents care only about grades and colleges care only about high GPAs, so why would students care about actually learning if they know how to get good grades? Kohn states that “Grades don’t prepare students for the real world—unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.”
Although one of the primary purposes of grading is to provide motivation, grades can discourage students, creating a factor that serves as yet another distraction to learning. Being constantly compared to the grades their classmates receive can significantly lower self-esteem. Students who continuously receive low grades may see that as a reason to stop trying, especially if a single low grade ruins their chances of getting a good final grade in the class. Theodore Carey and James Carifio note in “Minimum Grading, Maximum Learning,” that “students who expend high effort and fail will often work to protect their perception of their ability by adopting avoidance strategies. If exerting high effort is seen as a threat to self-worth, exerting low effort becomes a way of preserving it.” So if someone spends a lot of time and effort on an assignment, but receives a low grade, then the chances are low that the same amount of effort will be used on the next assignment. The amount of effort a student gives revolves back to the main problem with grades. If grades were not focused on the ability to receive good grades, then effort would not be as big as an issue.
The only goal for students is to perform well enough in the classroom to get them to the next step in their education. Usually, students do not have a desire to learn information and skills that will help them in the real world, since all they have been taught is the importance to earn good grades. As stated in “The Case Against GRADES,” “The more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they are doing.” Focusing on what grades are earned instead of what is being learned can lead students to have a hard time adjusting. Realizing that grades are not as important as they were said to be, college students now have to be fully engaged in what they are doing, while still having grades in the back of their mind as a distraction.
Even though the idea of completely getting rid of a traditional grading system may sound good, it leaves a very valid concern for us to consider. Any new system must encourage effort without grading for effort. As noted in “An Examination of the Impact of Grading Policies on Students’ Achievement,” the original purpose of the traditional grading system was to “motivate students to work harder” by grading them on the amount of effort they give. That model inappropriately rewards work alone instead of measuring results. In the real world, it’s important to many employers to hire someone who is hard-working, motivated, and can work well with co-workers, compared to someone who is very intelligent but is lazy and doesn’t know how to work well with people. The solution is to keep grades for k-12 that encourage effort and good behavior instead of grading it. In other words, a system that gives the best grades to students who act like good employees: standards-based grading.
The main goal of standards-based grading is measure a student’s level of “mastery” in a subject. It’s based on a set of standards, which doesn’t include teachers’ own preferences for what they want to include in their grades. Factors like effort, homework, attendance, participation, and behavior are not included in these standards, which makes grades focused on academic achievement only. Instead of clumping in several different factors that don’t pertain to academics, it breaks down every subject into sections that students receive a grade in. For example, in “Standards-Based Grading” Kyle Spencer shows a sample report card for a science class. The science class is broken down into sections that include, ” the basis of scientific inquiry, continuity of life and the changes of organisms over time, unity and diversity of life, and ecological relationships among organisms.” Students are graded on each individual topic to see how of each subject they grasp. Standards-based grading is much more predictable, since students’ GPAs are not altered by any other factors besides how well they understand concepts. Although standards-based grading is more predictable is in measurement, it is still easy to wonder how effort is incorporated into this system.
Although there are some exceptions, most people are not born geniuses. The majority of students will have to work hard to fully understand subjects. With standards-based grading, it’s very hard for students to “cheat the system.” With the traditional system, students know that by showing they put in effort, it can cause a teacher to boost their grade. They aren’t actually putting in effort to learn, but rather to please their teacher and earn a high grade. On the other hand, the standards based system puts more emphasis on students to be more interested in what they learn. For example, if a student is being graded on the topic of “physical, chemical, and cellular basis of life,” then that student has to have done plenty of research on that specific topic before receiving mastery. Students have to put in effort with the standards-based system to learn complicated concepts if they want to be successful. But what motivates students to want be successful?
One of the biggest motivational factors for students when a standards-based system is in place is getting into college. Students can strive to earn high GPAs that only include mastery in several subjects. Standards-based grading makes students more prepared for college and the real world. Not only does it make sure students fully understand topics, but it provides a sense of more self-motivation. Students are more focused on putting in effort for themselves so they can get into college and eventually land a good job. With the traditional system, students will often only show effort to please their parents and teachers, since they are graded on it. In the real world, people don’t have someone to watch over them to make sure they put in effort.
More predictable grades not only help students out, but also help out colleges. For example, colleges can be sure they are accepting a student who fully understands subjects. With a traditional system, they wouldn’t be able to tell if the student they accepted earned straight A’s, but 50% of those A’s came from factors that had nothing to do with learning. Standards-based grading is also beneficial when working towards a college system with no grades at all.
Currently, employers don’t necessarily look at GPAs from college when looking for potential people to hire, so why have grades at all? Employers want someone who is knowledgable, hardworking, and knows how to deal with people. With a traditional system, its’ impossible to tell how hard-working or knowledgeable a person is, since everything is clumped together. With the standards-based system, at least we can be 100% certain that a person is knowledgeable and understands important concepts, and most of the time, the person had to put in hard work to achieve these things. This is why it makes more sense to not have grades in college when schools use a standards-based system. We know that students who get into college already have the skills to obtain knowledge in given areas. Professors can provide written feedback on assignments, but not necessarily give students letter or number grades. This leaves college students to only focus on what they’re learning so they an be successful in their career paths.
Allen, James D. “Grades as Valid Measures of Academic Achievement of Classroom Learning.” Clearing House, vol. 78, no. 5, May/June 2005, pp. 218-223.
Carey, Theodore, and James Carifio. “Minimum Grading, Maximum Learning.” Principal Leadership 11.7 (2011): 42-46. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
Elikai, Fara, and Peter W. Schuhmann. “An Examination of the Impact of Grading Policies on Students’ Achievement.” Issues in Accounting Education 25.4 (2010): 677-93. ProQuest. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against GRADES.” Educational Leadership 69.3 (2011): 28-33. Educational Administration Abstracts. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.