Opinion: It’s About Time We Abandon Grades

Opinion%3A+Its+About+Time+We+Abandon+Grades

Chloe Metz

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”— Albert Einstein

Tests, quizzes, homework, essays, readings; for any student within the education system, these are the only way to prove your knowledge in a particular subject. You may have lectures where you take notes and have homework, then halfway through you take a quiz, and finally to end the unit a test to prove you know the subject; all of these add up to form your grade, and then you move on to do it all over again. Using letters and numbers to evaluate a student isn’t a new practice; in fact, it has been commonplace since the late 1800s and continues within schools ever since. But, for years, scientists, psychologists, teachers, and students alike have questioned: are grades a tool to learn, or are they limiting students’ ability to obtain a deep understanding and appreciation of a topic? Through research, personal experience, and an interview, it is all too clear — for students to achieve their full potential, we must remove the grading scale. 

The predicted level of life satisfaction is seen as decreasing due to the introduction of grades within the Swedish school

One of the reasons schools should abandon the outdated system for grading is that it has a clear negative impact on its students. For many students, the difference between an A and a B can be the difference between a good or bad day. In an interview with junior Corinna Howery, she remarked how “it is really easy to base your self-worth off of grades,” and with many other students that I talked to, this is a common occurrence. Personally, I spent years believing that I could only have value as an intelligent individual if I got all A’s, and when I got a C, I felt that I no longer was smart. Not just personal anecdotes, but research too proves that a heavy focus on grades and standardized tests leads to an adverse effect on students. In a 2019 Swedish study, researchers observed a school that had recently passed a reform that would lead to the introduction of grades and increased testing, studying its impact on the students. They found that “the reform increased stress and reduced academic self-esteem among pupils, and some evidence [suggests] that it also led to more psychosomatic symptoms and reduced life satisfaction.” When a student’s fundamental knowledge of one subject is tied to a numerical score, it’s hard for them to separate their performance in that class from their understanding of the material. Sometimes, a bad grade is not reflective of knowledge, but rather poor mental health, home life, or other outside factors. In the 2015 American College Health Association survey, 30% of college students said that stress and 22% said that anxiety had negatively impacted their academic performance within the last 12 months. Put simply, grades are not reflective of students’ full capability, and as they also have a profound negative impact upon pupils, the grading model must change. 

Putting aside the negative impact of grading, the reality is that the actual effect of grades in the current school system emphasizes not getting a bad grade rather than promoting learning. Any student today knows exactly how to use the system to get a good grade, even if it means that you haven’t learned anything or really engaged with the material. “If I am studying for a test,” says Howery, “I am not genuinely engaging with the material, like ‘wow the French Revolution is so interesting’, really it’s ‘I need to know about the French Revolution or else I am going to get a bad grade and fail this class’.” When a teacher puts a heavy focus on grades, the student is less likely to view the material as exciting or valuable to their everyday life– grades take away the real-world value of a student’s education. In my AP Language Composition class, the teacher is trying something new and getting rid of numerical grading, but rather, we are giving a word (Effective, Adequate, Limited, Inadequate, Little Success, and Unsatisfactory) to evaluate our performance for each assignment. At the end of the semester, we will have a meeting where we argue what we feel our grade should be. For me, this new system has had an enormous impact on how I view the class; where before I would take the easy route to get an A, now, I challenge myself and take risks because it will have less of a large impact on my overall performance if I fail. However, I understand that this model simply cannot work in every subject. In math, for example, you must be tested to prove that you have an understanding of the subject and know how to do it. But, what if, instead of focusing on perfection within Math, we put a significant emphasis on a deep understanding of the topic and its applications. 

Now, with all this being said, I understand that changing the current system of grading is nearly impossible due to its deep-rooted nature within our schools. Still, there are many proposed ways in which we as a community can begin this critical shift. One possible step that we can take, says Susan M. Bookhart, is to start “having productive conversations about what grades should mean and who the main audience for grades should be.” Bookhart advocates for “standard-based grading,” where “grades are not about what students earn; they are about what students learn.” In our interview, Corinna Howery offers a solution by saying that “maybe a good first step is to eliminate the number aspect of grades.” For me, I think that teachers are an essential driving factor in changing students relationship between themselves and grades as, as Howery puts it, “teachers didn’t choose this job so that kids could get good grades, but rather to have them learn and engage with something that they are passionate about.” Although widespread change may not occur, these and many others are great examples of the many ways in which the grading system can be altered to benefit the students.

Grades are a long-held practice within education that simply does not promote healthy relationships with school or long-lasting and meaningful learning. Instead, grades create an unnecessarily stressful atmosphere that pushes temporary perfection over anything else and creates a damaging link between a student’s self-worth and grades. Due to these reasons, it is evident that our school system needs to abandon the grading system before it is too late. But, if this does not happen (and I think it probably never will), the most important thing that a student can learn is that you are not your grade, and the quicker you understand that, the more accessible school will become.