The Controversy of School Grades – Does our Global School Grading System Deserve an ‘A+’ or ‘F’?

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Ella Gincherman, Staff Writer

It’s freshman year, and I’m overworked and exhausted. I’ve studied all night for my geometry test doing problem after problem after problem. I am extremely tired on the bus ride on the way to school and still continue studying there, until I finally comprehend and understand all the material that will be on the test. The test seems to go off without a hitch, and I exhaustedly submit it but can go on with my day knowing I did my best. However, this joy of accomplishment doesn’t last as I find out days later that my test was graded as a ‘D’. I felt a mix of emotions, such as anger towards my teacher and towards my “stupid geometry class.” However, the strongest emotions present were in fact towards myself; “My best is never good enough,” “Everyone else is so much better and smarter than me,” “I’m so dumb,” “I can’t do anything right.” Although the reaction to getting a bad grade is different for every student of every level, the common thought spiral we all find ourselves falling into is that of self-deprecation.

Are students really the ones to blame for acquiring a bad grade, or is it more so the flawed system that we learn in? Students are always told by our teachers and role models that it’s a good thing to make mistakes, that we SHOULD make mistakes, but if that’s really the case, then why are we punished for them constantly through grades? Beyond that, how else do grades impair us despite providing students the fundamental form of feedback? 

In one class, two students could take the same fact based test in which one of the students studies all night and fully comprehends the material but receives a ‘C,’ whereas the other could simply memorize the information without fully retaining it and receive an ‘A.’ In an article from The Hechinger Report entitled “Why do schools use grades that teach nothing?,”  the current President of Hampshire College, Jonathan Lash, explains his opinions on this very issue stating that, “Grades tell students the absolute minimum about their abilities; they tell them only whether they have earned enough points under a teacher’s rubric to get a good mark.” Further explaining, “When we reduce students to numbers and grades, they and we focus on test-taking skills and grade requirements rather than on learning.” When a student’s end goal is only to receive good grades, education becomes less about learning and more about success, completely changing what the basic purpose of school is: to learn. While grades do at times motivate students to work harder and be more involved in classes, are we rewarding students who are comprehending less but test well over those who are learning more and working harder? 

The grading system is clearly a simple way of evaluating the broad and complex aptitude of a student, but what would happen if we got rid of it in its entirety? While school grades may create a flawed education system, they still provide the fundamental source of feedback for students. In a 2017 Public Education Report by The University of Chicago Urban Institute, the school stated that “High school course grades are critical indicators of academic performance for students, educators, and institutions of higher education.” The school stated that they believed grades not only capture a student’s academic performance but also the “non-cognitive” factors that go into learning, such as effort and perseverance. Although grades may be a minimal form of feedback, they can oftentimes encompass a student’s growth over the course of their academic career in every subject and skill learned. Grades provide students with a goal to work towards and motivation to reach that goal, and by taking away this motivation for students they may in turn not work as hard as before and therefore learn even less than in a system with grades. 

To further examine the nuances of this argument, I decided to survey 32 of my own peers from various different high schools, public and private, to see what their opinions were on their educational grading system. The first main area I weighed were their opinions on the link between motivation to work hard in school, and grades they acquired. My data proved to be split 50/50 amongst the students with half of them “stating that school grades always motivated them to work harder,” and the latter stating they either “sometimes or rarely contributed to their motivation in school.”

Another interesting result of my survey was when I asked the students the question of whether they feel their grades accurately reflect their comprehension of the material. The majority (65.6%) of the students felt it did not, with the other 34.4% stating that they felt it did. In addition, when I asked about academic confidence as a result of school grades, the majority of the students stated that school grades sometimes positively impact their confidence. However, this same majority also stated grades only sometimes negatively impact their confidence. 

Having seen the perspective on this controversy from my fellow students, I conducted an interview with Sandy Spring Friends School academic dean and English teacher Rasha El-Haggan, who has been working towards improving the grading system at the school. The first question I asked was whether or not she felt that school grades accurately reflect a student’s knowledge of the material. She answered that “While grades can reflect a student’s knowledge and ability, whether they do or not depends on what the grades are assessing,” further elaborating, “grades deliver various types of feedback that at times do communicate where a student is, but may not encompass the full aptitude of a student’s general knowledge – more so assessing smaller subcategories.” Moving the conversation over to equity, I asked Rasha whether or not she felt grades were equitable, and immediately she explained her feelings that grades were not equitable in the current education system as “different teachers teaching the exact same class could have different policies that will affect some students in one class’s grades more than the other, which is one of the reasons we shouldn’t link grading and learning together.” Rasha then explained to me a form of grading called “Standards Based Grading” that allows for equity in assessing what a student knows at each point in the process of learning a new topic. This system increases the weight of grades as a student obtains mastery of a subject. At the end of our conversation Rasha made her final statement on what her general hope was for her students: “I hope students will have the mantra of ‘grades are not what motivate me, learning is what motivates me.’”

The validity and usage of school grades as well as their positive and negative effects is clearly an issue with many opinions and sides to it. Our ways of assessing students and giving them feedback will continue to evolve as our education system changes, further showing that while there may never be a perfect way of assessing students’ school performance, we are beginning to ask the right questions and slowly move in the right direction.