Opinion
Assessment Commentary

Could Standard Grading Practices Be Counterproductive?

By Paul Barnwell — June 30, 2008 4 min read

Imagine the following scenario: Valerie gets her report card back on a day when palpable excitement and fear surge through the school as students bustle back to homeroom in the afternoon. She is relieved—straight A’s, as usual—and goes on her way. Valerie is a responsible student—some might label her a “teacher pleaser.” She completes most of her homework, despite struggling a bit on exams.

In another classroom, Jonathan gets his report card from his homeroom teacher, and his hands tremble as he unfolds the paper. A few C’s, a few D’s, and one F—and this despite the fact that he scored high on his tests in all subjects. Jonathan usually did not turn in homework, and was lazy at times in class. Yet he demonstrated mastery of the content.

With these scenes in mind, please consider the following: What do grades mean? More important, what should they mean? Should they be emphasized in our schools as much as they are?

Grades can mean many things, of course. To receive an A as Valerie did might mean that a student worked diligently, completing all assignments and doing just well enough on tests and other projects. It also could mean that a student knew most of the material going into the course and had no trouble at all, receiving high marks but barely learning anything. It might mean grade inflation. It might be a reflection of a few graded assignments, or it could reflect dozens of assigned grades, depending on the teacher’s assessment methods. Countless other variables are possible when grades are tallied.

It is hardly surprising, then, that parents, teachers, and students often discuss or dispute grades, with the constant threat of panic or conflict if a grade drastically dips. What is shocking is how rare the following question is asked: Does this grade reflect whether or not the student has actually learned anything?

The problem with our grade-dominated system is that emphasizing grades and grading can distract us from a concentration on what really matters: whether or not students are comprehending and learning the material. A ridiculous, even tragic, amount of time is devoted by too many teachers to disputing grades with parents and students. That time could be better used discussing what the child is learning, or having other productive conversations.

Another problem with a heavy reliance on grading is the underlying assumption that grades are a necessary motivator for students. There are several problems with this contention. Psychological research has shown that students, and people in general, are more likely to lose interest in what they’re doing if they are promised carrots or threatened with sticks. Using grades as a threat or reward for completing or not completing schoolwork is extrinsic, or external, motivation. This type of motivation often results in a decreased focus on the learning objective.

If we focused more on creating ideal learning climates, grades could slowly be pushed aside, and we could concentrate more on the kind of constructive feedback that spurs student growth.

I cringe when I hear students ask, “Is this for a grade?” We should try to eliminate that question in our schools. Don’t we, after all, want students to be motivated by the prospect of learning itself? In classroom environments where grades are pushed, the sad fact is that students will often choose the easiest path to high grades, rather than challenge themselves in meaningful and creative ways. In classrooms where students are intrinsically, or internally, motivated, excellence is more likely to occur.

Most students will want to learn if they are presented with engaging and exciting learning environments and experiences. At the least, I’ve found that more students are motivated to learn when presented with authentic, stimulating learning climates than by the threat-reward bargain of grades. Research shows us that the human brain is wired to enjoy discovery and novel ideas, experiences, and situations. If we focused more on creating ideal learning climates, grades could slowly be pushed aside, and we could concentrate more on the kind of constructive feedback that spurs more student growth. Unfortunately, the pressure of grade competition and comparison is ingrained in our system.

I work in a public school where grading is seen as an important motivational facet and feedback tool. But this is no reason for me to despair, despite the problems I have with the practice. We are changing, little by little. Members of the school’s math department, for example, are actively making strides by recording fewer grades, focusing instead on formative assessments and interacting with students to constantly gauge what they know. As a language arts teacher, one of the most productive paths I’ve found is to de-emphasize grades. Traditional grading is insufficient as I attempt to assess student learning, growth, and development.

Like every other student, I enjoyed receiving good grades in school. But I honestly didn’t care much about the grades in courses I was most interested in. There, what we were doing was for the sake of learning itself. That kind of intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to the creation of students who display the greatest tribute to public education, a desire to keep on learning, long after they have left the classroom.

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