Reading & Reacting: Grades Do More Harm Than Good

Photo: A plus

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Ludwig

By Chris Crouch @ The Huffington Post

Having just generated a grade report for all of my classes, this article captured some of my general feelings about the whole business. I could probably write a whole lot about grades and have been as part of the Beyond Letter Grades MOOC, which I must say is really quite good. Still Crouch touches on some pretty salient points about the whole corrupted business of grades and learning.

Somewhere along the line though, all parties have lost sight of what grades are supposed to represent. Depending upon who you ask you are likely to receive a wide range of responses. Teachers feel boxed in and forced to report grades, students are trapped “earning” them, and parents understand what “good” and “bad” grades mean. But none of those understandings are close to the role they were meant to play; their primary function is to communicate mastery of performance and today they do anything but that. It’s a mess.

Admittedly, I am not entirely convinced that grades primary function is to communicate mastery, as Crouch posits here. I think they have a lot more to do with ranking and sorting, and in some more pernicious contexts norming students. However, I think he is on the mark with all of the other elements mentioned.

He goes on to explain that grades are so entrenched in how we all think about school that they will never disappear overnight. Again, he is right on this point. Far too much stock is placed into the broken system of grades. This despite a lot of research and data to suggest that grades actually negatively impact learning.

Crouch lists three items as reasons for why grades are a mess, all strong:

  • Grades are Inflated
  • Grades Remove Intrinsic Motivation
  • Grades are Poor Communicators

While this is a good general start, there is even more to it than that.

Grades are inflated, there is not even much arguing this. Crouch’s comments are more about teachers wanting to avoid conflict and awkward conversations. There is certainly some truth in this. I have often joked that the difference between a C+ and a B- is a parent conference. However, this scenario only tell part of the story.

As the prospect of attending higher education has become a normed expectation, there has been increased pressure on teachers to award grades that will not impede this process. Plus, no matter what any teacher claims, grades are never an exact measure. They are by definition an abstract representation of a number of factors. Thus, marks have slowly creeped higher over time, projecting the appearance of better performance for college prospects in the near term. Yet, this appearance is little more than a mirage, if grades are truly inflated and they are.

There is little argument over the notion that grades decrease and even remove intrinsic motivation. Aside from the significant body of research on this front, the whole grade system is a quintessentially extrinsic motivation system, carrot and stick thinking, which only works in extremely limited contexts.

Yet, reward-and-punishment thinking remains one of the most enduring myths. We routinely employ this kind of thinking over and over with poor results, in all aspects of life. In fact, all of ill-effects of the high stakes testing regime that we have been inflicting on students for years continue to fail making any substantive change in education.

Of course, now this accountability obsession will hang over teachers too, in the form a supremely flawed evaluation schemes.

Most of all grades are indeed poor communicators. Worst of all, the entrenched nature of grades results in nearly conversation focusing on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on learning and steps toward making progress toward gaining any kind of mastery, all talk cannot escape the gravitational pull of grades. In many cases, all that matters is that letter and the perverse patchwork of meaning it may or may not represent.

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