Letter Grades for Students Get an 'F'
By Steve Nelson / filmsforaction.org
Jan 28, 2014

Imagine the following exercise: You enter with your spouse, partner or good friend. The purpose is to deepen and improve your relationship through honest communication -- a mutual assessment for growth.

Each of you prepares a thoughtful inventory of the things you most love, respect and admire about the other. That's the easy part. Then, with requisite tact, you craft a similar list of the things you wish your counterpart would examine -- ways they might become an even more delightful partner. If done well, such a process would be both affirming and challenging, dynamics of value in any relationship. Stagnant water breeds disease.

Now imagine that your facilitator requires that you accompany your assessment with a letter grade. You must weigh the complex matrix of assets and liabilities and assign an A, B or C to your partner. (If you are drawn toward D or F, perhaps the process is too little, too late!)

Furthermore, you are to calibrate your letter grade on a "bell curve" of desirable human traits. Two outcomes are likely: All "A's," which is dishonest and renders the assessment meaningless; or a dramatic increase in divorce or homicide rates. "I love you dearly, but I'm afraid you're a 'B-' in my estimation, especially in light of the other men I know."

And this is precisely why schools should reconsider the traditional grading system. Grading is an unnecessary violation of a relationship with a child.

I recall a discussion with a Lower School parent, many years ago. The father (surprising?) was nearly adamant that we should be giving letter grades to his daughter and the other students. I asked why he felt this was so. He replied, "Because I pay good money (Always a perfect way to make points with me!) and I want to know how she's doing." I replied that we offer rich narrative reports, conferences with advisors and teachers and informal feedback virtually anytime at all. "How," I asked, "Would you not know how she was doing?" He turned a bit red(er) and blurted out, "I want to know how she's doing compared to the other kids!" "Now just why is that so important to you?" I asked. (A perfect way to make points with him!) This was not a long term Calhoun family.

Many would claim that grades inspire hard work and great achievement. That's probably the most common argument I encounter. Grades may indeed inspire hard work -- it's called "gaming the system." But most research demonstrates the shortcomings of extrinsic motivation and the importance of intrinsic motivation.

In a discussion several years ago about grades and grading, a thoughtful Upper School teacher offered the following characterization: After having reflected on the progress, breakthroughs, stalls and frustrations of a particular student he would, and I love the phrase, "Slap a grade on it."

Assigning (slapping) grades, particularly when exacerbated by GPA's and class ranks, does several things. As well documented by eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner and others, it conditions children to view learning as a process to determine what the teacher wants. This conditioning leads to risk-aversion and a phenomenon I'll call "learning to the test." The phrase "teaching to the test" is now common vernacular and properly identifies a powerful negative influence on education. But "learning to the test" is equally limiting and pervasive. Even at a progressive school like Calhoun, despite teachers' best intentions, many students will ask, "Will it be on the test?" as a way of determining how they will spend time and intellectual energy.

This alone should prompt reconsideration of letter grades, but my concerns are more about the relationships we have with our students. I teach a journalism class several times a year and, because it is school policy (I am nothing if not compliant), I give grades. I hate it.

I have students whose work is technically fastidious but unimaginative. Does fastidious deserve an "A" in the absence of imagination or originality? Can eccentric brilliance deserve an "A" if riddled with punctuation errors? I want to affirm and challenge the fastidious student and the creative student. Does my nearly arbitrary choice of a letter grade interfere with both the affirmation and the challenge? I think so. Why is it not sufficient that I have an honest conversation with each student about these things without "slapping a grade on it?"

I can't, though tempted, give every student an "A" as a form of protest. I'm the Head of School for goodness sake! But take the example of a particularly interesting student several years ago whose originality was in rarified "A" territory. Her prose was tortured and wandering. Grammar was not her strength. But her writing had shards of brilliance in every paragraph. It felt impossible to give her an "A," given the deep flaws in her technique. But it seemed a betrayal of our relationship to give her anything less. I'd have preferred to simply tell her both things honestly and supportively without having to characterize her as a "B."

The idea of grading and ranking is deeply embedded in our cultural understanding of school. That doesn't make it right. I suggest that letter grades do more to inhibit real learning than to inspire it.

What do you think?

4.0 ·
3
Trending Today
Obama's Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Stansfield Smith · 8,415 views today · It should be a scandal that leftists-liberals paint Trump as a special threat, a war mongerer – not Obama who is the first president to be at war everyday of his eight years...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 5,821 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Make The Serengeti Great Again | Resource Scarcity, Demagogues and How Creativity Can Trump Hate (2017)
5 min · 2,216 views today · A Familiar Tale of Resource Scarcity, Demagogues, and How Creativity Can Trump Hate A quick, original, illustrated allegory that pokes at the demagogues we’ve got with an...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,968 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 1,501 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
What Is a Gift Economy? - Alex Gendler
4 min · 1,108 views today · What if, this holiday season, instead of saying "thank you" to your aunt for her gift of a knitted sweater, the polite response expected from you was to show up at her house in...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,097 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 1,043 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
Union Co-Operatives: What They Are and Why We Need Them
Simon Taylor · 817 views today · Neoliberal policies contribute to alienation, disempowerment and non-unionised jobs, but a new model for unions could break the vicious circle, argues Simon Taylor.
Why I Think This World Should End
4 min · 657 views today · Sorry if this offends you. - Prince Ea
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 639 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
The Myth of Romantic Love May Be Ruining Your Health
Susanne Vosmer · 352 views today · Romantic love in Western societies is often portrayed in a stereotypical way: two yearning halves, who search for each other to find their complete, original state. Few find...
Prophecy Delivered! Martin Luther King Jr. and the Death of Democracy
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou · 323 views today · “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Democracy is dead. It...
Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More
Josh Jones · 315 views today · Why must we all work long hours to earn the right to live? Why must only the wealthy have a access to leisure, aesthetic pleasure, self-actualization…? Everyone seems to have...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 309 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Trump: The Illusion of Change
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 285 views today · “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.” — Wendell Berry
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 268 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 243 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 230 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
Defiance in the Face of Oppression - Iranian Artist Atena Farghadani Defends the Right to Draw
Gavin Aung Than · 218 views today · Atena Farghadani is a 28-year-old Iranian artist. She was recently sentenced to 12 years and 9 months in prison for drawing a cartoon.  
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Letter Grades for Students Get an 'F'