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?

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Letter Grades for Students Get an 'F'