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What is the Impact of Grades?

I recently saw this meme online and my immediate reaction was one of sadness. Channeling my best Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with letter grades anyway? For too many students the main goal in school is to get that perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA). That is of course unless your school uses some version of a weighted GPA and then the target might be a 4.5 or a 5.0. Still, the traditional 4.0 has meaning. Right? Wrong! If that were true, then a 4.0 earned by a child in school A would be essentially the same as a 4.0 in school B, even if they were in different towns or even different states. The reality is there is almost no inter-rater reliability between teachers, schools, and districts in how they assign grades.

I think we can all remember picking classes in high school or college because Ms. Jones was a hard grader or Ms. Smith was an easy A. If grades had real objective meaning that decision wouldn’t exist, and yet it does. My child’s language arts grade might include the his written work, but might also include a few points for his effort and a few more points for extra credit. Homework might be factored in too, though there is no guarantee my child was actually the one who completed the homework. Those “hard” and “easy” A’s translate into numbers and become a part of the overall GPA. While we know that some teachers grade tougher or easier than others, we somehow believe that putting those grades into numbers that even include decimal points makes them objective.

I have written previously about the need to teach students to fail and learn from those failures. If you have never failed you have never really pushed yourself. According to Alfie Kohn, “kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded.”

Schools should seriously reflect on that they believe is the primary purpose of school and schooling. If the purpose is to prepare students for college, then letter grades, created in the higher ed environment in 1897, make sense and should be continued. If, on the other hand, they believe the primary purpose of school and schooling is to produce graduates who are creative, curious, and reflective, they should find a different way to denote student accomplishments. Seminal research has shown that grades have a detrimental effect on students. It’s time we heed that call and find a better way forward.

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