From an early age, I remember grades being treated like currency. Parents cajoled children into striving for high grades with bribes of trips for ice cream, cash payments, or even privileges like social outings with friends. Teachers leveraged the attachment to grades as a valuable commodity in various ways, too, compelling us to turn in a parent-signed syllabus for extra credit or wielding the threat of a zero for naughty behavior. Adults of my childhood placed an awful lot of importance on those letters and numbers, but I understood. Grades were a currency in which I, too, was deeply invested. Grades would be exchanged for admission to college. A college degree would ensure access to comfortable, respectable employment and the quality of life I grew up accustomed to in white, middle-class America. Fast forward to the spring of 2021. For modern students, the currency has deflated, and the players in this scene find themselves confused, stalled in their disbelief, and asking, “why don’t grades motivate the students to work?”
Grades as a form of communication convey messages of widely varied meaning: for some students, the messages signal their intelligence, worthiness, or superiority to others; for other students, it’s just the opposite. As a function of the education system, grades also inform the questions educators ask themselves. Who is ready for the next unit, course, or level of education? Who upholds classroom expectations? Who will be selected for a special program or by a university? Whatever the purpose, there is an underlying assumption that students place value on what they receive in exchange for grades. For this currency to hold value with both parties, we must place a tremendous amount of confidence in the overarching grading system. But before we do so, we must consider two important questions: 1) Were our education blueprints designed by individuals who were intent on promoting equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging? 2) Or are we still utilizing systems and practices which are, in fact, a proxy for privilege?
High-Stakes Grading: The Illusion of Value
The high stakes nature of grades merits an examination of what they actually mean. Traditional grading practices are entrenched in the experience, nomenclature, and psyche of our society. Over a century of use of the 100-point scale, an A-F classification, or a variation, have created a system ridden with potential downfalls and vague meanings. For example, an “A+” is broadly understood and recognized as doing very well. This perceived shared meaning forces schools to utilize traditional grading to communicate with college and university admissions departments. Grades become high-stakes for students and families, raising anxiety and stress, leading to the illusion that they will somehow communicate whether or not you will be successful in the future. Particularly during the pandemic, grades have become even more important sources of information for higher education “gatekeepers.” But what do grades really communicate?
Traditional grading practices are a confluence of different criteria. Grades have long included a combination of many items, much of which has little to do with learning. Everyone has a classmate who has done all of the extra credit, had perfect attendance, did all of their homework, and raised their hands in class as often as possible, earning high grades, but easily demonstrating that they have little grasp of the concepts or skills taught by the teacher. Inversely, we have all had that classmate who never came to class or did their homework but earned perfect scores on each assessment; even though they mastered the learning, however, they earned a D because they didn’t show up to class or do the work. Grading practices have long been shown to be better demonstrators of fidelity to academic enabling behaviors and class expectations than to actual measures of learning. Simply put, traditional grades create a façade of meaning, but their actual worth is meaningless. They do a terrible job of communicating learning. Adding to this complexity, when you take into account the variance of practices from one teacher to another, you are forced to ask yourself how any college or university could take seriously any grades at all. And as the source of criteria for sorting—or worse—ranking students, they undermine the entire purpose of education: for all students to learn.
Without Purpose, Privilege Reigns
This lack of coherence in meaning should push all educators to question the true purpose of grades. Should they serve as tools for motivation? Communication? Alignment? Instruction? If the purpose of education is learning, traditional grading systems often do more harm than good. While grades can certainly be a motivator for some students, they also have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation and interfere with the process and quality of learning. Students ask themselves, “Am I studying to pass the test or am I studying to learn?” Grading practices, in their current traditional form, favor students who are privileged and have been conditioned to exercise behaviors that enable them to earn good grades, whether learning has taken place or not, and often harm those most marginalized. Due to their subjective nature, grades can perpetuate racism, consciously or unconsciously, as well as other “isms.”
As educators, we tend to believe in the currency system of grades as representative of a student’s capacity. We repeat this mantra across instruction, assessment, and classroom management design: the goal of all learning activities is good grades. What if students don’t see the value in grades? When the focus is on earning points, not learning skills and concepts, students who aren’t inspired by the promised rewards of high grades are unlikely to show concern. Worse still, for students who see no hope of changing their life situation, the urge to uphold trivial demands to keep a certain average becomes pointless or even futile. Making matters worse, what’s perceived by teachers as lack of motivation often gets punished by traditional grading systems that incorporate effort, attendance, or other behaviors into the mix.
Unfortunately, instead of providing an authentic purpose for learning, we communicate that the end goal is that A+ or 100%. The result easily becomes disenfranchisement in a system rigged for those students with the tools and conditions to succeed.
Traditional Grades Fail Students
Students who face trauma, socioeconomic barriers, and other obstacles are the most punished by grading systems for factors out of their control. This is especially true for students of color, whom the education system is failing. From an early age, it’s not difficult for children to become aware that the education system was not designed for them. Historically marginalized students participating in a system built by and for the dominant culture are highly aware they don’t fit the narrative that they’re being taught is the norm. To be successful, these students are required to develop cultural knowledge and the ability to interface with the dominant culture that determines the rules. If grades are part of that failed system, what will lead to meaningful change?
Disrupting the System
Grading should be viewed as an integral part of an entire system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Curricular units and accompanying assessments must be clearly tied to standards, and the feedback students receive should be in accordance to learning objectives. Grading practices such as standards-based grading, competency-based grading, or initiatives like Mastery Transcript are examples of methods that are shown to center more accurately around learning, while also fulfilling the need to communicate students’ mastery of skills and concepts to other stakeholders. Even if your school is not embracing one of these progressive practices, if there is to be meaningful change that ensures equitable grading methods, there are fundamental ideologies that must be addressed. We suggest starting with a focus on bias, relevance, and student voice:
- Break Down Bias. For systems unable to evolve, current work by educators to understand unconscious bias and equity in the way we grade students is helping address this gap. In order to effectively change practice, we must confront beliefs. To confront beliefs, we must identify the impact that bias has on student learning. “A huge part of the so-called achievement gap isn’t the gap between Black and white children’s test scores, but the gap between adults’ mindsets and the abilities and potential of Black children.” (El-Mekki, 2021). Teachers must confront their own personal history and beliefs when it comes to learning expectations for all students. How do our biases create barriers and where can we open pathways in their place? Are teacher assumptions about what is considered the “right way” to demonstrate learning culturally responsive, or are they discriminatory towards certain students? Focus should center on the diverse ways that students can demonstrate proficiency of learning goals, and how we as educators are providing the most effective and actionable feedback that will allow students to reach those expectations.
- R is for Relevance. Relevance is the idea that something is interesting and worth knowing. Ask any middle school student why they are working on a learning activity and you likely won’t be surprised to hear them say, “because my teacher told me to.” Relevance can be established by connecting to students’ lives, prior knowledge, future goals, or even other learning experiences. Research shows that deeper learning is predicated on a student’s understanding of the purpose and the goal of learning. When it comes to feedback, de-center it from grades, and center it on the progress towards those learning goals. We must continually ask ourselves how we are communicating relevance to students in their learning journey beyond grades. As educators, we should examine when we start believing that students are not engaged in our instruction because they are lazy, incompetent, disruptive, or any other critical assumptions, instead of disengagement caused by not understanding purpose. We end up missing a tremendous opportunity to reach all learners.
- Ask the Students. If you’re wondering whether your instruction and assessment practices are relevant to your students, ask them! Consider the realities of your students’ lives. You may not initially have any idea what their world is like outside of school, but you have daily opportunities to find out. Teachers cannot pretend to provide instruction that is relevant to their student’s realities if they have no context for that reality themselves. “When context doesn’t drive the curriculum, exclusion is what students of color experience daily” (Garrett, 2021). Further, when grades are something teachers do to their students, the power dynamic is exaggerated by the absence of understanding students’ lived experiences. Research shows that self-assessment and self-reporting of grades are powerful strategies that drive student achievement (Hattie, 2017). Students are incredibly accurate when self-assessing themselves and are their own best critics. When grading student work, strive to engage students in self-assessment strategies to understand their own perceptions of learning.
Our Call to Action
As this school year comes to a close, it’s easy to seek reprieve from the myriad stressors we encountered the past 18 months and latch onto slivers of optimism, believing it will all be different next year. But the truth is, if we don’t carve out time for introspection and careful consideration of the stark disparities in our education system that were only entrenched more deeply by the impact of the pandemic, it will not, in fact, be any different. To change patterns, we must actively disrupt the strategies we have always applied. Our grading system is built upon traditions rooted in privilege and access, and it actually facilitates discriminatory practices. Yet we rely on these arbitrary letters and numbers to compel students’ engagement in their educational journey. Particularly this past year, students have sent a strong message that grades are not the reason they are inspired to learn. Grades are not the currency that motivates students. As we emerge from the pandemic, let this be a lasting lesson our students have taught us, one that catalyzes enduring change.
El-Mekki, Sharif (@selmekki). “A huge part of the so-called achievement gap isn’t the gap between Black and white children’s test scores, but the gap between adults’ mindsets and the abilities and potential of Black children.” 20 April 2021, 5:45 AM. Tweet.
Garrett, Chaunte. “Relevant Curriculum Is Equitable Curriculum”. Education Leadership, March 2021, pp. 48-53.
Hattie, John. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.