Grades can seem so arbitrary. What does it mean to give a writing assignment an “A”? Did the student get everything correct? Does that “A” mean the paper would win a scholarship? And then think about other disciplines. In art, what does an “A” mean for a photograph of a beautiful landscape? And then think about real life, would we really go to a fancy restaurant eat a juicy tender steak and then compliment the chef by saying, “Good work. That earned an A”?
Teachers give out grades regularly and so they have to consider what they are doing with grades and why. Some teachers might even consider it a pointless endeavor. Maybe we should do away with the grading system entirely?
My position is that we should maintain a grading system. Grades are an important tool in a teacher’s toolbox and if used properly, they help prepare students for the world God has made.
Grading is the process by which a teacher looks over and evaluates a student’s intellectual work. It is also a predetermined and mutually agreed upon system which uses letters as a shorthand way of giving more detailed feedback and comments.
The classroom is training for the real world. It includes and involves the real world: people, bodies, work, fatigue, energy, emotions, life, etc. But the classroom is a constructed environment that has been set and designed in order to communicate knowledge and wisdom between teacher and students. The classroom is not the full picture of the world. In the classroom, the teacher breaks down parts of the world into smaller pieces so the student can see and learn and process the pieces and put them back together again into connected units. The classroom has a lot of real world components and that is helpful. But if we do not realize and acknowledge the constructed nature of the classroom then we will misunderstand what it is for and how to use it.
In saying the classroom is not the real world what I mean is that the classroom is a designed environment established for the purpose of learning and teaching which is different from the world beyond the classroom. The world is bigger than the classroom. When a student goes out into the world to learn something, material will usually not come at him in nice prearranged pieces. There won’t be a study guide. The students will have to see the problem, figure out the key elements, process the information, make a decision and act. There will be minimal teacher figures guiding him along through the process. In the real world, if the student makes a mistake there will be real and lasting consequences: he could lose his job, he could hurt someone, or he could ruin his life. The classroom is not that way. The classroom is created to give room for students to try and fail with limits on the consequences. In this way, the classroom is a model of the real world. The model is designed to maximize the learning process by making knowledge accessible to the students without endangering them with permanent consequences.
Given the constructed nature of the classroom, a grading system should make sense. This is not the real world. In the real world, when a student falls down, he gets a skinned knee and bleeds. In the classroom, when the student falls—that is, does poorly on an assignment—he receives a low grade. The grading system, in this way, gives the student a sense of success and failure. It is not the exact way that success and failure will work in the real world since it is a model but it helps the student understand the concept. Students, when they are done with school, will still be graded out in the real world. The grading will be different, but it will still be there: a job evaluation, an interview, an observation, pay raise, etc. They need to be ready for this kind of grading.
Some teachers might be tempted to just do away with grades. They are artificial and seemingly random. But I would argue that is bad idea. Grades are a key tool for a teacher. There is no way to get rid of all grades and still have a classroom. In some way, the teacher will always use a system to evaluate a student’s work, even if the teacher is not using letters. The teacher who wants to get rid of grades could try. He could banish grades from his classroom. He then gives out a test and the students return it to him. He has to figure out if they did what was required of them. Did student Joe do it correctly? Did student Sally do it incorrectly? The teacher could decide to give everyone the same grade but we would quickly see the problem there: not everyone did the same kind of work. Some did it poorly and some did it well. A good teacher realizes that he needs to give feedback to the students on their work. Not everyone did the same kind of work and so he needs to say something about each assignment.
The teacher could stop using letter grades and instead go with “well done” or “poor work.” But even if the teacher decides to use “well done” or “poor work” instead of letters, he is still doing the same thing as grades. He has simply replaced letter grades with word grades. Now a word grading system might be better and more descriptive than a letter based system and so in this way it could be more helpful for a teacher to give feedback through words. If that is what the teacher is doing, then that is fine. But that is still a grade system. So it is not whether he will have a grading system but which one. In reality, many teachers use words along with the letter grading system, writing “well done” in places on the assignment or circling weak areas.
If the teacher wanted to be really consistent and decided to banish all grading, the teacher would need to also banish all assignments, tests, papers, and projects. He would need to not require anything of the students, except to be there and listen to him talk. But that is not education at all. In fact, a smart student would quickly realize what is going on and decide to not show up to class. If he is doing no work and he is not going to receive any feedback on it, then why be there?
We live in an age that hates standards. The egalitarian ideology has taken over everywhere and so we are told that everyone should be a winner. But to achieve the goal of everyone being a winner, we have to remove all standards. Everyone gets an “A”, everyone graduates, etc. But that is a fundamental lie about the world. The reality is that some people are smarter than others. Some people are faster than others. In the real world people get hurt and mistakes can cause serious damage to ourselves, to others, and to the world. We can try to eliminate the standards in a constructed environment like the classroom but we cannot get rid of standards in reality. In the middle of the egalitarian madness of our day, we should be hesitant to get rid of something that might lower the standards of the classroom. In fact, I would argue that to remove the grading system is to go along with that egalitarian mentality.
Part 2 Coming soon