In Defense of Grading Assignments Part 2

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. See Part 1 for more.

The key in all of this is to recognize the proper use for grades. This I think is the main objection around grades. All too often teachers see students who are obsessed with grades. Student Jim got a 99% and he goes to the teacher asks why he lost 1%. He might even say it is not fair. That kind of obsession with grades is unhealthy. The teacher knows it and is trying to help the student see that. The student should just accept his 99% and leave it at that. There is a real danger of becoming obsessed with grades. This happens in classical Christian education circles because we are trying to raise the standard in education. We have high standards and our students have high standards. This also happens because parents push students to get 100% on everything. This drive can come from a prep-school-ivy-league-college impulse were the family pushes the student so he can get into Harvard. But that issue is not one with the grading system. That issue is a heart and desire problem. Throwing out the grading system won’t fix this problem.

The reality is grades are a constructed tool. They are helpful aids in a designed classroom. This means that a student can get an “A+” on the assignment and still fail the assignment. This means a student can get an “F” on the assignment and not fail the assignment. This is not to be mystical about grades. But this is to point to the deeper spiritual reality in school. Students are real living people and so the way they do their work and the way they receive their grades matters. Are they thankful? Are they complaining? School is not just about knowledge and facts, it is also about wisdom. Wisdom can be learned and acknowledged but it is not necessarily tied up in a grade. Some will agree with this point and say this is why we don’t need grades. But actually grades are still really helpful even when we acknowledge that we want students to learn wisdom. In the two examples above, I gave two strange extremes that are not very common. Usually what happens is that a student gets an “A” on the assignment and it really does mean the student passed and did well on the assignment. Or when a student gets an “F” on the assignment, it really does mean the student failed. These two scenarios are the regular and normal course of events in giving grades. This should reinforce what I have been saying. We should base our evaluations off of the standard and not the exceptions. The exceptions where a student gets an “A” and still fails at it, will always be there. We should teach through those and pray for them but that is not how we should build our grading system.

The reality is I would rather have students who come to me asking why they got a 99% on an assignment than have students who don’t care about grades at all. A student who wants to know why he got a 99% is one who wants to be there and wants to do well. Doing well in school is a wonderful desire that we should cultivate and encourage. The student might need to be reminded of deeper truths—like grades are not everything—but his basic impulse is a good one and that is valuable.

The solution to the students being obsessed with grades is to be clear and precise as a teacher. If a student comes asking about the 99% on an assignment, the teacher must have a good, reasonable answer. A teacher should not say “I just felt like it was a 99%.” That kind of decision from the teacher really is arbitrary and fickle. In a world dominated by feelings, a teacher should not be setting that kind of example. We should not grade based on feelings. The grading system should provide some objective standard which we can use to measure work. Grades are not an exhaustive standard but they are a standard. The teacher should be careful to use a clear and precise standard that is appropriate for the assignment. He should take off points for good clear reasons. It is perfectly right and good for a student to ask why he got one point off on an assignment. The teacher must have a good reasonable explanation: spelling, forgot name, etc.

Having a clear and reasonable standard is the way of loving students well. Don’t be capricious. Being random with grades will frustrate students and will cause them to be anxious about their grades. The best way to help them understand grades in the proper light is to explain the system you are using, explain how they can get an “A” and then remind them to be thankful for what they get.

Grades are tools to help students see their strengths and weaknesses. The goal though should be always improving and always growing. Grades help us keep track of where students were and where they are now. It helps us track how they have grown and how they have improved. We should help them see that grades don’t measure everything but they do help with measuring specific things in the classroom. We want students to see that when they are done with the work and if they have done their best before God and men, then they can be thankful for what they got and they can be content. And this lesson is really important for students to learn so they are ready for the world that God has made. In this way, we teachers can show them how to do this with the grading system we use.

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