The Failure of Grades
I recently had to do the one thing that I dislike most about being a college professor: assign final grades. For me, giving out grades is definitely a necessary evil. I find it so frustrating that an entire semester of thinking, learning, exploring, and discussing comes down to assigning a letter or number to students. And yet, I know I must do this to keep my job. To put this in succinct sociological terms, my agency (my capability to act) is constrained by the institutional structure (the rules of the university that I must follow).
Everyone knows that grades are supposed to give us some sort of information. We also know that grades are connected to a numerical value. In this sense, we may say that grades are a statistic: a figure that is computed from a population or sample. In school, grades are generally computed from the sample of course assignments—papers, oral presentation, exams, quizzes, group projects, participation, etc.
When confronted with any statistic or set of numbers we should always feel compelled to ask two critical sociological questions: (1) What is this statistic measuring? (2) How is this statistic being used?
Many people would probably say that grades measure how smart you are. The problem with this assumption is that in most educational contexts grades only measure two types of intelligence: linguistic and logical-mathematical. According Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences there are at least five other types of intelligence: musical, bodily (kinesthetic), spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. As we all know, most of these other forms of intelligence will not get you a place on the honor roll.
Basing grades on just two types of intelligence becomes especially problematic when we consider some of the other things that people think grades measure, such as self worth and potential. In our culture, the power and persuasion of grades is so strong that many students are socialized to believe that their grades in school reflect who they are and what they will become. How many times have you heard someone define a young person defined by their grades: “She’s an A student. We expect great things from her.” “He’s not that smart. He’s barely getting C’s.”
When we make the unfortunate and incorrect link between one’s grades and one’s value as a human being we are getting at the second question that we should ask about all statistics: How are they being used?
There is no doubt that grades are largely used as a sorting mechanism. In other words, they are used as a form of stratification—a way to rank and reward people. Just think: Have you ever seen a school that does not proudly display an honor role, a Dean’s list, or have some specially designated “society” (usually involving Latin words or different colored caps and gowns) for people with high GPAs? What about the students who receive average grades? How are they ever celebrated and honored?
Seeing grades as a form of stratification is a key sociological insight. The extent to which grades and the larger schooling process are used to label, sort, and track students has been an important topic of sociological analysis. Classic studies such as Jeannie Oakes’s Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood, and Annette Lareau’s Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education demonstrate how grades play a role in perpetuating inequality by pushing some students forward and keeping other students back.
So what are the alternatives? What actions can be taken either at the institutional or individual level to resist the grading system?
Some colleges and universities do not give out letter grades to students in their first semester or first year as a way to de-emphasize the pressure of grades. With this grading policy, as long as students pass the class they are assigned a grade of S (Satisfactory) or P (Pass) to indicate successful completion of the course. Other schools take this even further and use narrative evaluations instead of grades for the students’ entire education. The use of portfolio assessments is another alternative to grades that has been used in many educational settings from kindergarten through graduate school.
As individuals we can also take some measures to resist the grading system. One thing we can do is to de-socialize ourselves from the belief that grades are a measure of our self worth. This is easier said than done, but it might help to constantly remind yourself that you are not your grade, you are more than just a number and that you are a whole person.
It is also helpful to not define your learning by your grades. Just because you got a “bad grade” does not necessarily mean that you did not learn anything in a class. Too often, students may feel like all they get out of a course is the grade. As an alternative, try to leave each class and reflect on what intellectual, social, or personal insights you gained from the class regardless of the number or letter that was assigned to you.
Lastly, I would suggest that you not structure your entire educational experience around grades. Despite the prevailing sentiment that you may hear from peers, parents, and society, your sole purpose in school should not be to get a high GPA. In fact, a few years ago a study was conducted to determine what college students did to have the most enjoyable and intellectually fulfilling college experience. The book, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, lists a number of recommendations and none of them mention anything about focusing on grades.
I have to continue giving grades because I love being a college professor and I want to keep my job. But I know it’s not anything I will ever come to enjoy. However, there is one grade I would relish the opportunity to give out and that is to the entire grading system. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I would not hesitate to give this deeply flawed system a big fat F!