Grades – Important Measure, or a Tool of Oppression?

Once again, we have a great tweet as an entry-point into a deeper, more important discussion:

Grading students – is it necessary and appropriate, or a piece of convention that ought to be reconsidered?

Before we even bother digging into any perspectives, let’s challenge the initial response. It turns out the story that Jesse is responding to was the result of a writer being duped, and the email was faked. Buzzfeed issued the appropriate correction at the TOP of the story. That’s actually a responsible correction, so good on them.

Turns out the story was a little too close the narrative ideal.

Why did this gain such traction? I think its because its a common experience – you get a high B (or C) and ask the teacher to move you up to an A, but they aren’t willing. This one pegs the narrative a bit too hard. It’s a caricature of a common experience, not one that is likely to be real. Students like to make themselves victims of lower grades, because psychically that absolves them of responsibilities.

Jesse’s response represents a certain perspective in education, that the established system (which includes things like grades and standardized tests) is a force of inequality and should be severely reformed. I should note, that as an educator of more than 10 years, this is actually an extremely rare opinion; most teachers are HEAVILY invested in the status quo, even if they deny it themselves.

The typical reaction from the other side is the broad conservative stance – education reforms away from strict rigor are BAD.

However, as is my style, I like to give a somewhat different perspective. Concerning grades:

  1. The purpose of grading is to certify knowledge and mastery of skills.
  2. Teachers have two jobs – teaching the material and certifying mastery. These two jobs have conflicted interest.
  3. Grades in the real world are not used to certify mastery and knowledge

Certifying mastery

Let’s start with the first point. The actual purpose of having grades across different subjects is to certify a certain level of mastery and knowledge in that subject area. Grades are used by individuals such as future teachers and employers to judge the student AFTER he has left the teacher, with the assumption that a grade in a certain subject translates to skill and knowledge in said subject.

To that end, grades SHOULD NOT be used as a “whole measure” of the student.

If a student gets an “A” in geometry, the assumption should be that the student can perform all basic geometry calculations when needed. Without this assumption, the idea of academic prerequisites is meaningless. Without the grades actually certifying knowledge and skill, subjects cannot be ordered or contained in the traditional way.

The conflict between teaching and certification

Here we have the first problem with grades, which is not so much a problem with assigning grades as it is a problem with the way the institutions work.

The teacher, during normal instruction, is supposed to be teaching the students the knowledge and skills that make up the limited subject area (such as “English 10” or “Music theory 3”). At the same time, the teacher is supposed to be testing the students to see if they have the knowledge that has been taught, with the outcome being a grade.

The conflict arises when you realize that a teacher’s grading reflects back on himself. If the entire class fails, does that mean he failed to teach the material?

In the real world, any teacher daring enough to fail his entire class does so with the assumption that his students are too stupid to learn the material, and in a narcissistic fashion will assume his instruction has nothing to do with outcomes.

For anyone other than a raging narcissist (and the education system is full of narcissists, believe me), the teacher will adjust what they are doing, either softening the grading system or improving their instruction, so that a majority of the class at least passes.

Here you should see the obvious temptation – to pass all students and pat yourself on the back. In practice, most teachers I have known will do this to some extent. Teachers are HEAVILY incentivized to pass the majority, if not all, of their students regardless of their skill or knowledge.

Why? Failing a student creates huge problems for you if you are the teacher. It causes stacks of paperwork to pile up on your desk as you have to go through RTI (response to intervention) protocols, it wastes your time with parent meetings, and it also wastes the class time of the other students as you will have to increasingly devote more class time to remediation of failing students.

It’s just easier to pass the kid and pass the buck to the next teacher, or his employer, as there are no consequences whatsoever to the teacher who passes an incompetent student. Even some upset local employer that might be tempted to complain to the school is not a concern – it’s the system’s fault, not yours, and besides, you have tenure!

In the REAL WORLD grades are not valid certifications

Besides the above conflicts, which have over time eroded any general belief in degrees conveying anything, there is a practical disconnect between grades and certification that has to do with the institutional approach to teaching.

A grade, in the vast majority of classes, is not the result of achievements scores on objective tests, but is in fact an amalgam of positive and negative points relating to the student’s interaction with the system itself.

Grades actually certify behavior, study habits, attitude, peer interraction, and, depending on the subject, many more things that have nothing to do with the subject at hand.

PE (physical education) is a great example. I’ve never met a PE teacher in my life that actually assigned grades based on anything physical. AT BEST a skills test was tiny portion of the grade. Usually, the grade is entirely based on socialization and academic routine adherence:

Did you dress out every day?

Did you “participate”?

Seeing an “A” in PE does not mean the person is an excellent athlete, or has robust physical fitness. It means the person put on gym clothes every day and did what the coach told them to do.

Can you even imagine a world where a grade in PE actually meant something? It would be terrifying to a lot of people, because, being unathletic, they would be unable to earn straight As or stay on the honor roll.

Outside of PE it is seldom better. Most subjects have a heavy emphasis on things like homework (which I have ranted about in the past) as well as things like participation and group project grades. None of these things have anything to do with the subject at hand, but are reinforcements of the socialization schedule of the institution.

More than that, schoolwork is frequently divorced from certification, so subjects like English have arts and crafts projects, rather than essays, that the students have to complete to earn a grade.

All of this makes the idea that grades have ANY meaning related to the subject a farcical proposition.

What they in fact do is create a “whole measure” of a student. This is why students who fail PE fail every other subject as well – they don’t conform to the institutions expectations. The do not behave correctly. On the flip side, the straight “A” student isn’t necessarily smart (often the opposite – the students with the highest IQs frequently have middling grades), but rather has a good relationship with the institution.

She turns in her homework, never speaks out of turn, does her arts and crafts, plays nice in groups, always participates in classroom discussion, always dresses out for gym, is never tardy, and never, ever, ditches class.

The thing is, doing all these things might improve learning, which is another discussion entirely, but grading on these things means the grade has no meaning.

Instead of trying to read the boring stuff your English teacher forced on you, you should try reading some of my two-hour books:

Is Billy crazy just because he sees a monster?
3:10 to Yuma, but fantasy!


  1. David

    Agreed. Great post. I’ve been an educator for many years. I taught in a country with high stakes exam culture. Basically our measure of success was students passing the exams.
    The parents given their cultural background were obnoxious about homework.

    I’m opposed to homework. I find it to be an obnoxious intrusion that causes familial disharmony. I’m speaking as a dad who’s kids are in the same high stakes exam cultures

    In conclusion, I find grading to conflict with teaching which is far more important to me both as dad and educator


    • I personally don’t like homework. If the school day is not long enough to do all the work, either lengthen it or re-assess how much material you have to cover. Giving a kid 2 extra hours of work a day is just signalling that the school day is either too short or the school is wasting the kid’s time.

  2. I read this to my wife. She quibbled with a few points but agreed with the bulk of it. We discussed some of the larger ideas and both came to wonder why there is any sort of overture towards a continuum in grades; we were discussing the idea that anything below 90% should perhaps be fail. What do you think of that? Would you like your dentist to get your procedure 63% correct?

    Secondly, re the incentive teachers have to passing students who are marginal, on account of the extra work it takes to fail… my wife said this: “but that would be a lie…what is harder, filling out RTI paperwork and parent/teacher meetings or living, knowing that you are a liar?”
    Great blog post!

    • Admin at my last job wanted to do a “mastery-based” grading system that is closer to 90% for passing, but the workflow is fundamentally different and teachers hated it -mostly because it disregarded homework entirely and was based around mastery for every single state standard through assessment. But with that standard “A” meant you mastered EVERY standard – truly, you knew everything for the course. I think it was a great idea, but teachers are very entrenched in the system and don’t want to change what they do.

      Just another point, when a flub a single note on a recording, guess what the first comment will be when it gets out!

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