Grades are not an accurate measure of intelligence. (Photo illustration by Junanna Chen)
Downtown Magnets High School

Opinion: End the grading system in K-12 schools

Dating back to 2,500 years ago in Ancient Greece, grades were never once used. Yet, it still spawned the greatest thinkers and writers of all time. Instead of applying grades, they used formative assessment to evaluate if a pupil understood the material being taught.

According to the University of Greenwich, formative assessment is monitoring student learning and providing ongoing feedback to staff and students. But instead, the opposite is being done today, most schools are vastly using summative assessment: the evaluation of student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. 

Grades started to emerge in Harvard University during the 1600s as exit exams before the awarding of a degree. But, the first use of the grading system was officially conducted in another Ivy League school — Yale University in 1785 by Ezra Stiles.

The graduating students were categorized into four sections: Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores and Perjores. During these earlier times, the scores that each received were never revealed to avoid the inevitable competition that may distract students from learning. 

Over the next centuries and into the 1900s, grades were being used ubiquitously when K-12 education was mandated. The reason behind this was because it was much more efficient and quicker to share with other institutions, and not about the students’ actual learning. 

The grading system is outdated and hasn’t evolved since its first use, but why is that? Why haven’t we strive for improvement or change?

The education system itself has become too dependent on grades. Systems correlated to education have also become dependent since grades represent the basis of an individual’s understanding, skills, qualifications and capabilities.

Replacing grades would be difficult and most would find the change uncomfortable. Additionally, many educators and leaders resist the idea of eliminating grades because of fear. They fear that students won’t listen to their own teachers if grades are not in place, soon losing their authority.

These concerns though cannot overshadow the fact that students are not even learning with the grading system in place, the negative effects it causes on an individual, and their poor effectiveness; thus grades should be discontinued in K-12 schools.

Nevertheless, they are still being used despite their inadequacy. 

This persistence causes every student to succumb to the pressure of obtaining a good grade. As every school year, adults would always remind students how highly important grades are; the grades they earn are tied to their future, their path in life and who they will become.

But the stress, declining mental health and emotional breakdowns leave students in an unhealthy state over a literal letter grade. So, prescribing an individual with a score or a mark is inappropriate.

Hence, K-12 schools should no longer use grades to measure an individual’s learning. The implementation of grades in the educational system causes students to no longer enjoy and have an interest in obtaining new skills.

This leads students to be more focused on passing than on the acquisition of knowledge. Such creates the fear of failure, leaving no room for any wrongdoing.

Ultimately, the grading system overall is not an adequate way to assess students, as it does not thoroughly measure their actual mastery and comprehension. 

The establishment of grades in institutions of learning forms an expectation among each student. These expectations are met, as grades result in consequences. Receiving a grade that is unfit would result in negative outcomes and vice versa.

Each grade impacts the student’s overall GPA which matters for internships, college admissions and job applications, according to The Graide Network.

Without good grades, it can potentially ruin one’s future. Therefore, grades are utmostly valued and held in high regard, leaving students more concerned about receiving proper grades. This end goal strays students away from actually learning anything; they over-prioritize the need for a passing grade and end up dismissing the learning part.

Youth today are taught that grades are most important, over actually assimilating knowledge,” Kaylee Lemons, a student and Co-Editor-In-Chief of Mount Vernon Township High School, said. “Due to this flaw within our education system, some students will go to whatever means necessary to be successful in the classroom, whether those means are cheating or sacrificing their sleep to complete homework.”

Students would push themselves to such lengths even if it means committing misconduct for the betterment of their grades, just to avoid a letter F. 

A student’s wish to succeed can result in the fear of failure. Because academic success can possibly open to better opportunities in life, most students wouldn’t want to fail.

Overachievers and kids who doubt their academic abilities are more susceptible to the fear of failure. Their grades start to become a reflection of themselves and end up determining their self-worth. Anxiety starts to dwell in them and would regularly plague their mind with worries and discontent. This prevents them from flourishing academically, as they will no longer want to try or persevere.

“Professionals are often confronted with students who are so afraid of failing an exam or assignment that, in the end, it may be the fear itself and not the difficulty of the task that prevents the student from achieving his or her academic goals,” Frank Haber, a Psychological Counselor and Intercultural Education Officer at Jacobs University, said.

Fear can also cause students to refrain from challenging themselves intellectually. They’d advert from any risk that may put their grades in danger. These types of students are called “conservative learners,” according to the University of Georgia, meaning they worry about grades and decide to play it safe.

This environment of fear created by grades does not allow students to embrace failure because of the repercussions it can result in. But even so, it can cause more damage and would leave them with no growth or experience in this common occurrence.

Furthermore, grades do not indicate a student’s mastery. Even though grades are used as a tool of evaluation, it does not reflect how much they learned and comprehended. Hence, it is not reliable enough to help and guide students on what they need to work on. In most cases, grades display the effort of a student rather than their assimilation of knowledge and skills.

I’ve seen teachers award grades — sometimes Bs and even As — to students not because they met any reasonable standard for quality work, but because they had made some effort, completed the assignment, done the homework,” David Chau, Senior Executive Director of Instruction for Los Angeles Unified School District, said.

Because of sympathy and subjectiveness, teachers end up deciding to pass a student even though they lack proficiency. Moreover, grades are not solely based on what students learned and understood as other factors come into play to determine the final grade.

Critics often argue however that grades say little about which skills a student master, according to Times For Kids.

With a mixture of other components that are unrelated to the grasp of a student’s understanding or learning, grades are not valid enough to be used as a form of assessment in schools. 

Several educators would disagree with this as they firmly believe that K-12 schools should carry on with grades.

Shifting to a gradeless system in schools would be difficult and nearly impossible to achieve. It is unreasonable to make this move because educational institutions and other systems associated with them are too dependent on grades. It’s been around for so long that grades are one of the only benchmarks to evaluate and assess a student’s overall performance.

Additionally, educators oppose the gradeless system because it is too labor-intensive as feedback would be the replacement of grades. “…it’s harder for a teacher to do these kinds of assessments if he or she has 150 or more students and sees each of them for 45-55 minutes a day,” according to “The Case Against Grades.

Lastly, the use of a letter or numerical grade can convey to students if their performance was excellent, satisfactory or less than satisfactory. It sends a direct message that they need to study or practice more in a certain topic that they didn’t do so well on.

Knowing which subjects you’re weak at can result in a student easily deciding where to toggle their focal point on, according to “Grading System in Education: Advantages and Disadvantages.”

Just a single numeral or letter is comprehensible enough and can help a student easily identify how they’re doing in the subject.  

Nonetheless, K-12 schools should still eliminate the use of grades. Though the process of going gradeless is lengthy and quite difficult, it is still achievable. To avoid laborious tasks that come with the gradeless system, teachers should only have a few students enrolled in their classes.

In this way, they can keep track of their students’ comprehension, they can provide them with as much detailed feedback and can accurately measure their student’s learning. Using formative assessments, competency-based learning and constructive feedback would be much better alternatives than grades since it directly and clearly points out the mistakes or errors they need to work on.

This makes it easier for students to fully understand what and why they got it wrong. By going gradeless, it can incite learning and so students can truly demonstrate the concepts they’ve mastered.

Considering all of these, the grading system should not be used by K-12 schools to measure what an individual has learned. As grades do not prioritize learning, cannot accurately measure a student’s knowledge and generates fear in an environment that should encourage risk and challenges.

To set this goal in motion, Alfie Kohn suggests open discourses should take place amongst other educators and administrators to promote and encourage this new idea; thus reaching more people. Hopefully, the adoption of this method will start to be carried out amongst more teachers and so the de-grading process can commence.

This implementation will begin in lower grade levels, eventually making its way up to higher levels. Taking this approach would take time, so in the meanwhile, classrooms that have not fully adopted it should try to avoid the use of grades. This allows students to grow accustomed to the new gradeless system and allows them to feel more comfortable with it.

Now because this is a drastic change from the customary method, many parents may be apprehensive and resistful in this new plan. To address their concerns, having conferences and civil discussions with them can clear up the misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding gradeless classrooms.

But what about colleges, grades are highly involved in the process of admissions and more?

This can be resolved if more high schools across the country start to incorporate the gradeless system. When this finally comes into play, true evaluation, the prioritization of learning and the embrace of risk can finally prevail in educational environments.