Why Grades?

Posted on November 25, 2014

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By: Breanna Sommers

Image via Time Magazine

Image via Time Magazine

Some would say grades tell a story about a student. A grade book can show if a student can apply organizational skills when a teacher has a notebook check to see whether they have their binder in the correct order. A grade book can show whether a student can take the time to mindlessly turn in completion only homework. A grade book can show if a student has the courage to speak up in class for participation credit.

But does it really?

Recorded grades place numerical value on a student. They are the price sticker in an ever-evolving world that values intellectual capital. They are a ticket for one’s determined slot in society so a student can be ‘accurately’ placed in the economy. They are a one dimensional, inhumane explanation that tells a minute fraction of a student’s success. It is arguable whether they measure learning at all.

What grades really measure is generational poverty, delayed gratification, and an ability to conform to the social norms taught at an early age in compulsory education.

When a normally high achieving student faces adversity outside of the classroom, like the death of a parent, can the grade book numerically account for their emotional struggle? When a child is hungry and gets two meals a day provided by the state at school, does the grade book award extra credit for trying to learn in the face of extreme adversity? At the end of the day, “teachers must still decide what grade offers the most accurate and fairest description of each student’s achievement and level of performance” (Guskey 775).

As Martina Navratilova most eloquently stated, “labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” Through the labels of student grades, you, the teacher, will not see the wide-eyed student in the first row clinging to their teacher’s every word, because their love of learning extends far beyond the classroom. You will not hear their squeal of delight every time they see a classroom reference in the so named ‘real world’ or a textual reference to their favorite literary or art historical movement. You will not see the countless hours of sacrifice and dedication to their passion. You simply cannot see them.

I revise, the real question is not ‘why do we have grades,’ but ‘why do we, as educators, need grades.’ Why are these largely arbitrary values inextricably tied to our self-worth and give meaning to our martyrdom? The answer is simple. It is vague. It is insufficient. We see no other way to measure learning. This is even more disturbing because we are not even sure if it is accurate. But do not worry, it is precise, it is numerical, and it can compare you against your peers (Guskey, 2002).

Guskey, T. (2002, January 1). Computerized Grade books and the Myth of Objectivity. Phi Delta Kappan.

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Posted in: Education