The Origin of Grades in Schools and Why We Have Them

Assignment Graded as an F by Teacher

The mark of failure / Photographer: Camryn Thompson

When was the last time you checked your grades? If you are like many students, you care about your grades on at least some level, even if you don’t consider yourself grade-obsessed. In our school system, it is impossible not to care about grades, as they are meant to symbolize the quality of your work, how much information you are retaining in school, what kind of student you are, which colleges you deserve to be accepted into, and possibly even your intelligence, in the eyes of some people. Yet, deep down, we are all aware that the fundamental purpose of school itself is to learn, to become educated and therefore obtain the best life possible with our knowledge, not simply to get good grades. Why, then, do we, including colleges, place so much importance upon grades, allow them to have so much power, and let them mean more than whether we are actually learning? Why do we need them at all?

According to Thom Hartmann’s book The Complete Guide to ADHD, systems of grading were not always used. In fact, a system of grading as a way of measuring students was not used until William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University in 1792, devised the system so that he could more efficiently evaluate student comprehension with less effort involved, as he would therefore not need to assemble a more detailed assessment of student work. Because he was paid based on the number of students he taught, Farish’s new system allowed him to teach more students at once and earn more money. “He no longer needed to burrow into his students’ minds to know if they understood a topic: his grading system would do it for him,” explains Hartmann. Prior to this time, teachers and students had had a mentor-like relationship, but because of Farish, some may say that education became impersonal and systematic.

Of course, this idea of using a grading system spread to the point of becoming a central part of schools, evolving into the rigid A, B, C, D, and F system that we are now familiar with. Besides measuring the comprehension of students, grades grew to have a much greater purpose. As discussed in Transforming Classroom Grading by Robert J. Marzano, grades in the modern day also determine administrative decisions, such as placement in school and entrance into college, provide feedback on student achievement, motivate students to try harder or continue to learn, and group students based on their strengths and weaknesses. Considering these uses, it would appear that grades are helpful in education, as students otherwise may not be motivated to learn without them, and they allow us to be able to categorize students and judge their strengths and learning with accuracy and precision in a non-biased manner, helping students learn overall.

However, there are a number of disadvantages to grades that make them harmful to the learning process rather than beneficial. According to education expert Alfie Kohn, grades reduce student thinking and interest in the material, causing them to attempt to learn information only for the purpose of getting a good grade on a test, rather than thinking and questioning beyond what they are told is correct. The idea of being graded on an assignment causes students to focus solely on the grade and learning what is needed to meet requirements. “Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks,” claims Kohn. “They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.” Slate Magazine states that according to multiple studies, the fear of getting bad grades can discourage students from wanting to improve or continue learning instead of motivating them to do better, which can lead to procrastination, avoidance, or low self-esteem due to the fact that grades label student intelligence and ability.

Despite the fact that grades are meant to motivate and measure comprehension, they can actually impede comprehension, stunt growth and students’ desire to learn, take away motivation, hurt students psychologically, and defeat the overall purpose of school. In the United States, our entire education system, all the way into college, revolves around grades. Although we may realize that they are ineffective, finding an alternative system or eliminating the use of grades altogether would be extremely difficult to accomplish.

However, this shift can and has been done in many locations, often revealing significant success. Trading rigid letter grades for more meaningful assessments may ultimately allow us to recognize and commit to the true purpose of school. Kohn argues, “Grades don’t prepare children for the ‘real world,’ unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.”

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