Are grades really necessary?

Since the beginning of the education system, the term “grading” has always been ill-defined by both students and educators. Some struggle to determine what it means to a student. It is unclear whether grades are motivators, incentivizes, or academic challenges that a student must excel in, to be able to have successful future.

In an informal Boiling Point survey, teachers and students around the country agreed on the importance of grades. But every school contacted currently grades its Judaic Studies classes — meaning that the learning is at least partly for the grade that will follow.
Judaic schools on the East Coast include Frisch and Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy. These schools grade their Judaic classes. Several of these schools — including Shalhevet — offer extra opportunities for learning that aren’t graded, some incentivized and some not. Opinions vary on how a non-graded system would affect learning.

The Frisch School in New Jersey has an ungraded but incentivized after-school learning program, somewhat of a hybrid between grading and not grading, which can exempt students from taking their Gemara class, a Jewish history course, final. Not only is the after-school class ungraded, but Frisch junior, Elana Abramovitz, said that this takes some focus off of grades from their regular Gemara classes.

“Kids feel pride in their grades and they feel pride in the investment that they put in a class that manifests itself on a test,” Miriam.Krupka, the principle of the Frisch School said. “So it’s a good thing that they want to do well in Judaic Studies, they want to do well on a test. It would almost be taking away that opportunity and that feeling of investment if we were to take away grades.”

The Frisch School removed the grading system they had in place, seeing it as a benefit to its students. This view however, is not shared with Glen Rock High School.

John Arlotta, principal of Glen Rock High School, said “It would affect us negatively because we are compared to other schools and if we were the only ones making the change it would make our students, you know, wouldn’t even come here. They would go to more competitive places to get into better colleges.”

There is a common presumption among many teachers that grades make students work harder and learn more. There is obviousness to this argument that seems to make it unquestionable. As a general matter we know that rewards and punishments can change behavior. As teachers we see individual students work harder–get more serious–after their first bad grade on a test or paper. It is imagined that guaranteeing all our students an A- in the course on the first day would lead to a dramatic decline in preparation, class discussion, and quality of writing.

And if all the other courses they were taking that term were graded, and they had been brought up on system based on grades, that’s likely to be true (one of us once tried it as an experiment, with dismal results). They could amass considerable evidence that grades get students to buckle down and learn more, and that tougher grading would do this even better. Most faculty discussions of grading presume this truth.

That’s why discussions about grade inflation are framed as being too soft on students–too concerned about minimizing feelings of stress and maximizing feelings of empowerment and not concerned enough with actual achievement.

There is no question that we can use grades to get students to change their behavior, but are we getting them to learn more? One danger is that grade-focused teaching corrodes the very meaning of learning.

The purpose of learning becomes merely the achievement of grades. Not the mastery of the material. Not finding innovative and imaginative solutions to tough problems. Not joining with fellow students to run with an idea and see how much each can learn from the others. It becomes instead what former Harvard dean Harry Lewis calls “an empty game of score maximization.” It makes the work seem pointless.

This is an old, if not always salient, concern. Lewis points to a 1885 Harvard Crimson article on the school’s rigorous “Scale of Rank” system: grading to make students work “encourages an unscholar-like tendency to work for marks, and prevents the establishment of high motives for study.

Students are dwarfed by it, to the low stature of grinds for marks. Injudicious selections of courses are encouraged by it. Cribbing thrives under it.” Lewis argues that the gamesmanship encouraged by today’s grading system encourages cheating because “students realize that the game they have to play is meaningless, and their commiseration emboldens them to dishonesty.”

If the only purpose of learning is getting the grade, the only reason not to cheat is fear of being caught. That encourages an increased cat-and-mouse frenzy–a system of mutually assured escalation–as students use internet tools and programs to plagiarize others papers–or even hire other students to write them–and faculty turn to computer programs designed to catch them.

When grades-as-incentives encourage gamesmanship instead of excellence there is another way that this corrodes learning. A student out to maximize her grade point average is tempted to choose the easiest courses, those with the least challenge and work, or those with the “easy-grader” professors. Dean Briggs, at Harvard at the turn of the twentieth century, called such students “mark-fiends” who never come to anything later in life.

Pressure mounts as graduation approaches and students vie for high rankings and honors. Do I want to risk my grades by taking that tough physics or philosophy course? Is it worth it?

Half the time, its not. If a student is not graded on something that he or she finds difficult or boring then it is not worth it.

Recent psychological studies have shown that a student in incentivized by grades to do better in school and to prepare for their future. But if you take that motivation technique away, you’re left with unmotivated students who have no reason to learn.

Mr. Lawrence Wolff, Director of Student Personnel, said, “Grades provide a standard representation of understandment across the board. It would be possible and it was possible when there were smaller schools in rural communities where students could meet with teachers individually they’d give them a written assessment, they’d give them individualize understanding. Grades help understand where they are individually in relation to each other.”

In an interview, Wolff emphasized that the grading system in Glen Rock is necessary because it provides necessary feedback to students so that they understand their level of comprehension as it relates to what the teacher expects. He also emphasized how if there was no grading system students would be lost.

This corresponds to what Arlotta said in his interview about what would happen if the grading system in Glen Rock was disbanded. “We are compared to other schools and if we were the only ones making the change it would make our students, you know, wouldn’t even come here.

“They would go to more competitive places to get into better colleges. They want to get a leg up on things.”

Arlotta spoke of the ideas in what would happen if the grading system was disbanded. He emphasized that students would most likely take the classes that they would enjoy.

It makes sense, students would choose to take courses they would find interesting without the grading system.

Arlotta ais in an interview, if he were to change the grading system permanently, “When I was in my previous school Camden, there a education system called the University Program and what it did is we provided the students with a lot of opportunities with what they were interested in for example medicine. Those who wanted to be doctors we would have see live surgeries and we would arrange internships with other doctors. Students aren’t motivated if they don’t want to take classes that don’t interest them.”

It is also implied that grades are a sort of reflection of the student. When a student receives a bad grade, he or she will normally see that as a representation of him or herself. Self-efficacy also affects a students grades to. It’s really whether a student has the ability to understand the work and if not, get a grasp on it.

And finally, it’s grades impact how a student sees themselves. It is when students see grades they immediately view that as a representation of themselves not the mastery of the material. Unfortunately, many times students will take a grade personally, like anyone will take a grade personally, and have to understand that the grade is a representation of their understanding of the material in the eyes of the teacher. So he shouldn’t take it personally or the criticism of them as a person. They should look at it as a way to evaluate whether they might need to push a little harder in that particular area. That assumes they’re not satisfied with the grade. If they’re satisfied with it then well, a lot of that won’t happen.