The Failures of Grading | Teen Ink

The Failures of Grading

December 5, 2021
By vishnuark SILVER, Centreville, Virginia
vishnuark SILVER, Centreville, Virginia
8 articles 1 photo 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier. -Mother Teresa

Consider two students: one is constantly praised for getting high grades while the other is ostracized and suffers from low self-esteem for getting low grades. However, before we use grades to define who we are and what we can be, are grades a reliable and adaptable measure of a student’s intelligence? Letter grades have existed since can be traced back to Yale university in the “18th century” which categorized students in a four point scale (Bird). By the 1900s, the current A through F grading system became widespread and resembled the standardized scale present in schools today (Schinske and Tanner). Although the current grading system can work as an indicator for teachers to gauge the face-value of content that students understand, grades have warped into an untamable beast that can harm and limit students from learning and creatively finding a path to their best future. Grades make it easy to objectively compare students, but ignore the countless differences between the students that could explain the difference in grades. Most students place unnecessary emphasis on their grades because GPA is an important factor in college admissions; as such, a student’s whole future is balancing on this harmful accumulation of measurements that hold no true value for students or teachers in a wider scope.  The current letter grading system, specifically in pre-collegiate education, is a narrow measure of student performance, limiting students in both the present and the future and dismissing differences in the student body and the creation of assessments.

First, letter grades, transcripts, and GPA blind students and teachers from the reason they are in school, from the purpose of education. The purpose of education is to present students with foundational information so they can use it in their own extraordinary ways, whether that is to be a more empathetic individual or more equipped for their future career. Grades theoretically should be used as “feedback… on performance,” “motivat[ion],” and an “objective evaluation of student knowledge” (Schinske and Tanner). Sadly, grades have often become “synonymous with education itself” (Thomsen). Therefore, students define their learning based on the score they receive, not the gain in self-awareness or improvement in immeasurable characteristics like soft-skills and character. Instead of finding intrinsic motivation or curiosity within each subject, most students study and focus to get a “good” grade. The letter a student receives on the test has mutated into a form of “extrinsic… motivat[ion]” (Ko). Although some teachers may believe that using grades as a motivator will encourage students to take classes more seriously and improve retention, the system actually does the opposite. Grades make students lose sight of the forest for the trees; they are so fixated on “maximizing a number” that they forget the purpose of education (Ko). In the end, students would only care about getting a perfect score using rote memorization instead of engaging with the content.  The “academic archiving of grades'' through transcripts and report cards fails to recognize that knowledge is dynamic and shaped by every new experience (Ko). An A+ in ninth grade Spanish class holds no value if the student fails to recollect any information. Therefore, we can start to strip down the limitations we have set on education by separating the purpose, quality, and retention of education from student grades.

Using grades as a motivator also contributes to stress in the student body, which has been increasing exponentially over the years. Since the definition of grades is too broad, a bad grade can discourage students by changing their belief in their skills, “intelligence,” and “identity” (Ko). If students place this much weight on each assessment, a C on a 20 minute-chemistry test is not just a piece of paper, but a wrecking ball that smashed a hole through a student’s aspiration to be a chemical engineer. “70 percent” of teenagers in a survey by Pew Research in 2019 thought stress was a “major problem” (Simmons). Especially in higher levels of education, “extreme exhaustion and anxiety” are synonymous with exams, where students are more worried about their grades than their mental and emotional health (Ko). Our “obsession with grading” dangerously harbors incorrect views of the world, which is far from scantrons and red pens, and passes on that warped perspective to students who are put through the system (Ko).

In addition to catalyzing student stress, grades can make students feel inferior because of their class rank or GPA, encouraging them to selfishly prioritize their own learning over helping another student succeed due to excessive, misplaced competition. From personal experience, I know some students take less challenging courses to boost their GPA over taking a course they are passionate about. On the other hand, other students beg their teachers for extra credit assignments to offset a bad grade on a test, even though one C in the gradebook is far from life-changing. All students and faculty should start working toward achieving a well-rounded and enjoyable education instead of forcing students to workshop their schedule because they are scared of achieving less than this inaccurate representation of perfection.

After that, grades disregard extrinsic factors in student life outside of academics. Grades do not adjust for a student’s lack of time to study due to personal commitments. Students of low “socioeconomic status” may need to work jobs in addition to attending school, making it more difficult for them to spend time reviewing the content as much as other students (Ko). On the opposite end of the spectrum, some affluent parents push their students into tuition centers that provide active teaching to supplement regular instruction. A student’s grade could also be affected by their mental and physical health, work commitments, motivation, time management, stress capacity, language fluency, access to transportation/technology, and time they can devote to learning.  Some cultures also force familial expectations on children and their impression of their intelligence could be greatly influenced by social factors and stereotypes. GPA has been advertised as an “indicator of performance,” but with all of these flaws, what exactly is it indicating? Lower grades do not mean a student lacks knowledge, just that they may have been hindered by any or all of the above. Therefore, we should start acknowledging that grades do not describe a student’s “future abilities, … success, … intelligence” or “ability to learn” (Ko). Instead, it is an overblown and truly ineffective method that aims to degrade people of all ages from achieving their own form, or letter, of success.

Next, the assessments used to grade students are most often not accurate nor holistic tests of content and understanding. Students and teachers misconstrue the value of grades by placing unnecessary emphasis on exams that are not tailored to appropriately determine understanding. A high grade is not something to be proud of because it does not represent a thorough understanding of the topic. In fact, many teachers do not accurately scan the nuances of learners and make sure the exams are an accurate depiction of the content material, showing that “[d]esigning… assessments… is exceptionally difficult” (Ko). College Board pays skilled professionals to filter through huge sample sizes to find trends in the “psychometric properties of exams” and yet AP and SAT exam scores are still limited in their applicability to gauging the knowledge of students (Ko). No teacher is able to create a perfect test that is “reliable [and] valid,” holistic, relevant, and challenging assessment, so we should stop treating grades as perfect depictions of a student’s performance. Since the assessment itself is usually flawed, tests are not a good representation of anything and attaining high grades should not be treated as the purpose of education. 

Despite this, many students stress over grades because they seem to be weighed heavily in college decisions (Bird). Therefore, high schoolers like me cannot fully break free of grades due to the fear that we will not be able to receive an exceptional post-secondary education. On the other hand, college admissions officers continue to stress the importance of a rigorous course schedule and high GPA, restarting our society’s cyclical and toxic reliance on grades (Bird). Even if grades were not heavily weighted in college admissions, merit scholarships and advantageous opportunities like honors college are available to those that focus on achieving top scores instead of having a better understanding. However, our belief in the objectivity of college admissions is questionable, as the “College admissions bribery scandal” in 2019 revealed corruption that challenges the idea that society is not a meritocracy (Ko). (Here is the most recent list of people who have been charged for bribing colleges: College Admissions Cheating Scandal: Full List of People Charged.) Therefore, grades are in reality not as important as they seem, and the colleges that use GPA as an indicator of future success and potential should reform to a more holistic assessment. 

As such, Ko convinced me that grades are unjust, inappropriate, and unreasonable in the current system, making reform necessary. Ko is a teacher herself, giving her experience and credibility as an author. Although not entirely unbiased, she grounded herself as trustworthy by citing relevant sources, personal anecdotes, and court cases throughout her argument. However, she did have a broad and generalized argument that identified various problems, not just grades. In spite of this, she provides definitions, descriptions, and counterarguments to her perspective. Pairing bold claims with credible information, Ko held her ground that the controversy behind grades should be addressed immediately. 

The solution to this problem is neither simple nor straightforward, because we have gotten so used to the current system of standardization. More open summatives should be used to determine retention of content, and although these assessments are forced to be more subjective, they will no doubt leave a larger impact on students than paper with red marks all over.

Teachers and students could work together to make student success more than a letter. For example, teachers could give pass/fail grades where the students apply their knowledge in real life scenarios. Other holistic methods include interviews, portfolios, and recommendations (Ko). Additionally, the school system can start taking effort into account in addition to accuracy to alleviate some of the stress students feel when completing assignments. Next, if students engage in “peer-evaluat[ion],” instructors can be given more time to personalize learning and students will be more equipped to “detect their own errors” later on when they do not have a rubric or a teacher to turn to (Schinske and Tanner).

The grading system causes students to worry more about their letter grade than the retention of knowledge and fostering a love for learning. A series of meaningless letters has been somehow misconstrued into measures of self-worth and intelligence for most students. We should abolish this warped system of labelling each student in comparison to their peers based on a flat set of grades and coursework. By enacting better evaluation methods, we can empower students and eliminate the fear of "bad" grades so students can love to learn again.


Works Cited

Bird, Beverly. “Why School Letter Grades Should Not Be Banned From Schools.” The Classroom, 25 June 2018, 

Ko, Amy J. “Grading is ineffective, harmful, and unjust — let’s stop doing it.” Medium, 16 Mar. 2019,

Schinske, Jeffrey, and Kimberly Tanner. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently).” CBE life sciences education, 2014,

Thomsen, Michael. “The Case Against Grades.” Slate, 1 May 2013, 

Simmons, Andrew. “As Teen Stress Increases, Teachers Look for Answers.” Edutopia, 20 Nov. 2019,

The author's comments:

I myself have sometimes succumbed to the temptation to define myself by my grades. This needs to stop. We need to change our outlook on grading in order to uplift every student.

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