Why grades matter in the education system

Grades are markers of success or failure. But grade inflation is creeping in. It’s the distended belly of education, the malnutrition that poisons learning

grades educationTORONTO, Ont. April 19, 2017 / Troy Media / – April’s a wet month.

Showers soak the soil, stirring dull roots, and exams dampen college campuses.

For faculty, spring won’t start until every essay and exam has been graded.

Grading’s the hardest part of teaching. The teacher has to rank, weigh and measure the work to determine how well the student understands the course content.

If the student doesn’t understand, the teacher has to explain why and be able to articulate the difference between success and failure. Sometimes it’s easy – high As and obvious Fs are easy to assign. But grades floating in the average take time to assess.

Now do that a hundred times.

It’s exhausting but it’s not what makes grading difficult.

Grading is difficult because teachers have to switch roles when they evaluate student work.

As noted educator Peter Elbow explains, the teacher’s allegiances shift during evaluations. During the term, the teacher is the student’s ally. But when they grade student work, the teacher stands with the school and enforces the standards of the discipline.

The teacher is a fellow traveller during the term. But when they grade, they’re the gatekeeper.

It’s a change in roles many teachers find challenging. But it has to happen. Teachers must judge the student’s work, not the student.

Grades matter. They help a student understand how they fared and how they rank against their peers. Grades are feedback, measurements, markers of success and failure. Grades open doors to higher studies. They matter to students.

They matter to teachers, too. By judging student work, teachers also judge their own performance. A cluster of low or failing grades tells teachers their lessons went wrong. High grades send a message, as well. Too many A grades mean the course is too easy.

But grades should not matter as much as they do.

The pursuit of grades has derailed the educations of too many people. Students who live for As tend to stick to what they know. They opt out of the course that might change their lives and trade the possibility of failure for an uneventful passing grade. And parents who treat their children’s grades as a reflection on their genetics put undue pressure on their kids and their kids’ teachers.

What else explains rampant grade inflation?

Have no doubt, grade inflation is real. It is the distended belly of the educational system, the malnutrition that poisons learning.

The mad chase for an A+ has led to an over-valuation of grades. For many parents and students, grades are a symbol of a person’s moral worth. A bad grade is a scarlet letter.

Putting grade inflation into remission could make us sick but we should do it.

Allowing external reviewers to review student work is one way to ensure that an A is an A.

Elbow has another solution: treat certain courses like a driver’s test. Set a high standard and let students take the course – or a part of a course – as many times as they need to meet the standard.

Nobody gets out of here without an A – a real A. Now there’s a motto waiting for a school.

Grades or not, students will always learn something.

Hopefully in the chase to get that A+, they learn to love school, not hate it.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


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