What IS the purpose of a grade?

bigstock-Funnel-with-arrows-33911276It’s back.  I guess it never really left, but it was sure quiet for a while.

In the news again, both locally and nationally, is the issue of grading.   On social networks and in face-to-face conversations, I’m asked how I feel about the idea of not giving grades at all or of allowing late work or getting rid of zeroes.  And, as always, I can’t ignore it.

I don’t know why this one topic is so important to me.  Maybe it’s because a lot of other things in education depend upon it.  Maybe it’s because I think I’ve actually figured most of it out, which isn’t true for, like, anything else in the world.  Or, perhaps, it’s just that when people get this one thing wrong… they really get it wrong.

So, let me start by acknowledging that I have rode on this roller coaster before.  You can find my earlier writings on this blog (here, here, and here) and in a column I wrote for SmartBlogs Education.  I’ve even hosted a guest post on this subject, written by the impeccably outspoken Erica Speaks.  So, yeah, we’ve covered it.

And, so, my objective here is to simply get some frustration off my chest and address one simple idea:

Why do we give grades?

If you ask one hundred teachers this question, you’ll get one hundred different responses.  Some common themes will emerge, but this is a very personal issue for a lot of educators.  I appreciate the inherent intimacy of discussing this topic, but I also need to point out that grades can’t do all of those things.  Not well, not at all.  In short, someone must be wrong.

Grades can’t encourage better student achievement AND assess teacher quality AND decide who belongs in college AND who should play sports AND communicate mastery.  They just can’t.  These goals require different information and have different standards.  They demand different tools and measurements.

Both historically and in terms of their greatest value, grades serve to tell everyone what a student knows.  Period.  Any other functions just complicate them and encourage grade inflation/deflation, cheating, laziness, dependency, frustration, and arguments.  Not to mention how they affect students.

And, to address what may be the most common (and vexing) complaint of those who disagree with me and my ilk, that does not mean that we shouldn’t be trying to do those other things.  We DEFINITELY need to be encouraging a strong work ethic.  We OBVIOUSLY need to decide who gets to graduate.  We MUST identify who needs help.  And to accomplish these goals, we need more and better tools.  We need systems that build intrinsic motivation and reward independence.  We need to create tools that help each child find the best post-graduation situation for their needs and skills.

Above all, we need to stop trying to cram so much information into one letter.  When you try to put every color of the rainbow in one dot, you can’t see any of them.

What do you think?  Am I wrong?  Tell me!  I can take it.  Really, I can.

2 thoughts on “What IS the purpose of a grade?

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