5 reasons I’m against grades

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By Mark Barnes

My book, Role Reversal, details how, after more than a decade of teaching in the old-school way, I changed everything and completely eliminated grades. Like homework, there are many reasons that grading is detrimental to learning. Here are the top 5 reasons I stopped giving grades.

5 — Grades are always subjective. Since the teacher decides how material is taught and assessed, it’s subjective. You can argue that many activities and test questions are either right or wrong, but if you don’t give students a variety of ways to show what they know, as well as chances to relearn lessons, then objectivity is compromised.

4 — A points and percentages system discriminates. Students who are motivated by grades complete assignments. They always turn them in, earn their points and, consequently, get high grades. Students who don’t see any value in the activities that garner points don’t complete them. They, in turn, receive zeroes and failing grades. Hence, the grades create a culture of “good” and “bad” students. The high achievers are promoted to advanced classes, while the low achievers are placed in remediation. This sort of academic discrimination can scar a child for life.

3 — Poor weighting of activities punishes some students while rewarding others. Most teachers struggle with weighting activities (another practice that should be banned). I’ve seen teachers whose tests are 75 percent of a marking period’s grade, while others value homework at 50 percent or higher. Consider the student who does all of his homework but is scared out of his wits on test day. In Mr. 75 Percent’s class, this kid fails. Conversely, an intelligent student, who wants to manipulate a bad system, will ignore all of the activities and projects, ace the tests, and easily pass.

2 — Grades turn even honest kids into cheaters. In the study hall that I supervise daily, I see a shocking amount of cheating. I’ve often asked students copying a peer’s work why they do it. The answer is always some version of the same thing: “It’s due next period, and I’ll get a zero, if I don’t hand it in.” In a class with no grades, students never have a reason to cheat. There’s no punishment awaiting them, if something isn’t done.

1 — When students perform for points or letters, they lose any interest in real learning. Grades are nothing more than the carrots and sticks of education. They reward the “good” kids, whose parents browbeat them nightly to complete all activities, study hard and get those A’s. Promises of Honor Roll, Merit Scholar and other elite badges await those cunning enough to maneuver the flawed system of grading. They may even get to the Ivy League, having learned very little about learning. Meanwhile, their counterparts, many of them likely impoverished, hungry and struggling to comprehend the value in the assignments and tests they see daily, face a life of remediation, retention and ridicule.

Sadly, some of these kids are the brightest of them all, but they are doomed by the letters, the numbers and the grades.

Mark Barnes is an education author and consultant and the publisher of Brilliant or Insane. Learn more about Mark on our Team page. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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