2 More Reasons Grades Are Harmful

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grades make students jump through hoops
Why do teachers make students jump through hoops? photo credit: Ani-Bee via photopin cc

As if we needed any more convincing, two more reasons that grades are harmful came across my path on consecutive days recently. Together, they make yet another in a long series of convincing arguments against the hoops we make students jump through in school.

First, I stumbled on this video from 2010. Professor Richard Quinn of the University of Central Florida spends 15 minutes of his 75 minute class lecturing his students about the consequences of cheating:

Two things stand out to me here: how he determined that cheating took place, and his chosen consequence.

His red flag that students had cheated was that the distribution of scores was not normal. And I don’t mean “normal” in the sense of “usual,” I mean it in the statistical sense. Too many students passed. Think about that for a second: the purpose of his test is to ensure that a certain percentage of students fail it. And when there was a statistical bump in high scores, his immediate assumption wasn’t, “Oh, great, more students learned a whole lot in my class,” it was, “Wow, a bunch of kids must have cheated.” Even this professor doesn’t connect grades with learning.

Yeah, but in high school you can get good grades without learning anything.
And before you argue that his assumption was correct (which it was), realize that if grades were based on learning instead of hoop-jumping, students who hadn’t learned the material would have had other ways to show what they knew and earn a higher grade. But in this case, it’s more about the test than the learning, so students who weren’t prepared felt the need to cheat in order to have a shot at a decent grade. Could some of them have been lazy? Of course. But it’s just as likely that there were students in that group who had worked hard had struggled and felt they had no other option.

Which makes the professor’s next act worse. “Guess what,” he taunted the class. “Midterm exam grades are being tossed.” He made up a new midterm which everyone would have to retake–including the 400 students who had not cheated, many of whom had done well.

Imagine you had a job interview, and the human resources director called you afterwards and said, “You know, a few of our applicants lied on their resumes and got the interview questions ahead of time, so we’re throwing out all the paperwork and everyone has to apply for the job again. And no, you can’t use the same letters of reference.” Or if the Tour de France had vacated not just Lance Armstrong’s titles, but everyone else who had raced in the years he did. “You all will have to do the race over again.”

How should he have handled it? Mark Barnes suggested one way on the Facebook discussion about this video:

Not that I favor grades of any kind, but why is the instructor’s first thought when purported achievement increases that kids cheat? Isn’t this a problem in itself? “Forensic analysis?” Seriously? He should have assigned this so-called Forensic analysis to the students; they might have actually learned something.

Ah, but remember, Mark, it’s not about the learning. It’s about the failing.

So it was in this context that I had this conversation the next day at the dinner table with two of my three kids. The oldest (Son #1) is away at college. The other two are in high school (Son #2) and middle school (Son #3).

I will let Son #2 have the last word on the topic:

Me: If I were back in the classroom again I’d probably give little or no homework, and I wouldn’t give grades.

Son #2: I couldn’t handle not having grades.

Me: Why?

Son #2: ‘Cause I know how to get good grades. Colleges want to see good grades.

Son #3: What would you do instead of grades?

Me: I’d give feedback. Tell you how you were doing, what you could do to get better. It would be about learning.

Son #3: What would you do with kids who didn’t want to get better?

Me: I’d ask you why. What are you curious about? What do you want to learn? How do you learn best? How can we connect those things to what I need you to learn?

Son #2: Yeah, but in high school you can get good grades without learning anything.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of AllAboutExplorers.com and ConnectedTeachers.org.

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