What do grades DO?

calvin-and-hobbes-barfing-face-sticker.gif

Monday's post on grades may have been the most popular post yet, and I'd like to follow it up with some questions and answers I've gotten about grades, and our future school's use of 'em!


Q: What do grades actually do?

A: The most challenging comment that anyone made on the last post's Facebook conversation was this, by Angie:

The objective of schooling is for the child to learn to the best of their individual ability. Grades are pointless and detrimental.

It was funny: I read this and sort of internally rolled my eyes (forgive me, Angie!). This was the sort of simplistic take on grades (I reckoned) that I thought I had already worked past. Obviously (I assumed) there is a purpose to grades. Obviously they're not purely detrimental. And that purpose was...

And then I plumbed my head for ideas. And then I drew a blank. (Like I said: it was funny!)

So thank you, Angie, for throwing down the gauntlet! But upon further reflection, I can see some purposes that grades at least thrust toward — sort of strike a glancing blow toward, even if they don't land a solid hit.

  • Grades pass along information to parents as to how their son or daughter is doing in various subjects. This strikes me as important, even if there are other ways (perhaps better) to pass along this information.
  • Grades pass along information to colleges as to how the student did. For high schoolers, this is crucial. I teach at a school that shuns grades in favor of narrative evaluations. That is, at year's end instead of slapping a 'B' on a student, I write a paragraph expressing concisely the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. The trouble is, we know that college admissions folk are going to skim the evaluations, and mentally convert them into letter grades. They have to: their job is to weigh kids against one another. Like it or hate it, we in K-12 schooling are stuck inside this system, and schools need to help high schoolers through it. Letter grades do this efficiently, if inelegantly.

I'm not, let me emphasize, saying that we should have letter grades, just that these are some purposes that they do seem to serve.


We should focus on one more purpose — the major purpose of grades — with especially care:

  • Grades motivate students.

Or maybe I should write: Grades "motivate" students. As I wrote on Monday, the motivation here is typically garbage motivation. The "better" students (an icky term, here meaning students who tend to get higher grades) really will be motivated, but only to achieve a grade. Grades don't draw people into being historians, or mathematicians, or philosophers, or physicists, or artists. Grades are goal displacement. 

For a school that will aim first and foremost for love, this is a serious threat. I've heard it said of homeschooling that if you ask a homeschooled student what their favorite subject is, they'll respond "I like math" or "I like chemistry" or whatever. But if you ask a public or private schooled student what their favorite subject is, they'll respond, "I'm good at math" or "I'm good at chemistry."

In that slight change of words is a world of difference. (I don't know if this is generally, statistically, true, but I've found that it nicely comports to my experiences of the homeschool community.)

Anyhow, that's the problem for high-achieving students. Perhaps just as many will be demotivated by grades. A student who starts slipping from 'A's to 'D's in math is likely to interpret this as a judgment not just on her recent performance but as a judgment on herself. (Grades, for many of us, feel that way.) Initially she may feel it as a slap across the face, but when she gathers her wits she may see, quite clearly, that she has two choices:

  1. She can keep valuing school. She can persist in seeing herself as an 'A' student, work very, very hard, and not only re-learn the math she's missed but excel at the new math coming up.
  2. Or, she can move school out of her value world. She can retain her self-esteem, but now get it as someone who rebels against school. (Our culture: we're suckers for rebels!)

Many students fall into the second camp. And no wonder — for short-sighted students (which is to say, almost all of us!) it's the rational move.

To sum up, then: when grades succeed in motivating, they do so by pulling students away from the actual content/skills they're measuring. And that's the best-case scenario: oftentimes, grades demotivate.

Personal aside: I'm thankful that grades have rarely had much of an effect on me. I still don't actually know what my GPA ended up being in graduate school. This is admittedly a privileged position: 'A's have come easily enough that I've never feared not passing, either a specific class or a more general program.

Hmm — I wonder how much of my love of learning is tied up in my having not cared about grades throughout my life. Hmm.

It will, I think, be a great service we provide our students if we can get them addicted to learning without getting them addicted to grades.


Q: So is the worst thing about grades that they tell students they're not doing so well?

A: I actually might suggest that this could be one of the best things about grades — so long as the grades then motivate students to improve, rather than to mentally check out of the program.

To explain this, I need to explain what I think might be one of the secret purposes (or at least benefits) of letter grades: It's no fun to tell a student they stink at something.

Teachers: mostly kind, compassionate folk. We want to be encouraging. We love telling kids they're doing just wonderfully — particularly when they are, but (and this is a personal confession) also sometimes when they're not.

And then the end of the quarter swings around, and it comes time to write up a formal evaluation of the student. It's relatively easy to give a kid a 'C'. It's relatively horrendous to write a paragraph informing a kid they're studying lazily, joking around in class, and, when actually working, don't really seem to... care.

This is a great difficulty with narrative evaluations: it's tempting to slough off the criticism. And so we can sneak away from saying hard truths, and make everything the child hears about himself just rosy.

This is disrespectful of a child.

I'll limn this out: It is not respectful of a child to hide their struggles from them. (Remember that we, as adults who have been through this school thing before, can oftentimes see their struggles more clearly than students can.) It's not respectful of a child to weave them into a cocoon of super-niceness which they'll acclimate to, and then upon leaving experience anxiety.

In fact, it may be cruel to a child.

The Atlantic article, "How to Land Your Kids in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports" is required reading for anyone interested in this question.

Schools have special access to students for 13 formative years. One goal, I'll suggest, of those years should be to help kids become used to honest criticism — to raise children and adolescents who actually seek out honest evaluations, warts and all, and who are dissatisfied with evaluations that pull punches.

If this sounds cruel, I'm failing at explaining it!

Yesterday I stated that I think both extremes of the internal/external motivation debate are silly. But if you call "internal" motivation your home, if your goal is to help students understand that they shouldn't judge their own worth by the evaluations of others, if your hope is to instill truly self-esteem, then you should see that this goal can be better met by guiding kids through difficulty than by avoiding it. 

It's only after kids experience the pangs of "oh, I didn't do well at this history project" that they can separate what they're doing externally from how they're doing internally.

I think our school can achieve this. And I think it might be one of the more life-transforming things we give kids. Can you imagine that — being okay with criticism? How much easier my own life would be...

But this goal is not particularly helped with letter grades, which (1) are typically interpreted as judgments of the person rather than of the performance, (2) come too seldom, (3) lack information on where the real problems lie, (4) lack advice on how to improve, and (5) are monologues, rather than dialogues.

We can forge a better way. But we'll only be able to do so if we understand what real purposes grades are attempting to fill.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA