Do Grades Matter?

May 20, 2020

At some point upon entering 9th grade, the mindset of the student changes. Previously, he may have considered grades a curiosity, but now they are a badge of pride or shame. The new obsession with grades is not entirely internal, as parents also look towards college and its guardians: SATs and scholarships. While parents and students may once have accepted that a classical education is meant to nourish the soul in wisdom and virtue, they now confess the real goal is higher test scores and better colleges. This shift in mindset not only pressures students to earn grades but also teachers to inflate them. But despite the fear surrounding college admissions, do grades matter?

Consider the grade. A grade is a letter or number which communicates how closely a student has imitated a standard. The assignment is then discarded, while the points and percentages are averaged across classes and distilled to another letter. This new letter grade is then converted to GPA, which continues to haunt them long after the lesson is forgotten. Since grades may influence class ranking, honors, and college admissions, it seems rather obvious that grades matter for something. Yet our modern obsession over grades ultimately creates unusable metrics for colleges, increases anxiety, and undermines real education. 

Despite the focus on grades, they don't provide educational benefit or even help admissions departments because quantifiable numbers or class rankings never accurately measure a student. Too often, instead of focusing on a student’s ability to memorize content, practice skills, and understand ideas, grades reduce the complexity of student work to a statistic. This is their appeal. Statistics can be counted. They can be graphed. They give the appearance of factual objectivity. Grades make it easy to average, rank, and sort students apart from personal judgment, and yet judgment is the very thing necessary for education. 

Grades don’t assess students accurately because GPA does not tell an admissions board whether the student didn’t understand ionic bonds or whether they were sick during an important test. A “C” does not distinguish between a student who struggled with the complex thought of Thomas Aquinas or who slept through The Hunger Games. Since grades do not distinguish between diligent and cheating students, they cannot provide a meaningful assessment.

Additionally, grades don’t help schools or students because they are an inaccurate measurement; they aren’t equal across institutions—or even within institutions. How can grades meaningfully assess students if there isn't consistency between two teachers of the same class? A student may receive an “A” in calculus from one teacher for merely attempting the homework and receive a “C” from another despite laboring  through high-difficulty problems and writing comprehensive essays on the mathematics involved. These are wildly different expectations and accomplishments. One school may be lenient in course-work and grading, while another reserves high grades for truly excellent work. Unequal weights do not help students (or schools).

Not only do grades mislead through the pseudo-scientific appearance of accuracy, but they also harm students emotionally. Instead of promoting education, grades can increase student anxiety over tests and grades as they begin to believe their GPA reflects their worth. To receive a “B” on a good, but not great paper might as well be a hand-written note from Mrs. O’Donovan, “Your work is awful.” What should be an instrument of life becomes a means of death (Ex 23:19). Another drawback is that rather than focusing on learning the lesson, students focus on “getting grades up.” Without statistical grades, students would be freed to attend to the real goal of education instead of worrying about an abstract number divorced from the assessment of a living teacher.

Obsession over grades ultimately obscures the purpose of education. After all, if the grade is the only valuable result from education, why not cheat? Why not soften standards? People’s livelihoods are at stake. No one wants to be the teacher who prevented Jimmy from getting into UWM. If a student gets a “C-“ in a class … what a waste. An idolization of grades teaches students to value only the result rather than the lesson or feedback. This in turn encourages students to avoid difficult courses or assignments in order to pad their GPA and improve their prospects. 

Teachers help the students grow in all their faculties: spiritual, moral, physical, emotional, and intellectual. An education’s primary end is not to generate wealth, receive fame, or obtain power. A prestigious college degree may help land a high caliber job that might pay well. So what? A good school will teach a man to live well. None of fortune’s gifts in themselves are conducive to happiness; man can only be happy by knowing and loving God, and true education fits man for this purpose. 

The half-hearted defense of grades claims that without grades, student would not be assessed. However, no one suggests replacing “A’s”, “B’s”, and “C’s” with meaningless pictures like a clown, balloon or smiley face. A saner approach would move from numerical to descriptive assessment. Instead of a number or letter, teachers should assess through verbal and written feedback. Math problems will still be marked correct or incorrect, but students will learn where they went wrong, not simply note the new average and move on. No more will teachers be forced to distill a sonnet to an 83.27% but can judge the work as it deserves—with words. 

The real concern with losing grades is not that student work will no longer be assessed, but that students will actually be judged. The ease of scribbling a number has been taken away. Now teachers and students have to do the difficult work of learning together—communicating, assessing, improving, asking questions, and growing. Teachers always judge more than student work; they must assess their growth in wisdom and virtue, just as one teacher judged his city: “are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” That, as it was in Socrates’ day, remains a revolutionary question.

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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