Why Grades Fail Our Students

“What will my grade be if I hand this in tomorrow?”
“Whatever you earn. Did you get the rubric?”
“Yeah. But you’re not taking points off?”
“Well, how will I know what you know and are able to do if I sacrifice your grade for your lack of responsibility?”
“I’m really sorry it’s late. It won’t happen again. And thanks.”
“For what?”
“Not taking points off.”
“You will receive the grade you earned. Thanks for getting it in when you could.”


I have this conversation with my students every time an assignment is due—and every time they turn one in late. They don’t accept that they can hand things in late without their grade being penalized. (Other consequences apply; however, because I stress responsibility and timeliness.) But yes, you read that correctly. I don’t “take points off” of late assignments. I also allow students to re-take assessments and re-write papers as many times as they want. I don’t give zeroes to cheaters (they are prosecuted in other ways), and I always allow zeros to be replaced. I am an anomaly. I go against the norm. I also understand that many of my contemporaries may not agree with my policies, but here is my philosophy:
Grades must reflect what students know and are able to do. Therefore, they should not be influenced by compliance and responsibility or lack thereof.

Grades are destroying our kids. Students are so concerned with the ends of an assignment that they ignore the means; and that’s the part that really matters! They are so obsessed with “getting an A” or “passing this class” that they forget the reason things are graded in the first place: to show what students know and are able to do.

When you really think about it, grades are meaningless. Here’s why.

Example 1: Teacher A and Teacher B have the same essay and will score it with the same rubric. Teacher A notices that the student did not correctly respond to the essay prompt and therefore gives the student a 0/5 on that section of the rubric. Teacher B agrees that the essay is off topic but sees that the student put a lot of effort into writing the essay. Teacher B gives the student a 2/5 in that category. Who was right?

Example 2: The entire class took a test. The scores ranged from 97% to 48%. The teacher was disappointed in how many students did not do well and made the decision to curve the test by adding 20 points to each score. The range then increased to 117% to 68%. No one failed in this case. Did the teacher do the right thing?

Example 3: Teacher C receives a memo: “Please review your grades. Consider adding in some more scores to cushion the low grades and help the students pass.” Would you follow the memo? Is it fair?

The examples cited above are typical teacher practices. I know because I have done them. I have graded students on effort, behavior, past performance, rapport with me, personality. But I now see that I was doing them a disservice.

Consider the colleges who accept students based on their GPA or even specific grades in particular classes. “Wow! Student D gets good grades. He has the knowledge and skills needed to thrive here at our institution.” But does he? He wrote the essay in Example 1. Teacher B was his scorer. His test was one of those in the 60s from Example 2, but he ended up with a high 80. Overall, his teachers enjoy having him. He is hard working, well-behaved, and outgoing. And he’s a good kid who deserves to go to college so teachers don’t “kill” him with low grades.

But does D deserve to go to college?

He didn’t earn those grades, they were given to him.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Student D get accepted into college. (After all, he deserved it.) His first semester is a hard and fast lesson in “how to pass your college classes”. He hands in his first paper with the naïve pride of a college freshman, and when he gets it back he is surprised and embarrassed to see that the margins runneth over with critical remarks. It turns out the paper showed no knowledge of the subject matter and D grossly overestimated his writing skills—as did the admissions committee. He was pretty convinced that he had this whole “knowledge and skills” thing down when he was in high school. After all, his grades were “good”.

Somewhere along the way D was cheated. He was cheated by the letters and numbers that control our ideas of achievement and mastery. And it’s not D’s fault. Our country’s obsession with “grades” and getting “good” ones is what failed him. Teachers, administrators, parents, society; we are all so worried about numbers. Good numbers. But what do those numbers really mean?
The next time you hear about a “good” grade, take a moment and think about whether that grade was earned or given. I try to make sure my students earn their grades. I also try to help them focus on learning as opposed to grades. We have put our faith in these little numbers and letters, but do they really show success?

Fellow teachers, I challenge you to grade students honestly and fairly according to mathematical standards (whether they be applied to a multiple choice test or an assignment with a rubric). Take a moment and allow the numbers to show you what students really know and are able to do. It will cause you to re-examine your teaching (and of course your grading) practices. It also might make a lot of people upset. And I hope you’re as okay with that as I am because how will we ever get away from the injustice grades are imposing upon our students without disturbing the norm.


One thought on “Why Grades Fail Our Students

  1. Pingback: Reporting Outcomes: What is an “A”? | The Education Conversation

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