Opinion | American education system should distance itself from grades

By Kelly Loftus, Staff Columnist

From the very start of their educations, kids are led to believe that some of them are good at learning and some of them are bad at learning.

Years in school repeatedly reaffirm this rhetoric, and learning rapidly devolves into a competition that has winners and losers. In the American school system, all students are not created equal, and we’re reminded of it every single day.

The purpose behind grades is to determine how much a student has learned. The caveat is that a number or letter can’t effectively do this — it’s nearly impossible to quantify learning objectively. Most schools simply test memorization and recitation, which are not substantial indicators of understanding. I believe in educative structure. I believe in academic integrity. But I also believe that somewhere, we went wrong. We, as a society, need to reevaluate our current system of grading in order to institute something more just and constructive.

Grades can have a cripplingly negative effect on students’ emotional well-being, namely because so many of us have been conditioned to use them as a metric of self-worth. I have a friend who spent 12 years excelling academically, but when she went to college, she didn’t see the same results. She went from being at the top of her class to struggling just to get a passing grade. And it shattered her.

“I’ve had good grades my entire life,” she told me. “I don’t know who I am without them.”

She felt as though her identity as a “good student” was gone, and, as a result, her self-esteem plunged. Her parents were so worried about her mental state that they came very close to pulling her out of school — all because of a tiny number with a decimal point next to the letters “GPA.”  

NPR conducted a Facebook survey in 2013 that focused on stress and teenagers. Students responded by detailing the sacrifices they made to get the grades they wanted: the overwhelming amount of time they were forced to dedicate to schoolwork, the pressure they felt to stay at the top of their class and the symptoms of mental illness they had begun to experience as a result.

A decline in mental health is one of the most critical indicators of the toxicity in our current education system. A 2015 NYU study revealed that 49 percent of the high school participants suffered from abnormally high levels of daily stress due to grades, homework and preparing for college. Twenty-six percent of participants displayed signs of clinical depression.

Students are quite literally crying out for help. Schools are meant to provide safe learning environments, not pose a threat to mental health. These are children and young adults whose minds are at a critical stage in development. They shouldn’t be so overwrought with stress that they are unable to complete assignments or even attend school. When the brain is vulnerable, the body is too. Students should be able to concentrate on taking care of themselves, not forced to indulge in self-torture.

In an article for Educational Leadership magazine, national lecturer on education and human behavior Alfie Kohn summarized the three conclusions about grades he has reached through his research from students in elementary school through college. He found that grades make students less interested in learning, grades cultivate a preference for choices requiring the least amount of effort and grades lower the caliber of students’ thinking.

“[The] more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing,” Kohn writes.

Kohn suggests that teachers use “narrative assessments or conferences” as opposed to letter and number grades. This way, a student’s progress can be evaluated on a qualitative scale rather than a quantitative one.  

Academia is based on performance, and when it comes to performance goals, there are two types: performance-approach goals, in which a student seeks to achieve competence, and performance-avoidance goals, in which a student seeks to avoid incompetence. The Journal of Educational Psychology conducted an experiment in 2011 that found students anticipating graded feedback were more likely to adopt performance-avoidance goals, while students who were not subjected to grades were more likely to adopt performance-approach goals. In other words, grades appear to motivate students to avoid doing their worst, as opposed to doing their best.

Our culture approaches education under the false assumption that all minds work alike, but not everyone thinks the same way, and not everyone learns the same way. Given that different students require different timelines for discussion and different methods of teaching, the ways we assess a student’s understanding of a topic should differ too, depending on that particular student.

Not only does this phenomenon reinforce the negative thinking that accompanies poor grades, but it prevents a large portion of students from experiencing healthy failure. This is why my friend had such trouble adjusting to college academics — she didn’t know how to cope with low grades because she had never gotten them. For so long, she had been able to achieve the standards she set for herself, so when the difficulty of her college classes prevented her from continuing to reach those same standards, she was unable to accept what she considered a lower level of performance.

I’ve heard stories (and have my own) of all-night study sessions fueled by caffeine and self-loathing. I’ve seen students cry at test results, use stimulant drugs like Adderall in order to get more work done, abuse substances as a means of dealing with stress, cheat on assignments and forget to eat. Some students might even consider suicide — suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34.

The list goes on. These are not side effects of learning — they are side effects of grading. Education shouldn’t be a psychological burden, and it doesn’t make any sense for it to be. Something as abstract as knowledge can’t be placed within the confines of a single letter or number.