Opinion | Grading practices, not grading scales, need to be changed

By Kartik Kannan, Staff Columnist

It’s no secret that the American education system creates a stressful experience for students. From assigning excessive amounts of homework to asking students to learn higher-level concepts, schools present complex challenges that can mentally and emotionally strain students. Yet of all the stresses placed on students, none may have as adverse an effect as the current grading system used across the country.

Currently, a majority of educational institutions across the United States use some variation of the “A” through “F” letter scale, despite the fact that 76% of students worry about possibly not doing well in school. Thus, it is perfectly understandable why students stress about getting good grades, as many opportunities, such as getting into a college after high school, are given primarily to students who earn high grades. It may seem as though the letter scale needs to either be changed or removed altogether in order to relieve some of the pressure on students. But it is not the grading scale that needs to be changed — rather, we must create objective benchmarks within the scale in order to ensure that the grading system treats all students equitably.

In its current form, the letter-based grading system serves as a useful tool for all parties, ranging from students and teachers to parents and employers. The grading system is a highly user-friendly mechanism, as using letters to calculate the value of a student’s performance in the classroom is relatively easy both to understand and to interpret. We know that students who earn letters like “A” and “B” have performed strongly and have more mastery of content, whereas those students who earn a “C,” “D” or “F” have not performed as strongly and thus have less mastery of content.

With the vast majority of grading systems equating 90% of points earned with some form of an “A” grade, 80% of points earned with some form of a “B” grade and so on, employers and application reviewers can readily compare the viability of two or more students from one school by simply comparing the letter grades they have earned. While certain aspects of an application may be harder to directly compare — like types of extracurricular activities, community service and essays — the consistency in letter-grade characteristics gives employers and application reviewers the ability to choose the students they want.

Unfortunately, with the letter-based grading system set up as it is now, one of the key issues is the subjectivity that arises with each teacher’s grading criteria. While some teachers reward participation and effort by ensuring a student’s total grade includes points from classroom participation and completion of homework and classwork, others may prioritize students’ mastery of content, which in turn leads to accuracy on exams and assignments making up the bulk of a student’s grade.

This leads to scenarios where students put in high amounts of effort in a class but are penalized with poor grades because they do not fully understand the course material, and students who do well on tests but lose participation points because they are afraid of speaking up in class. Ultimately, the differences in teachers’ requirements create the majority of grading-related stresses placed on students, a factor that could be linked to studies that found that 75% of students feel stressed about schoolwork and that 72% of students feel worried about taking assessments.

It is also important to note that the grading scale serves as a key motivator for students to engage in their educational experience. With the increasing importance placed on students earning high grades, the grading scale encourages students to increase the time they put into studying for their classes in order for them to have the highest chance of earning the highest grades. With studies further showing that the grading scale serves to reward students who earn higher grades, and has no relative effect when used to “punish” students for a lack of effort in school, students thus have the extrinsic motivation needed to keep them engaged in their studies and focused while in school.

All in all, the letter-based grading system must be reformed in order for it to have a positive effect on student learning. This could be accomplished by standardizing the composition of a student’s final grade. Instead of allowing teachers to create requirements that skew toward favoring either effort or mastery of content alone, institutions could shift educational standards so that all classes allow for grades to be used as a metric of achievement, mastery of content and effort.

Schools in Finland utilize this method in order to understand the growth and progress a student takes in their educational process. In taking into account students’ educational achievement and effort, the Finnish education system also allows for the separation of students into academic and vocational schools based on how their grades pan out.

As they exist right now, grades function as a “necessary evil” — while they are supposed to provide an objective way to compare and motivate students, grades are rooted in subjective requirements imposed by teachers. But grades and the letter-based grading system as a whole serve a greater purpose. By retaining the grading system universally but reforming it to objectively quantify the effort a student puts in and how well they master content, the grading scale can serve as a positive force that gives every student the chance to succeed in the working world.

Kartik Kannan is a first-year studying biological sciences. You can contact Kartik at [email protected].