What’s the Point of Grades?

I just read this article in the New York Times; Pass-Fail Raises the Question: What’s the Point of Grades? It is a good question, especially now after homeschooling for 2 months or more.

This pandemic has surfaced a dilemma frequently ignored: A-F grades are used poorly and for too many different purposes. By 

I have addressed the issue of assessing students’ work during the pandemic here. During the 2 first years in high school in Norway, the grades determine if you can continue at the same school, or have to change to a less popular school. The last year of high school, summing up all the grades you have received, decide where you get to go next, university, college, or a year to improve your grades.

The original aim of grading, which can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, was to motivate students. As educators found, students tended to work harder if there was a brass ring for them to reach.

The article takes us through the history of grading in the USA and how it became a way for the school to communicate with the parents. It is a well-known fact now that students are working hard for the grades, much more than the learning itself.

Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades. This was even the case in 1918, when American economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen observed that the pursuit of grades “progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.” And a century later, it remains true, as students scramble for prized, résumé building credentials at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity. The New York Times

In this article Michael Horn is discussing what grades do to the students. When you get an E on a report card or a 2 in Norway in math, what does that say about your performance? Is it because you didn’t attend class, pay attention, and what did you understand to get this low grade? You didn’t fail so obviously you know something? But what because a 2 is pretty worthless, to be honest.


Grades being a symptom of the problem with the factory model education system, not the problem itself, per se. But when we go to your example and they’re actually actively causing harm, it becomes really, really disturbing.

And here’s the thing on top of that, which is the science of motivation. All this research shows that when you give people data or information like grades with no ability to do anything about it — so you give the grade and, “Sorry, that’s what she got” — it’s literally the worst thing for motivation. Seriously, if we were to design an experiment to demotivate people any more than this, we’d use grades and report cards with literally no ability to take the information and improve how you did on it. That’s what we would do to kids. We’d say, “Here’s a piece of paper, a simple letter online that’s going to label you, tell you how you did, tell you who you are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Michael Horn

As long as we have a system like this we are losing out on the learning at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity. Just saying.

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