-This blog post is in response to the essay “From Degrading to De-grading” by Alfie Kohn.-
First of all, I have some serious respect to the author for making the title a pun. I also really enjoy their writing style. They manage to keep an argumentative essay feeling relatively light and welcoming to read. It makes those reading it more inclined to listen and accept their point of view.
For the most part, the problems with grades mentioned in this essay are very real. I can personally vouch for many of these experiences by having seen them played out in my high school. I don’t want to sound high and mighty, but many people in my school were extremely focused and competitive with things like class rank and grades. Many of those in the top of our class refused to take classes below the AP level even if they had interests elsewhere. I know of a kid who took 8 AP classes in one year, meaning every class was an AP class, simply to beat out another student for valedictorian.
This competitiveness also leads to the horror of the curved test. Curving provides an easy way for students to discourage one another. If you are the one that broke the curve by doing well, you will be singled out. You have directly affected someone else’s grade, something that really shouldn’t be possible.
Simply ask a student about grades and you’ll hear some of the problems with the system. 99% of classroom discussion revolves around “Will this be on the test?” and “Is this for a grade?”. If something is not for a grade, it will not get done. It’s not laziness, it’s working the system. Why do something that is not for a grade when you can do an assignment for another class that is? Students are taught from day one that grades are what matters and to do whatever it takes to get them. Learning is secondary.
I had a high school english teacher who largely didn’t use grades. If you looked at the assignment, you probably a 100. He cared much more about intellectual conversation, engagement, and feedback. However, the effect of this kind of teaching style divided the classroom. Those students focused on grades hated him. It was easy to slack off in that class, simply do the assignment and tune out the class. The next year students claimed to have not learned anything, that he didn’t prepare them for tests, that he was a bad teacher.
Then there were those of us that participated in class. We did the assignments and engaged in the class discussions. We didn’t skim things for a grade, we read them. We put effort into things even if we did’t have to. Every kid I know that participated in that class loved it. They passed the AP exam. They became better and more engaged thinkers and writers. I personally found that class fundamental to who I am as a person. I learned more in there than any other class.
I think moving away grading would be an excellent thing, however it’s a movement that will face significant push back. Not just from parents and teachers, but from the students it is harming. Having been conditioned for years into this system, changing attitudes and minds will be a hard challenge. I hope we are up to the task.