A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled "Grades Are Stupid" in response to to Pittsburgh's decision to eliminate all grades below 50%. The main thrust of the post was really how Pittsburgh's decision served as evidence that a single grade doesn't really mean all that much.
The post was rather terse and acerbic, but I stand by my original assertion: grades are stupid. Here's why:
Let's say you know nothing about two individuals except for their GPA. What is it that you know about them? Not much. You don't know that one is smarter than the other, because a person can be smarter but not work as hard. You don't know that one works harder than the other because grades aren't based only on effort. You don't know who learned more because you don't know what their teachers' standards were. In the end, you don't really know much at all.
An individual grade is based, to a large degree, on the whims, perceptions, and standards of a specific teacher. Different teachers weight and reward behavior, test scores, homework completion, class participation, etc. differently. Different teachers would give the same paper or test different grades. Different teachers would perceive the same student in very different ways. In other words, a grade is not a particularly valid measure of much of anything. I'm not saying, however, that they are meaningless or devoid of utility -- I don't want to say that grades serve no purpose or provide no information, just that their precision and meaningfulness fall far short of what people often assume.
I chose "stupid" instead of "meaningless" for a reason. Here's one example: The Economist's blog on American politics ran a piece the other week about finding alternatives to the SAT. Their main criteria for finding a replacement seems to be finding something that's more highly correlated with college grades. But are college grades really the most important outcome? Is a high GPA really the definition of success that we want to set?
That a grade, or even a set of grades, provides so little information about a person isn't due just to the fact that grades are subjective and vary wildly by school and teacher. They provide so little information because of the fact that they are based on so little of meaning. What it really comes down to is a teacher's perception of how well a student lived up to that teacher's expectations of a model student.
So, in case I overstated the argument earlier in the post, grades don't give zero information about a student. When you boil it down, they really tell you how close that student came to fulfilling the teacher's expectations. So, what does that mean?
That depends on the teacher. What were the teacher's expectations? Why did/didn't they feel that the student lived up to their expectations?
But it also means that the main skill a student is being measured on is the ability to fulfill the expectations of another person.
In one sense, this is valuable -- particularly if you're the boss and you're looking for somebody who can follow your directions and do what's expected of them. In another, it's not -- particularly if pleasing a boss isn't the most important outcome of one's work.
What's most troubling, however, isn't that the information that grades provide is so sketchy. What's most troubling is that grades send the wrong message in so many ways. While many positive behaviors (studiousness, cooperation, etc.) are rewarded by good grades, grades also reward many behaviors that are not necessarily healthy. Too often, getting a good grade means doing things in a set manner, rather than devising your own way. Too often, getting a good grade means following directions; regardless of the reasonableness of said instructions. Too often, getting a good grade means living in fear of what will happen if you don't. Ultimately, a school system based on grades (at least in their current form) teaches kids to work for extrinsic rewards and avoid extrinsic punishments. If a high GPA becomes one's goal, what have they really achieved when they accomplish it? And what do students trained to pursue high grades do after they graduate? Pursue promotions? Pursue a higher salary?
And too often grades are used in punitive or heavy-handed ways. Ideally, I think grades are supposed to serve as an indicator of how much a student has learned. But how often are students threatened with poor grades for things not directly related to learning? How often are grades based on a myriad of criteria other than how much a student has learned?
Think back to your own school experience -- at all levels. Think of how many times a grade was based on something other than what you had learned. Think of how many times grades were used as a means of control or coercion. Think of how many times you had to do something to earn a higher grade that did not directly result in you learning more. Think of how much better off you'd be if you focused on the important things in life instead of what your grade would be.
And that's why grades are stupid.
update: as you can see from the many, many comments below, I seem to have taken an unpopular position here. What that make wonder is if there's a relationship between the GPA one attained when they were in school and their reaction to this post. In other words, do people who had a higher GPA object more vehemently to the suggestion that grades don't mean as much as we often assume they do? I'm willing they bet they do. And I don't suggest that to be flip and deride those who focus on grades as self-promoting. I'm willing to bet that those who thought grades were more important when they were in school also think they're more important now. And that those who thought grades were more important earned a higher GPA, on average. I'm also willing to bet that those who earned a higher GPA would like to believe that that means something important and that those who earned a lower GPA would like to believe that it doesn't really mean all that much.