Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why Grades Are Stupid

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.


RDT said...

Think of how many times a grade was based on something other than what you had learned.

Maybe I was lucky, but thinking back on my experience with grades, I have to dissent.

In college there were a few classes where I did well because I was on the same wavelength as the instructor, or badly because I wasn't. But for the most part, the classes I got A's in are the ones I understood the material well enough that it's stuck with me -- in some cases so well that I know where to find information in notes I took 30 years ago. Classes I got B's in, I know I learned about the subject, but its pretty sketchy now.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Think back further. How many times did you receive credit for simply completing homework or classwork? Particularly prior to college, grades are never based on an assessment of how much you've learned that semester, or even how much you know about the topic in general. They're an average of your performance on a wide number of tasks.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Rachel, that grades generally measure the degree to which a student has mastered the course material. However, I understand Corey's point that a grade may also be affected by other factors (class behavior, attendance). Also, a given piece of work may garner an A from one teacher and a B from another teacher.

Corey has a good point that you can't look at a "B" grade in a high school English class and say with any certainty that that student has a weaker grasp of English Lit than the kid who got a "B+" (due to the factors, above). But you have to admit there's a difference between the kid with a straight-A average and one with all C's and D's. And at the college level (where class behavior, etc. don't count for much), there is definitely a difference in course material mastery between students who receive different grades.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Grades don't only measure mastery of course material, even in college (the degree to which it measures mastery of course material, of course, varies widely by subject/class/professor).

Depending on the class, they might also measure effort, the degree to which the prof agrees with the student, the prof's perception of the student, etc.

Student A could know more than Student B, but Student B could write a far superior term paper for any number of reasons (e.g. they put more time into it, solicited outside help, are a better writer, etc.). And don't forget, again, depending on the class, that there are often some graded assignments other than a term paper and exam(s). Sometimes those are good measures of knowledge; oftentimes they're not.

Even in a case where the grade does a very good job of reflecting mastery of course material, that may not particularly matter. That course material might not really be all that important in the grand scheme of things. Or the student may only master it long enough to get a good grade.

Overall, we can generally assume there are some significant differences between a student with a 2.0 and one with a 4.0. But think harder. What are these differences? Do they necessarily matter? Then ask the same questions about the differences between students with more similar GPAs (e.g. 3.0 and 3.5).

Clix said...

the main skill a student is being measured on is the ability to fulfill the expectations of another person.

Not exactly; students are being asked to fulfill the expectations of the course as interpreted by the instructor. A student can please the teacher greatly and still flunk. Or piss the teacher off and pass!

Now, if the course (including instruction and assessment) has been designed by humans, and assessments are measured by humans, YES, there will be some degree of subjectivity involved. But I certainly find that far preferable to any mechanized alternative!

Anonymous said...

Corey: You said, " That course material might not really be all that important in the grand scheme of things." You appear to be arguing that evaluating a student's knowledge of the course material isn't that important, because the course material itself isn't very important.

Quite possibly true, but then what is your solution? Do you believe we should do away with schools? Should we stop teaching reading, writing, and math? Schools teach basic subjects to students, who are expected to learn the material to a basic degree of proficiency. If your objection is to the entire system of schooling in the United States, what is your alternative educational strategy?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I never said grades were without utility. What I'm saying is that they don't mean what we often assume they do; that they're not as important as we often think they are; and that we shouldn't worry about them so much.

In other words, there are more important things in life on which we should devote more of our focus.

Anonymous said...

Corey: I think your argument applies well to middle class, college bound kids: They shouldn't stress so much about minor differences in grades (and colleges probably shouldn't either). However, like you I previously taught low-income, inner city kids and all I can say is: I WISH they cared more about their grades. In low-income schools, the students with the good grades were those who came to class, tried hard and valued education. The students with low grades were on a downward path, often to dropping out and a life of low-paying jobs and/or gangs. I wish all kids cared about grades half as much as some of the kids do!

Anonymous said...

Can't many of these arguments also apply to degrees, and to letters of recommendation? And similarly we can certainly find fault with things like drivers license examinations. I think we ought to think a lot more in terms of false positives and false negatives, though I don't know what we can do about them. As you say, subjective judgments do have utility. We can't do without them, but they are open to lots of criticisms.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Attorney DC: No, I wouldn't want them to be more concerned about grades; I'd want them to be more concerned about learning.

I think the fact that grades are emphasized more than learning is part of the problem.

Jenny said...

I have to agree that one of my greatest concerns with grades is that they become the end all and be all to the detriment of focusing on actually learning. I can think of classes I took in which I earned a good grade, but I don't remember anything I learned. I did exactly what was asked of me in order to be successful. I can also think of other classes in which my grades were less than stellar, but I learned a lot.

We teach kids early that grades are critically important, unfortunately. I've just switched to teaching first grade from teaching fifth. My first graders have no concept of grades. They are learning for the sheer joy of it (or to please me or other adults at times). My fifth graders were always asking if assignments were going to be graded and how much they needed to do to get a good grade. It seemed sad to me.

Rachel Kenyata Armour said...

Hi Corey: I agree with your position on grades. Grades are another form of standardized testing. It doesn't tell you anything about a student. It only assigns an average to a student's efforts and performance on other assessments. My solution is this: First of all, children need to be instrumental in evaluating their own success, not the teacher. Teachers should sit down with students and devise an academic plan with certain benchmarks to reach. Children should be encouraged to outdo themselves, rather than please another person. Most children can't figure out how grades are calculated, and unfortunately many do not even care. The reason why I feel so strongly about grades is because I had a couple of traumatic experiences at school. In remember when I got my first C grade on my report card. I cried and cried and cried. I felt that I had let my parents down, who always pushed me to achieve more than they had the opportunity to. Another incident involved a teacher telling my mother that I was a little bossy in class. Her opinion of me caused me to get beaten when I got home, despite the fact that I had all As and 1 B on my report card. I grew up on the South side of Chicago in the infamous Robert Taylor Homes, a gang-infested housing project. There were no other alternatives except high achievement, if you didn't want to end up dead or gunned down by a stray bullet. I spent most of my time at school, in afterschool activities, and writing in my journal. Writing became my love, and I learned so much through this skill. I am a former 2004 Teach for America Houston Corp member, and writing expert. I know how damaging a grade can be to a student's self-esteem. I suggest school districts should create portfolio assessments and assign M for mastery of G for gaining proficiency. It is more important for students to know if they are mastering the material, rather than how well they followed directions. Today, following direction has become less important and more emphasis is placed on creativity and out-the-box thinking. Their portfolios show their growth and are great to use as a reference for future assignments. I believe that standardized testing should be done away with because it opens children up to be labeled and discriminated against. Why don't we focus on student's individual strengths rather than their weaknesses. If I am strong in writing, and poor in math, why should I devote so much time with math? I could take that same energy and build my writing skills, an activity I enjoy. Children are bored with the American education system, and ought to be. I am bored with the curriculums and standards, which are mostly irrelevant today in the Information Age. Industrial Age textbooks are stifling our children's growth. We need to be preparing children for a globally flat world, not to become farmers and laborers. Let people in developing world countries do that. Our children should be taught how to write commendably, speak with confidence, listen intently, and think at a higher level. Once you have these skills, you can apply them to any task, regardless of discipline. Replace standardized assessments with individual student performance plans and make students an active part of their own academic success tracking data and redefining goals. What do you think?

Rachel Kenyata Armour AKA Kenyata Truth
My Video Blog

Roger Sweeny said...

I think you have said some deep and profound things, raised some deep and profound questions.

But maybe you don't really want to go there. Because you can raise many of the same concerns and questions about compulsory school laws and having a public school system at all.

One could go even further. In the same way that it is impossible to rank people by grades, it is impossible to rank people by degrees or diplomas. And we know that white people are substantially more likely to get those pieces of paper than black or brown people. Do we want to make it illegal to require a diploma for any job?

Rachel Kenyata Armour said...


I am in no way saying that a diploma is invalid, because if a child fulfills the state standards and have mastered those standards, then they should be rewarded with a diploma. First of all, when a child does not meet a particular standard in the classroom, they re "gaining proficiency." When they have achieved at least 70% on that standard, they are proficient. When they achieve a 90% or above on that standard, they have reached mastery. I am only referring to a standard such as: Use revision strategies to improve the style, variety of sentence structure, clarity of controlling idea, logic, effectiveness of word choice and transitions between paragraphs, passages or ideas..........This is a skill which can be measured through student writing samples or quizzes. We are only talking about the standards, not if student has completed X amount of assignments and attended X amount of days. I am only referring to a skill. What I am finding is that public education is not teaching standards, but teaching to the test. They also evaluated things such as following directions, behavior, etc. If we only focused on individual students' growth and mastery of subject matter, then we will have more "brown and black" people with diplomas. When we use a "standards based" achievement system, then kids are rewarded by what they know, and helped to master standards in which they are "gaining proficiency." My classroom is always set-up to motivate children to master standards, because this is what is most important. Children have to take control of their own education, and recognize when they are lacking a skill that is necessary to be successful on a standardized test, or in life. In addition, you cannot assume that Black and Brown people have less diplomas, because when you compare economically disadvantaged white children to wealthier white children, the same gaps exist. That statement is biased and really is irrelevant to what I have argued. I maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout college because I mastered the standards and demonstrated it with thesis papers, essays, and tests. If I did not study the material, I would not have passed. Also, it doesn't matter that I graduated in the top 5% of my college class. That will not determine my future acquisition of wealth or a good job. My drive and ambition will determine that. According to the Millionaire Mind, most self-made millionaires were, in fact, C students, not valedictorians. However, children are made to feel dumb and stupid if they do not receive the highest grades. Should we be tearing children down by comparing them to others, or should we be building them up by helping them master the subject matter and achieving a goal. When students can see their progress towards mastery, it motivates them to achieve greater goals in the classroom and their lives.

Roger Sweeny said...


I'm sorry I wasn't clear. My comment was directed at Corey's original post.

For example, one reason he says grades are "stupid" is that different teachers grade in different ways, so grades from different teachers mean different things. But in that case, diplomas are also "stupid" because diplomas are given out for different reasons at different places.

And yet we have no problem allowing employers to discriminate against people without diplomas. If diplomas really are stupid (for the same reasons that grades are stupid), then this would seem to be a rather unjust state of affairs.

Rachel Kenyata Armour said...

Hi Roger:

I apologize for the misunderstanding. Healthy debate is always great.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

Well, anybody should know that a person can't be judged solely by the degree they hold. But degrees are more meaningful than grades.

And the lack of meaning that can be derived from a grade is only part of the reason I don't like them.

Rachel Kenyata Armour said...

Corey, I don't know how much value degrees even have now-a-days, because there are loads of unemployed degree holders. I agree that degrees are more meaningful than a single grade. Some of my honor students and their parents were thoroughly upset because I wouldn't give them a grade for sucking up. I set high expectations and challenged them to earn a grade because of hard work, determination, and a demonstration of acquired knowledge and skills. My personal opinion did not matter because my curriculum was standards-based.

Roger Sweeny said...

But degrees are more meaningful than grades.

It would make an interesting post to justify that statement.

Let's see, how do people get degrees? By getting passing grades in enough courses. Hmmm.

Roger Sweeny said...

Well, anybody should know that a person can't be judged solely by the degree they hold.

No employer is allowed to say, "I won't accept applications from any black people, and then I'll pick and choose from the rest." She is allowed to say, "I won't accept applications from anyone without a [high school diploma, B.A., M.A. in ____], and then I'll pick and choose from the rest.

She is also allowed to say, "I won't promote anyone without a [high school diploma, B.A., M.A. in _______]."

This seems significant to me.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I still stand by both of those statements. A post justifying them sounds like a good idea.

Roger Sweeny said...

Saying grades are stupid is cool, getting to the root radical, even a bit transgressive. But to say that requiring people to go to school is stupid--or that punishing people for not going to school enough is stupid--well, that's a little too transgressive. Not cool.

Hey, why don't we spin a fantasy of school as a great, interesting place where students want to go, and which creates life-long learners. Yeah, that will square the circle.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

And I specifically pointed out that I wasn't saying that. Both in this post and the following one.

Anonymous said...

I'm a high school student and i agree with this blog entirely. Not just because i'm a teen and I just hate grades for the heck of it, because of everything above. Currently in english, our assignment is to write a persuasive sppech, I chose the topic "why students grades shouldn't be judged on grades". And that's how i stumbled across this blog. I found some interesting points that haven't occured to me, and it really got me thinking. So basically I'm just appreciating this, because I agree with it all the way.

Anonymous said...

oops, I meant "why students INTELLIFGENCE shouldn't be judged on grades". Sorry

Anonymous said...

I can really not type right now. "Intelligence". Maybe I need some spelling classes.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Thanks Allegra -- that brings the total number of people who agree with me to approximately 1. I plan on re-hashing this subject again in the near future -- maybe this time I can do it such a way that you won't be the only person in agreement.

Unknown said...

What about corruption in the education system? Professors have a degree of power over students because most marking schemes are subjective. This leaves students at the mercy of their professors' prejudice and "personal-political affiliation". What if a student is a member of a minority group, is a member of a lower social class, or even a member of a clique or club that his/her professor views as the enemy? Bad grades given for worse reasons are difficult for students to change because appeal processes go through the institution that assigned them as opposed to going through a third party. I don't want to sound like an extremist here, but I think there's more to the weak relationship with GPA and performance than what you people have been talking about, and realpolitikal theory agrees.

matt said...

grades are stupid for this reason, and before you scream at me, i only read the first paragraph.

The reason that grades are not important is because it shows that the main skill a student is being measured on is the ability to fulfill the expectations of another person. Because teachers are different, all of them, they all grade people differently, and some grade on completion, and some grade on what you did to complete it, and some grade you on whether you made an effort or not.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently at a community college with a 3.9 GPA, (Out of 4.00), 50+ Credit Hours, and about to transfer (hopefully I'll be accepted) to a top 10 engineering university. Despite my high GPA, I completely agree with you. Grades are incredibly stupid.

This is my experience, and obviously I can't speak of every college. But here is my perspective, with a description of some of the classes I've taken.

(If anyone reading this is currently in High School, know that College is about 10x the learning experience, less authoritarian, and genuinely more interesting. That being said, it still sucks.)

Social Science/Humanities/Gen Ed

DESCRIPTION: Grade will be largely based upon ones ability to vomit back what the teacher has told them. Subjective questions, i.e you must answer them from the teachers perspective. An objective, logical approach to the problems or questions may or may not work. The material will either be profoundly interesting, or absolute bull. Your grade CAN be increased simply by being in good relations with the teachers. The ability to memorize, and memorize quickly is the highest virtue. Grade may depend upon your ability to write well, and not how well you understand existentialism, behavioral disorders, or Karl Marx. Final grade depends on your professors expectations, and there is a TON of variety: Get an easy professor, easy A! Get a hard professor, very hard A!

The sad part is, no one will ever be able to tell the difference, because who you received that "A" from doesn't matter when you transfer or get a job. It's the same as receiving an "A" from an easy professor.

Hard Sciences
(Calc, Chem, Engineering classes, etc)

Despite the fact that these are the 'hard' sciences, I'm not yet convinced that the grade you receive in them is any more objective than a grade you receive in an average humanities course. Most of the time, what you're tested on represents about a small portion of what you actually learned. You might solve 150 problems per chapter, and only have 5 problems on your test. Mastering the concepts does help, and is the only thing I'm interested in, but it doesn't mean you'll get an A. In order to do that, you have to master the art of being a machine. Time is a HUGE factor in these classes. It doesn't matter if you know HOW to solve the problem, but rather if you can solve it quickly, using a method your teacher approves of. Someone who misses a problem because they do not understand the concept, and someone who misses the problem because they made a silly algebraic mistake will be punished very similarly (This pisses me off the most).

So does the fact that I have a 3.9 GPA really mean anything? I think it does, but it doesn't really shed light on anything that is actually unique or interesting about me. Here's what it really shows:

1) It shows that I know how the educational system works well enough to conform to it.
2) It shows that I have outside resources which can help me when I'm stuck.
3) It shows that I actually care enough to study hard and go to class.

I've got to stop this post somewhere, but it's difficult because I could analyze and share more insights into the system for hours, and I haven't even touched on the positive aspects of the educational system. There are good things, too.

I think I'll end by saying that if you're struggling, and your GPA is pretty rotten, it's probably not because you're an idiot. Start thinking big picture, in terms of how the educational system really works, what your teachers want, how to fulfill those requirements, how to manage time and blow small things off in favor of big things, and whether or not you really want to go through with all of this. It's all one big silly game, don't ever forget it.

Anonymous said...

love grades

marcela said...

I'm glad about this article, as I was feeling down because of getting bad grades at college. I don't think I'm stupid. I actually read a lot about medicine, history, fiction, psychology and such, and I'm always eager to acquire more knowledge... Yet even though I manage to understand and analyze the topics of the courses, what is being evaluated is your level of short-term memory. Basically we're being asked to not use our brains to think, but as USB-drives, or to even use them at all. I can attest to this because classmates at my college who get the highest grades usually can't even talk or write properly, but their short-term memory is flawless. This reality is pretty sad, because I actually wanna learn and have my knowledge be put to the test, but instead I'm being forced to simply, like you said, follow instructions and just be another pawn. So I'm just relieved to see I'm not the only one who agrees with grades being retarded, but more than grades themselves, is the criteria required to be met by students to get the good grades. It doesn't matter that the classmate who got the good grades just memorized material right before the grade (they partied all week), and I, after reading it over and over (also in 3 languages to get the overall picture), get worst grades.
It is indeed depressing having to deal with this.

Anonymous said...

"Despite the fact that these are the 'hard' sciences, I'm not yet convinced that the grade you receive in them is any more objective than a grade you receive in an average humanities course."

You're drunk, go home.


Unknown said...

What I hate about grades is the fact that every assignment and test score is permanent once it is posted. If the score supposedly measures if you learned it or not, that would mean that having a bad score means you have not learned it, thus you will never learn the topic due to the fact you can't change your score. If tests and assignments can be redone, it shows that you improved since the time you had a bad score.

Additionally, at least where I live, people treat others by what their grade is. Anyone with higher grades tend to be respected by the teachers and other students. However, anyone with lower grades are treated badly by the teacher and students. This shows how messed up grades are.

Anonymous said...

I'm in 8th grade and i'm the smartest in all of my classes by far, but i have a 2.3 GPA
Fuck grades all of you who are commenting otherwise you are wrong.