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Do Grades Do Any Good?

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Updated on Mar 12, 2009

Every parent wants to boast that his or her child is “a straight A student,” “at the top of her class,” or “on the honor roll.” What generally determines this prized status? Grades. Most often, report cards are the primary means of measuring a child’s progress through school. Doing “well” in school is measured by a series of letters on a piece of paper: A is great; B is ok; C, not so great; and D or F? You’re grounded! Some parents reward children for good grades, ascribing a monetary value to each good letter, or taking away privileges for each bad one. For many families, the grade is the goal.

But what do those letters really mean? And do they really do any good?

Many researchers, educators and parents are now questioning the purpose and effectiveness of grades. Certainly parents deserve to know how their children are doing in school, and students benefit from understanding how they are performing; but how that progress is communicated can have a great impact on how a child learns.

Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” and Punished by Rewards, writes extensively about the influence of grades on learning. We asked him to articulate how grades impact a student’s education, as well as what adults can do to minimize the negative effects.

What effect does handing out grades have upon the student when it comes to motivation and learning outcomes?

Kohn: The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades – or leading them to focus on what grade they’ll get. First, their interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks – not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion – and to forget what they learned more quickly – when grades are involved.

To put it positively, students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply. The evidence on all of these effects is very clear, and it seems to apply to students of all ages.

As far as I can tell, there are absolutely no benefits of giving grades to balance against these three powerful negative consequences – except that doing so is familiar to us and doesn’t take much effort.

What makes the process of grading so problematic-- is it that the concept of grading is intrinsically unreliable or that it is misused by teachers?

Kohn: This is a question I wish more people would ask! There’s a tendency to assume that any negative effects – of grades or other things – must be limited to the details of implementation. Thus, all we have to do is figure out how to grade “more effectively” and the harms will vanish. With grades, this appears not to be the case. The problem is inherent to reducing what students have done – and, by extension, reducing the students themselves – to letter or number ratings.

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