Why Grades are Bullshit

I hate things that are pointless. I mean, what’s the purpose of these subjective numbers we use to assign value to a task? They do not mean anything. Letter grades do not even really mean anything. A student who is going to do well in my class gets an A, a student who just wants a credit gets a D. There isn’t really too much in between. So I go through these motions just so we can report the level of effort back to a district who needs a number/letter they understand for a transcript.

Ignoring the subjective nature of grades in general…

Let’s say I take 2–3 points off an assignment for formatting, typos, grammar, spelling, whatever; I still take the time to write to the student why I took those points off. In most cases, they already know they did it right? They rush, they get sloppy, it does not matter to them, whatever the reason…We have to let them know why they lost points and even though they know why, if we do not tell them, they ask (even though if they looked over their submission they would already know). Some hope I will miss it, or look over it; when they get called on it some will ask to fix the issue for those extra 2 points, but it was worth the attempt to get away with less work. I get that. My point is, they will already have my written feedback on what they did wrong. For those who want to do the bare minimum for a credit, they do not care about the feedback they just want to be done and put it behind them, other than to know that they are performing at a minimum level to get by. It is a waste of my time, and theirs. Grades enable and encourage that game.

Even Spider-Man buys into the system

I also know that those games people play to get credit (even Pass/Fail) is rigged toward the privileged who know how to play; and they will be just fine regardless of grade. Their parents knew how to play it and none of it is reflective of human connection, socialization, insight, or academics. The credit, grade, time are just hurdles or tasks that we have people jump over that keep marginalized communities down.

Even Standards Based Grading, which I think gets us closer to something real that measures ability is still a problem, we still assign a level for the purposes of reporting credit, the feedback is just more relevant and detailed in those reporting periods. In my two decades plus of teaching students who struggle, those with disabilities, those from marginalized communities, I have met very few that would not ultimately be capable of doing any of the things I ask well. But we’re driven by Carnegie units, credits, and grades. For those who truly cannot, their pathways for career and society are already largely set. They get Pass/Fail options, modified graduation requirements, social promotion, etc. For those who know how to form the relationships needed to get ahead, if they have the motivation/privilege, then they will land in their own roles. There are countless examples of straight, white males who continue to fail upwards and gain promotions and raises throughout their career because that’s just what happens in corporate America for those in the dominant culture. The research on people moving between socio/economic barriers doesn’t lead me to believe that very many can change these predetermined societal roles, or economic status.

Grades are part of the fiction, the mass delusion we use to keep some semblance of order. Structures and systems comfort the masses. This is part of why COVID-19 shutdowns of schools freaked out so many to the point where they demand that schools reopen as normal even though the research coming out about reopenings is showing us that schools in fact are mass spreaders as well and that students are efficient transmitters of the virus. When the narrative is disrupted we freak out, we have anti-maskers, people gathering in spite of what science tells us. Demands to go back to the system from which they benefited. These same vocal activists had little to say when graduation rates in Minnesota for students of color was the worst in the nation; or when biased testing, and lack of access to honors/AP courses was the norm. Schools even handed out credits for minimal amount of effort when it was white suburban kids who started to struggle with how to play the new game that would actually have them demonstrate mastery of a skill. We could have used the time to connect people, to teach, to create experiences in new ways (that by the way, where happening for decades in true online learning programs), but we focused on all of the wrong things and not what COVID-19 taught us about what was bullshit about the whole system and how inherent the inequities are, and will become further cemented as we transition back to “normal”.

So, even though I don’t think grades mean anything, I give them to dozens of kids a day because in the end, we are providing a service to the districts the students come from as well as the students we serve. It’s part of our contract with society, we keep learners in their predetermined tracks and roles that our white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic system demands of us. Disrupting that system is impossible without a competing narrative people can live in and share. More and more are waking up to just how pervasive the inequities are, but is it enough to change our ways? I suspect not. When are we going to be disrupted to this degree again and have the chance for change? It’s the slow gradual incrementalism that wears on me. We have the knowledge to do better and we don’t.

I feel like a sellout every time I have to enter points into a gradebook. What I value about teaching is the back and forth, the experience, the connections, the conversations, the improvements learners make throughout their time with me, and I see enough of it to keep me going. I just try to put all that stuff above out of my head because it’s part of the mass narrative about how we measure kids. And that form of measurement is destructive to individuals, communities, and society.

By Jon Fila

Jon is a Curriculum Coordinator/Teacher/Innovation Coach/Consultant/OER Strategist who focuses on equity issues (accessibility, racial, gender). He has worked in education for over twenty years. He has been making his own stuff for a long time.

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