K-12 DIGEST: Is the grading system too big and too dangerous to change?

The Washington Post reports today on the growing number of school districts nationwide going away from letter grading as marks of achievement or learning.  

“A grade should represent learning, not behavior,” said Nick Hoover, principal of Cantwell’s Bridge Middle School in the Appoquinimink District in Delaware, which is just starting an overhaul of its own policies. “Look at someone who gets a B. It could be an A student who turned in work late, or a student who averages out at 88 percent in academic work but turns in work on time. That grade doesn’t really represent how much that student has learned.” He added, “We still want to report behavior” — meaning punctuality and other parts of performance — but said it shouldn’t shape how a student is judged on a transcript.

The concept aligns with colleges and universities moving away from standardized testing as a predictive model of college readiness and the growing number of states looking to underwrite career and technical training for a population increasingly hesitant about or hindered from going to college

While test scores, grades, attendance, or class participation aren’t indicators of intelligence or learning, they are great tools for governments who need numbers and stats to justify spending or budget cuts. They are helpful for districts looking to boast about how public education performance is a quality of life metric to invite high earners to relocate to specific cities and counties and for businesses to follow suit. 

But abandoning grades also encourages a merit-based system to increase its stealth in finding talent and validating that talent through data-based consensus. Policies like this will only drive students from more affluent homes to private schools where grades are being used, which will change the chemistry and calculus for how selective institutions determine who gets in and who doesn’t. That still leaves students from low-earning homes and under-resourced districts without a chance to compete: see the struggles of the University of Texas and its merit-based admissions programming.

It also gives power to the idea of companies, especially in tech, looking to skip school training altogether and using their resources to train future workers. From the Brookings Institute

In setting out the reasons for State involvement in public education, however, similar imperatives can be identified, suggesting there may be space for collaborative alignment. While corporations are concerned with workforce training, States also have an interest in attracting corporate investment based on an educated population. The capitalization of education by the technology sector has parallels to the capitalization of public schooling in providing a taxpaying and compliant citizenry in the 19th century—a half century before Lowe’s concern with educating new democratic masters, the British had sponsored the schooling of an administrative class of colonial subjects through the East India Company’s General Committee on Public Instruction (see David Lundie’s forthcoming book, School Leadership: Between Community and the State, London: Palgrave Macmillan).

Society is learning that grades are designed to separate the haves from the have-nots and wants to right the wrongs of the past. But is the system so broken that even attempting to fix it poses more significant problems than the disrepair itself?

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