Grades Are Making Kids Dumber

The A-F grading scale may not only reflect mediocrity, it may be causing it.

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he story of the modern education system begins some time in the 1800’s. Unlike the expectation in classrooms across America, you don’t need to know the exact date. There won’t be a test at the end of this article. But if there was, would it change how you read this article? Would you pay more attention to key dates and names? After all, you clicked on this article not expecting a test. Maybe you clicked on it because the title intrigued you. You were able to choose what it was you wanted to read. And so, hopefully, you read through to the end, learning something that you may not have known before. And THAT should be the goal of education in America, not getting a good grade.

Unfortunately, far too much emphasis has been placed on “getting good grades” in our modern education system, and not enough on “learning”. Think about all of the signals that students receive telling them that grades are important: rewards from teachers, rewards from parents/no punishment from parents, better shot at college and therefore life, et cetera. Everywhere they turn, there’s an extrinsic reward waiting for them should they receive “good grades”. There is often a direct line drawn between grades and how your life turns out!! Could the stakes be any higher? But very rarely does the education system emphasize learning for the sake of being more knowledgeable, or better prepared to take on a career. This can be evidenced, again, by the above extrinsic reasons, but also by the constant focus on progress reports and report cards, top ten or twenty student recognition ceremonies, and the annual crowning of a Valedictorian. How many graduating Seniors could actually teach content to underclassmen? After all, wouldn’t that be a better indicator of knowledge learned, and perhaps more importantly, retained?

Think about that language class you took in 10th grade. Did you retain those skills into your 11th grade year? If you truly learned Spanish as a Sophomore, then you would still know how to speak Spanish a year or two or ten later. What likely happened instead is that you memorized the words and phrases that were drilled into your brain by the teacher. You learned Spanish by rote, and knew what was important based on study guides and the ever present concern, “Is this going to be on the test?” Then you figured out exactly what you needed to do to ace the test, and chances are, with a little effort and practice, you did pretty well on the test. Had your concern been the practical application of Spanish in your life now instead of getting an A then, you might speak Spanish fluently. The extrinsic reward made you dumber than you might have been.

The idea that a percentage based system should inform the letter grade at all is a construct of big education — it’s a way for school districts and universities to factory farm students and brand them with a letter, indicating the student’s worth to an organization.

Jumping Through Hoops

Grades are also not necessarily a reflection of what a student has learned, rather it could be a better measure of what hoops they jumped through. Teachers have a lot of students to teach and then assess. They don’t have time to truly discover if the student is motivated by a grade or something more intrinsic. This is not their fault, after all, school districts are placing greater burdens on teachers through class sizes and time consuming administrivia. This burden is often passed on from state legislators to the district and then on to the teachers (but that’s another article). So, teachers have their own hoops and need a shortcut to say that little Johnny did what he needed to do to pass the class. It could be that it’s easier to grade completion than comprehension sometimes. Although a well developed assignment and assessment should take care of that. Regardless, grades like A through F are indicative of how a student is doing in the class, but that’s only because we’ve all been conditioned to understand them as such. Letter grades A-F are completely arbitrary and don’t tell us anything other than the meaning we’ve assigned to them.

According to Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, the first comprehensive letter grading system appeared in Massachusetts at Mount Holyhoke College in 1897. While this system was a bit more conservative (E, not F, was anything below 75%), it has remained largely unchanged. That’s right, we are using a model for grading that is over 120 years old. In most schools the scale goes something like this: A means Excellent, B means Above Average, C means Average, D means Below Average, and F means Failing. The problem with such a system, besides skipping E for some reason, is that it doesn’t really tell stakeholders what the student is “excellent” at. In some cases, it could mean that they are excellent at turning in work. This would be true in a case where students are graded for just doing the homework, and not as much on whether the answers were correct. Or when a student might have completed some extraneous assignment that boosts their overall grade, but doesn’t contribute to their comprehension of the subject.

And if a student received an A for Excellent, was their work truly Excellent? Or was it, as is more likely, Average which would result in a C? A student who does all of their work on time and writes the average report on The Constitution, would vehemently argue their case for an A, but again, that’s only because of the value we’ve assigned to getting the letter A printed on a report card. But alas, this is the dilemma (read: goal) of many a student — an A at the risk of learning nothing in the class is better than a C at retaining much more from the class. Clearing the hoop to get the A becomes the goal.

Cheaters Usually Prosper

A “win at all costs” mentality creates a problem. When an A is the goal, reason is often abandoned. Students often celebrate earning their A, but bemoan being given the teacher’s F. If the grade is good, they earned it. If the grade is bad, they were given it. Again, the focus shifts from learning to the extrinsic reward. And like a grade junkie, they will often do anything to get a taste of that A.

There are generally three kinds of students — The first are those with a strong sense of morals who will stress about an A, stay up late doing homework, stay after for tutoring, and make any other effort to pursue that precious letter grade. The second kind of student are those without a strong moral sense who will simply cheat to get it. And the third kind are those who started with a strong moral sense, but quickly abandoned it when the homework and tutoring didn’t pay off. Perhaps this is an oversimplification. Regardless, in all of the cases it can lead to stressed out and overworked students. Additionally in all of the cases, it could be possible to get an A and not have earned it or learned it. According to Donald McCabe of Rutgers, a survey of 24,000 students at 70 high schools found that 58% of students admitted to plagiarism, 64% of students admitted to cheating on a test, and 95% said they participated in some form of cheating. 95 percent!! Cheating isn’t an isolated incident — it’s the norm.


Another issue at play in how ineffective grades are, is the percentages that grades are based on. If you look at the breakdown of most grading scales in use across the United States, it is some variation of this:

  • 90–100 = A
  • 80–89 = B
  • 70–79 = C
  • 60–69 = D
  • 0–59 = F

Why on Earth does an F occupy nearly sixty points on the scale, with each of the other grades only taking up less than ten? If we all agree this is the system we’re going to use, why make it very difficult to achieve the coveted A, and much easier to get the dreaded F? A more equitable scale using grades might look something like this:

  • 80–100 = A
  • 60–79 = B
  • 40–59 = C
  • 20–39 = D
  • 0–19 = F

While the above percentage based scale evenly distributes the letter grades, critics might argue that even if you do your work less than half of the time, or complete only half of the assignments, you’re still getting a C. The idea that a percentage based system should inform the letter grade at all is a construct of big education — it’s a way for school districts and universities to factory farm students and brand them with a letter, indicating the student’s worth to an organization. It’s also shorthand for the quality of education an organization is providing. Which means that there are schools and districts that may be tempted to massage the data in order to be crowned a “blue ribbon school” or given the distinction of being an “A” school. These grades matter to school districts because schools that have more A’s are perceived as being better and are likely to get a better grade from the state. That designation can mean the difference between increasing or declining enrollment, funding increases or decreases from the government, and a reputation in the community as being a “good” or “bad” school. A district’s poor report card can be an existential threat. So, not only are students consumed by the grades they get, so too are the districts.

Doing Our Homework

The result of all this is that our kids aren’t learning as much as we think they’re learning. How can a university or employer know what a student knows? We’ve all agreed that this is what an A or F should tell them, but in reality it does not necessarily tell us that.

The solution to this problem is to create a system that doesn’t pit students against each other by ranking them, doesn’t reduce their knowledge to a letter, and doesn’t incentivize cheating. It would also require students to be given more autonomy in their education. After all, a popular mantra in education is for students to “own their education”. We know that a student interested in Music and who chose it as an elective may try harder than they might in a core class they are forced to take. If they are disinterested or find it irrelevant, get a bad grade, then they dislike the subject even more. It’s a cyclical problem.

The answer to understanding what a student knows and how they know it requires us to understand all these interrelated parts and how it affects students. It requires us to do our homework, to be divergent thinkers, and to come up with some big ideas. You know, all the things we expect our students to do. Implementing a system that solves such problems would require a complete overhaul of the grading system in this country, among other interrelated elements of Education. Those responsible for making such changes likely don’t want to wade into this debate or try to enact such a huge systemic change if it’s working for them in its present form.

A better system might be one that creates a clearer picture of what a student knows. It would necessitate a change in formative and summative assessments, e.g. cancelling finals and having end of year portfolios or interviews (think defending a thesis or dissertation). A student would then be deemed Proficient (P) or Unproficient (U). You can’t really “kinda know” Algebra, can you? This would look different for classes in which the assessment might include a touch more subjectivity from the teacher; Ceramics, Theatre, et cetera. But in either case, the students must demonstrate the intricacies of a subject, show its application outside of the classroom, and be able to take the reins from the instructor by teaching the subject themselves. No teacher goes into education with the goal of promoting mediocrity. However, the system within which they find themselves may be doing just that.

So if the goal of education is more than just disseminating information, then we have to create a way of grading that is worthy of the responsibility many educators feel to help guide young problem solvers and develop free thinkers, not worksheet doers.


In what year was the first comprehensive grading scale developed?

Writer. Kris received his MA from Ball State University. Twitter: @kristopherowens. Website:

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