The case against grades

Grades lower self-esteem, discourage creativity, and reinforce the class divide, argues Michael Thomsen on Slate.

. . .  the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.

In Ed Week’s Teacher, Kimber Larson, a sixth-grade teacher, advocates grading students on what they’ve learned, not on their behavior.

She doesn’t deduct points for late work or assign zeroes. However, “every assignment must be turned in, even if that means sacrificing their recess, special event, or class party until it’s completed.”

Instead of giving extra-credit points, she lets students redo assignments to show what they’ve learned, belatedly.

She grades only end-of-unit assessments.

It is a wonderful thing to see that my students feel safe to make mistakes as they discover, create, and grow throughout the learning process. Because I provide feedback instead of grades on their practice work and formative assessments, they aren’t focused on a score that will haunt them on their report card. The comments and corrections on practice work are much more meaningful than a grade, so they focus more on learning and appreciate the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite their stories, two or three times if necessary, to raise their grades. It was more work for the teacher, of course.

Broward County, Florida is considering eliminating the zero, making 50 the minimum grade for an uncompleted assignment.

Should grades be abolished? Based on learning rather than behavior?

About Joanne


  1. gahrie says:

    Problem: Too many kids are failing because they don’t do their work, and get zeros.

    Solution: Stop giving zeros!

    Yeah that will solve the problem. Let us not try to find a way to convince the students to do their work, make an honest effort and practice newly learned skills and hold them accountable with real consequences.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    ***Broward County, Florida is considering eliminating the zero, making 50 the minimum grade for an uncompleted assignment.***

    The article says that they’re just changing the scale so that the F-range is the same size as the other ranges (10 points, from 50-59).

    They must have had some strange teachers… because all of the teachers that I remember made a hard distinction between an F and a zero. A zero was a zero, and an F was an F.

    Now a zero is, apparently, an F.

    Hmmm. Metaphysics.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And more relevant to the point of this post… I happen to agree that most assignments shouldn’t be graded. Or, rather, they should be “graded” in the sense that they should be given a grade, but most assignments’ grades shouldn’t be recorded.

    You can get rid of grades ENTIRELY, but that starts to produce new problems. Really, there’s nothing wrong with having a “Pass/No Pass” system. The quality and worth of the “pass” designation will depend entirely on the rigor of your program.

    They don’t give “grades” in SEAL training, do they? (I honestly don’t know, though I suspect not.) I think they just fail out the people who can’t cut it.

    In other words, a “pass” will be more valuable depending on how many people *don’t* pass.

    Then the question just becomes, if you want to get rid of grades, how many people are you willing not to pass? Or, alternatively, are you willing to have your “pass” designation be pretty much meaningless?

    It’s a tough row to hoe, balancing these things. The compromise is grades — high passes, low passes… enough people “pass” but there’s still a way to make the program worth something at the high ends.

    So those are your choices:

    • momof4 says:

      I think the objective, in this case, is the opposite of washing out those who don’t pass; it’s about enabling the pretense of equally successful outcomes, in defiance of the hard fact that kids differ widely in ability, preparation and motivation.

  4. Lets equate this with the real world (which academia isn’t), and tell the student:

    You didn’t turn in your assignment, so you get a zero for it.

    IMO, you don’t show up for work, in most cases, you don’t get paid for that day’s work. If you fail to show up enough, you get fired.

    If you routinely fail to do your assigned duties at work, you’ll be warned, written up, and ultimately fired.

    IMO, why should a teacher give a grade of 50% to a student who turns in no work at all (what does that say to the students who actually do the work, oh, we won’t do it and we’ll still get 50% credit).

    The awarding of 50% for a uncompleted assignment (i.e. – one that isn’t turned in) is more feel good self esteem malarky, IMO.

    • gahrie says:

      We tried the no zero, 50% for no work idea in my district last year. The teachers hated it, and the students loved it, for obvious reasons.

  5. I teach middle school history.
    The problem I have with accepting late work is that how do I know the student work is actually their work. Numerous times I have seen students take another students work, copy it word for word and then turn it in as their own because their teacher will accept anything weeks late. That’s why I don’t accept any more work once I have passed back that assignment.
    I also had students tell me that if an assignment will not be collected or graded that they will just refuse to do it. Thus, no learning is done.
    Also grades also make self-esteem rise. I have seen failing students be so proud of themselves for their first B or A in a class. Grades are like a student’s paycheck, Should I be upset that Bill Gates makes more money than me or that I make only a certain amount a year? If I make only 25k a year, should the government give me more money because my feelings are sad and I can’t get that new BMW?

  6. Patti W. says:

    Abolishing the 0 is a mistake because it only inflates the grades you do give. Abolishing the F or the C does the same thing. If you want to get rid of letters, switch to scale scoring based on standards.

    I believe in letting kids take the time they need to learn. In math I grade by standard, so a kid either gets the standard or not. If the kid doesn’t get it, he or she gets lots of time through remediation and intervention if necessary. Kids can retake assessments as much as they like as long as they can show me what they did to learn the things they didn’t get. They don’t always get it, but I’m not going to stop them from trying repeatedly just because it’s convenient for me. Math kids get homework and they are expected to do it, but it’s a completion grade only because they are still practicing and need to be unafraid to make mistakes. I show my students the correlation between doing homework and the number of standards mastered on the first try to help them make the connection.

    In science we’re still grading by points at my school, but kids can retake assessments as many times as they like with proof of remediation. Sometimes this turns into a point grab, which is why I prefer grading by standard.

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    At some point you are either competent or you’re not. You either retain the skills and information necessary or you don’t. You can read or you can’t. You’re numerate or you’re not.

    The world will find a way to provide that feedback. It’s much kinder to have educators communicate the truth accurately before the world does it instead.

  8. Crimson Wife says:

    In most of my high school classes, students who scored less than a C on a test or paper were permitted to re-do it. However the maximum possible grade on a re-test/revision of a paper was a C. The idea behind it was that teachers did not want students to give up.

  9. momof4 says:

    One of the big problems I see with grades comes from the push for equal outcomes, regardless of preparation, ability or motivation, and the use of a heavily-weighted homework grade to compensate for weak grades on tests and quizzes. My kids have had teachers who counted homework so heavily that kids who never had test/quiz grades above C, and most below C, could get As on their report card because of completed and correct homework (done by whom?), while giving Bs to kids with all high As on tests/quizzes but incomplete (but correct) homework file; in honors classes (school had general, college prep, honors and AP). In my book, that’s dishonest and fraudulent. In addition, kids who can routinely ace tests without doing all the homework shouldn’t be required to do all of it, since they obviously know the material, because it’s a waste of their time. Let them move on to more challenging material. There’s a huge difference between kids failing because they don’t do their work and kids who demonstrably don’t need the work, but schools aren’t interested in challenging the latter.

    • gahrie says:

      “My kids have had teachers who counted homework so heavily that kids who never had test/quiz grades above C, and most below C, could get As on their report card ”

      My district has mandated that sumative assessments have to be 70% of the grade, and formative assignments can be a maximum of 30% of the grade.

      “There’s a huge difference between kids failing because they don’t do their work and kids who demonstrably don’t need the work, but schools aren’t interested in challenging the latter.”

      In my experience, I have so many of the former to deal with, that I have very little time to deal with the latter.

      • momof4 says:

        Very likely; those kids are ignored on a large scale. They are casualties of the mainstreaming/full-inclusion movement, removal of leveled classes and of dumbed-down state/county testing; since they will get a “high” pass on tests that do not discriminate at the top, their needs are ignored. Even worse, they get pushed into “peer tutoring” (unpaid, of course),

  10. cranberry says:

    The author wrote: Yet, there’s reason to believe the structure of grading students is the biggest culprit in America’s long, steady decline in education—SAT reading scores are at a 40-year low, and one recent study ranked the U.S. 17th in education, worse than Poland, Canada, Ireland, South Korea, and Denmark.

    …which statement made me scratch my head with confusion, as he presents no proof that grades cause lower SAT scores. I’m pretty sure Canada, Ireland, South Korea and Denmark grade students in school.

    In other words, this is a screed arising from belief. If you want to believe it, fine, but you’ll have to summon up some halfway decent argument to stop grading. It’s rather cruel, in my opinion, to leave students without any feedback on the quality of their classwork.

    I don’t recall receiving any grades on homework, and I think grading homework contributes greatly to depressing boys’ academic success. In the ideal school, students would do homework because success in the classroom the next day, before one’s peers, would depend upon reading the reading and working through the problem sets. I belief that’s how Exeter’s system works.

    No rational person should accept the argument heard so often in circles (like France!) that homework favors children from functional families (i.e., the “class divide,”) and thus, one must ban homework. If someone is stuck in a deep hole, the answer is not to ban ladders. Education has traditionally been one way out of poverty. Can we not find a way to bolster children’s self esteem through real success at school?

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      A requirement of homework does favor kids from functional families.

      But so does a requirement of anything else.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Yes. Yes, they do.

        That is a very important truth. It is also a truth most people don’t want to think about. Because the implications are so unpleasant to modern sensibilities.

        So we think happy thoughts instead. And feel better. And continue to fail.

  11. My children’s middle school used the 1/3 hw, 1/3 tests&quizzes, 1/3 participation grading system. The grade didn’t reflect much of what my children had learned, but it sure said a lot about how disorganized and political their teachers were. Lots of stories of students who were good in math, but not poltically connected enough to get into honors math — most refused to do the hw, aced the tests, and ended up with a 67.

    If there was anything extracurricular going on, the children were bombed with homework. Evening band or chorus concert? Count on homework of: a 3 page DBQ, 50 pages of a lit novel, a review packet in math and science and a poster for foreign language plus a science test and a math test the next day. Yes, my kids showed up without all that work done and the grade recorded was an “I” not a zero. I think the ‘team’ needs to sit down with a calendar and work together in many schools. Stop blaming the student for not staying up to the wee hours in order to do busywork. I would have been happier if my kid actually had a week’s notice and no busywork before a test so he could actually learn to study. I would have been even happier to punt all the ‘make a poster about yourself’ projects that consumed the study time.

  12. I guess I should also mention that I had no homework in K-12. I had a study hall and was expected to use it wisely. I had a lot of classwork, and teachers did not chit-chat with us about their personal lives, or ours. Evening time should be reserved for study, not used for busywork.

  13. Obi-Wandreas says:

    In my district, it has long been policy that for middle school and above, the lowest grade allowable on a report card is 50. For elementary level students, it is a 70.

    And, yes, it does have precisely the effect that one would expect such a brain-dead stupid policy to have. The 7th grade class we were handed this year was 85% below grade level in math, and 90% below grade level in ELA. In other words, for every 20 students in your class, there were only three who actually belonged there.

    These students have never faced a scenario in which they actually have to perform before moving on. They think they can play around all day while someone else does the work – because this is precisely what has been taught.

    The district’s reasoning is that prior to these policies, you had too many students failing and being far older than their classmates. Now, instead of a relatively few number falling far behind, being behind is the norm, but the dingbat paper pushers don’t have to deal with the results. The kids and their parents literally have absolutely no clue how many years behind they are, and most feel no desire to find out or fix the problem. If you want to know why I so oppose using test scores in evaluations, there you go.

    I liken it to the cliche about the days when we were cruel to pregnant teenagers: when you punish deviant behavior you get less of it. In the real world, people who can’t get the job done are replaced by those who can. By the time these kids actually get to learn that lesson, it will be too late. That is gutlessness and child abuse masquerading as compassion.

    • I 100% agree

    • momof4 says:

      As my father used to say; “If you want less of something, tax it and if you want more of something, subsidize it.” Our current situation provides many examples of both policies.

  14. Ann in L.A. says:

    There are three issues here. The first is allowing students to correct their work, so a zero–or a low score–never happens. This is a powerful way to learn. Seeing your mistakes, whether in math, writing, science, etc. and learning how to do it correctly is one of the best ways to learn. We hear often that we learn from our mistakes, but if you are never given the opportunity to correct those mistakes, the learning opportunity gets missed. In that sense, there is no need for zeros…if you have students who are willing to work and rework their work.

    The second issue is grade inflation for self-esteem reasons. If students aren’t allowed to get a bad grade because it would damage their self-esteem, that seems like it would backfire. Self-esteem comes from achievement and overcoming obstacles, not from the removal of all chances for achievement and all obstacles.

    The third is the competitive drive that some students feel, which is often based on grading. Remove grading, and those students who thrive on grades will lose a powerful motivation. Not all students freak out at grades.

    • I agree about self grading. My 14 year old grades her own daily work and even tests and quizzes. It’s been a powerful tool in terms of her taking responsibility for her learning. She corrects her wrong answers and generally considers it a problem when she’s under 90% because mastery of her subjects is her goal. My 11 year old son isn’t there yet but we approach grades as an opportunity to master material and only valuable in that context.

      Some work doesn’t get graded. Writing is critiqued, history is discussed, etc. Grades are useful when they relate directly to right and wrong work but when it comes to things like essays I think they can take the place of effective feedback. I remember the frustration of getting back essays in a particular English class in highschool that were consistantly marked 14/20 and having only a vague idea of what the 20 represented and no idea of how to improve.

      They’re a tool. Their value depends of how they’re used.

  15. I agree that learning is not about having high scores and so on. Learning at school is also about learning to have a good attitude. I use to frequently remind my kids to always remember ASK. A = Attitude, S = Skills, K = Knowledge. Those three should always come together when it comes to developing yourself.