Grades Under Fire

To use a standard letter grade or not to use a standard letter grade? That is the question that educators have debated for a long time. That question is also addressed in many courses at Black Hill State University, but it’s hard for the professors to answer. Letter grades are standard at most universities, and they should be.

Dr. Andy Johnson, Associate Director of CAMSE and assistant professor in the school of natural sciences at BHSU, started an open discussion with his students about this issue when he gave an analogy to his survey of physics class. Johnson said that peaches were graded either A, B or C based on appearance, ripeness, and size. Johnson compared this with the way students are given a grade. He said that students are graded via tests, quizzes, and homework instead of being graded on progress and how much they’ve learned through the course of a semester. He then asked the students, “Is it okay to do to people the same thing we do to peaches?”

Students aren’t peaches. Student grading can’t be compared to peach grading because peaches can’t consciously improve themselves — students can.

One of the arguments against using standard letter grades is that the system gives top-performing students privileges. Receiving good grades means these students have access to better graduate schools, better jobs, and higher salaries than students with lower grades. It’s an argument for fairness.

Life isn’t fair. How many students with a 4.0 GPA haven’t had to work hard for it? Not very many, according to an Illinois Wesleyan University undergraduate study by Paul Oehrlein. For every one point GPA increase, salary increases by almost $4000. Students with a high GPA deserve this kind of access to bigger and better things. If a student is willing to put in the time and effort required to maintain a high grade, he or she should be rewarded with more opportunities and better jobs.

What happens when you take away the traditional grading system? Students lose out. Here’s a look at a hypothetical student named Dave who was a good student all through high school. He started college at a school that gave pass/fail and feedback entries instead of letter grades. Dave did well, passed everything, and got great feedback. He graduated from college and tried to enter the job market but didn’t have much luck. Why is this? Well, how many potential employers want to wade through a pile of feedback entries when they can move on to a person who has a simple GPA on their resume?

This is not to say that feedback is unimportant. Professor Y.K. Ip from the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore wrote that when students know they are doing well it gives them a “sense of achievement which motivates them to learn more.”

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and everyone is good — and bad — at something. Constructive criticism and feedback are important tools and should be used liberally by every teacher. Feedback tells students where they are doing well and where they are struggling so they have a chance to improve.

If students get feedback throughout a class and they still get a low grade because they didn’t work on their weak areas, that’s the student’s fault. There are tons of resources out there for students to use to help better themselves. Most teachers are more than willing to give extra help, tutors are available, and the Internet is full of free classes and tutorials. If students fail to take advantage of feedback and available resources, then they deserve a lower grade.

Yes, the traditional grading system is a social construct, but it is currently the accepted method. Grading is the standard, and it should continue to be the standard – along with helpful feedback.

People aren’t peaches, and people aren’t graded like peaches. They are graded like the individuals they are — strengths, weaknesses and all.