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Andrew Hecht

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Should public schools in the United States eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? And if so, what assessment do we replace it with?

In 5 months, at the age of 21, I will be graduating college from the University of Florida. Yet, it wasn't until recently that I began to realize how distorted my view of education has been for past 15 years of my life. From childhood, we are commonly "taught" (and indoctrinated) that when we receive "good grades", we are "good people" and "good students." Consequently, beginning around kindergarten, a child's self worth is defined on an "A" to "F" scale. From the perspective of a child, an "A" student is "good" and an "F" student is "bad".

This belief entirely distorts the real purpose of education. We are commonly driven to learn not for the sake of learning; but instead, we are motivated by the almighty grade. Growing up, rather than reading books for fun or curiosity, I commonly read only those books that were assigned. Rather than exploring new concepts, I stayed on the designated curriculum and track. And rather than creating new ideas after school, I completed my homework. By high school, my GPA became somewhat of a false deity, a barometer of self worth, and a ticket to future success. Sadly, a large number of my "academically successful" peers had an even more distorted view of education than I. In high school, I often saw students copying each others homework before class as a means to manipulate the system. School was not about learning, it was about recieiving high grades. In college, this same manipulation manifests itself every time I hear a student say "I'm not taking Professor X's class because it's hard and I need an "A" for grad/law/med school."

Moreover, not only does the "A" to "F" scale seem flawed but the standards we measure as well. Commonly, in public schools we measure math, science, and reading but deny the students who excel in dance, singing, painting, building, and poetry the self worth of receiving an "A" in their area of expertise.

Should pub. schools in the US eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? Is there a better way?


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    Jan 15 2012: As a high school student, everything you've said rings incredibly true. As my math teacher phrased it, we're been taught to simply "learn school" instead of to foster a lifelong love of learning. In the focus on grades, which are often ambiguous and not at all indicative of an individual's abilities, students tend to overlook that grades are simply numbers and that what really matters is the development of critical thinking and creativity.

    Here's an incredible article I recently read on this topic:
    (It's by Alfie Kohn and was originally published in "High School Magazine" in March 1999.)

    These are the major points from the article that I believe are a great summary of the dilemma with grades:
    "1. Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself...
    2. Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks...
    3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking...
    4. Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective...
    5. Grades distort the curriculum...
    6. Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning...
    7. Grades encourage cheating...
    8. Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students...
    9. Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other."

    The article continues by refuting common objections to replacing grades and by discussing routes to reform. I strongly suggest reading it to whoever's at all interested in the education system of today.

    I myself, as well as many of my current teachers with whom I've discussed this topic, believe that, although far more time intensive, replacing grades with some form of comment feedback would be significantly more beneficial to students and conducive to learning as a whole.

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