STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Does our current school grading system deserve an 'F'?

Scantron Test Form
The Review Univ. of Delaware / Flickr CC /

For decades, grading students - from A to F - has been a standard method of measuring and communicating their skill, understanding, and mastery.

But could our current system of tying students' knowledge to grades actually be doing more harm to students than good? An increasing number of educators and researchers think so.

Educator Chris Crouch wrote for The Huffington Post:

Somewhere along the line though, all parties have lost sight of what grades are supposed to represent. Depending upon who you ask you are likely to receive a wide range of responses. Teachers feel boxed in and forced to report grades, students are trapped “earning” them, and parents understand what “good” and “bad” grades mean. But none of those understandings are close to the role they were meant to play; their primary function is to communicate mastery of performance and today they do anything but that. It’s a mess.

Crouch writes that part of the reason grades are ineffective is because they are often inflated and they negatively impact the desire to learn for learning's sake.

Research shows grades also greatly affect the way students see themselves. A 2002 study at the University of Michigan found that 80% of students surveyed based their self-worth on academic performance.

And a survey of students at the University of Cape Town found that stress and fear of failing tests led to classic symptoms of procrastination and avoidance, confusion and low self-esteem, according to Slate.

Starr Sackstein is a teacher in Flushing, New York. She told KQED:

Grades have the ability to make kids feel stupid or smart, and that’s a huge power. Teachers are human, and will respond emotionally and sometimes arbitrarily to different kids and various types of work. When students define themselves positively or negatively by those judgments, they cede control over their well-being to someone — a teacher — who may not understand them. We as teachers and administrators have to be acutely aware of the kids in front of us. Their learning is all that matters.

Sackstein replaced grades in her classroom with more qualitative evaluations like one-on-one conferences, portfolios, and peer assessments.

And Sackstein isn't the only one to do so. Many teachers and schools around the U.S. are ditching traditional report cards in favor of descriptive feedback - often called standards-based grading.

Stephanie Pinkin implemented standards-based grading in her 7th grade English and language arts classroom. She wrote for Education Week:

One of the largest benefits of SBG that I am beginning to see is that my conversations with students and parents shift from “Well, what can she do to bring up her grade?” to “What are the skills and areas she should be practicing more to help her learn better?” Since implementing SBG, I have had so many more conversations focused on student learning, and fewer conversations focused on attributing a set of numbers to what a student knows.

But not everyone shares the same positive feelings about the revamped system.

When a Chicago-area school district eliminated letter grades last school year, they received intense backlash from parents who had trouble understanding the new "progress guides."

And there are those who feel letter grades do, indeed, serve a purpose. Joe McKeown is a community member on He wrote:

Just as teachers should differentiate instruction to match the needs of each child, education reformers should differentiate between the courses they mean to improve. Not all subjects are math. Some teach content as well as skills, and teachers in those subjects need to use grades to motivate students to acquire that content. Good teaching, after all, means squeezing out of students as much effort as possible on tasks that matter. Grades have always been leverage for that squeezing. They should not be for college admissions officers to judge student skill levels, and grades should not be for helping district administrators measure teachers against each other. No, teachers should be free to use grades as they always have: to indicate skill levels, to indicate mastery of course content, and to motivate students to work.

SAT scores are at their lowest level in 10 years. And recent data ranked the U.S. 29th in global education. So breaking away from the way we've been doing things may not be such a bad idea. According to Slate:

Abandoning grades would be a massive shock, but holding onto them has not forestalled decay, from waves of school closures for poor standardized test results to the trillion-dollar debt guillotine awaiting college students who'll struggle to win unpaid internships for all their hard work … Without that dysfunctional ranking we could instead form a child’s education around his or her eagerness to discover, contribute, and share. An A-to-F grade scale is only a distraction from that process and in many cases an outright deterrent. It’s time to admit that system has no place in our future.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.