Why Do We Get Grades in School?

Why Do We Get Grades in School?

October 17, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


We all remember the dreaded end of semester
Armageddon known as “report card day.” But why do we get letter grades in school
at all? So getting grades is a big part of the way
we view education with A’s equaling success while F’s represent the dreaded failure. Students are taught early on that to get ahead
in life, and be smart and successful, the best foundation is getting perfect report
cards in school. Grades can help us get into advanced courses
and competitive colleges, and certain exams can grant us licenses to practice different
trades and professions. But outside of the nagging question about
why we skipped over the E grade, have you ever wondered: When were the first grades
given and why? Well if you want to blame someone, it appears
that the first grades date back to Yale president Ezra Stiles in 1785. He wrote in his diary that there were 58 students
present at his examination and that their grades were “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second
Optimi, 12 Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores.” These are usually noted as the first college
grades ever assigned. In Yale’s 1813-1839 “Record of Examinations”
students’ averages were noted in the book by the Senior Tutor of the Class on a scale
of 4, which may be responsible for the 4.0 scale commonly used today. In 1817 the faculty reports from William and
Mary College groups students into 4 categories “No 1 the first in their respective classes,
No 2 Orderly, correct, and attentive, No. 3 They have made very little improvement,
No. 4 They have learnt little or nothing.” Ouch. That’s a major teacher burn. But the four point scale wasn’t really standardized
throughout the 19th century. Harvard tried a 100 point scale and a 20 point
scale. Yale later tried a 9 point scale. So until 1850 it was normal for grades to
vary in terms of number systems, and weight. In US colleges professors used descriptive
adjectives to assign value rather than relying on the numbers alone. But by 1883 there is a report on a Harvard
professor giving a student a “B” grade, which is when letters got incorporated into
the act. In 1886 Harvard Faculty Records show that
professors began grouping students into 5 classes based on performance. Similar 5 point systems spread to places like
Yale, and Mount Holyoke, the latter of which adopted the first letter grade system in 1897. But a failing grade was marked as an “E”
and not an “F”. Over time the E was dropped and the standard
system across US colleges became 5 points all represented by letters A, through D, and
F. But the meanings of grades and the systems for recording them often shifted in the late
nineteenth and early 20th centuries Ok so we’ve established that if we want
somewhere to point the finger of blame for why we received stressful grades in school,
and why a less than stellar score on a 6th grade pop quiz gave me heart palpitations,
we can start with a bunch of 19th century college professors. But the more important questions is: why are
we still getting grades in school today? Those guys are dead. So they’re useful for determining class
ranking, they help teachers group students into categories, and they can also be instrumental
in whether or not you can enter into certain jobs. But because I’m sure a lot of us are still
suffering from post report card induced stress, we have to ask the most pressing questions:
do grades really matter? And are they actually effective tools for
helping students learn? Well the answer to the first question “do
grades really matter” is kind of complex and has to be broken down a bit to get to
the heart of it. Because it seems that the importance of your
grades depends on the path you decide to take. Although we’re taught that grades are the
strongest predictor of success in life, this isn’t uniformly true. The issue with grades is that they consider
averages, which gives you the most usual outcome but not the full picture. An average doesn’t consider the outliers,
but rather the collective information from a certain group. History is actually filled with successful
people who didn’t finish college or even high school: Magic Johnson, Anna Wintour,
Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Oprah Winfrey to name a few, and none of these people did
too shabbily in the life success department. Also having perfect grades in high school
doesn’t always predict future game changers. Karen Arnold of Boston University conducted
a study in which she followed 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians. She found that the majority of them continued
being successful at school later in life. 95% earned college degrees with an average
GPA of 3.6, 60% went to graduate school, 90% are in professional jobs, and 40% are in the
highest tiers of those jobs. This is because a high GPA reflects skills
like being prompt, working really hard, following directions and being well rounded. All important skills for high level careers. But Arnold found that although most of her
former high school valedictorians and salutatorians were “strong occupational achievers” none
had entered into roles she would consider “visionary” because the grades we receive
in school are designed to reward conformity and following the rules, rather than creative
thinking or specialization. For example if you’re really great at history
(shout out to our audience members) but you still want to be ranked number 1, you eventually
will have to put that history textbook on the back burner to study other subjects and
earn the coveted “A” in every field. Having a high GPA is usually indicative of
being a generalist, not a specialist. Arnold posits that most people who become
ground breakers are actually rewarded for creative thinking, a unique specialization,
and a focus on an intellectual passion, things that don’t always get rewarded with grades. As a result a lot of people who become successful
later in life often struggle in school. But a 2002 study at the University of Michigan
still found that 80 percent of students based their self-worth on how well they were doing
in school and students with lower grades reported having lower self-esteem and health. So that brings us to the next question: do
grades really help students learn? Although grades have long been considered
the standard approach in education, some experts are turning away from letter based systems. One of the biggest critics of the fixation
on grades in schools is education expert Alfie Kohn. Kohn notes:
“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged
to try to improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid
challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and
think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded…That’s why the best teachers and schools replace
grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports – qualitative accounts of student
performance – or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.” Teachers also report that grading is becoming
increasingly stressful, as grade inflation puts added pressure on them to deliver the
grades that students want and parents expect. Some educators are moving away from letter
and number based grading to standards based grading. In 2013 Kentucky implemented a system where
students received 2 report cards: one with the traditional letter grades, and another
with a individualized breakdown of what students had learned and the students’ progress in
school. Virginia’s Fairfax County implemented a
similar process in their elementary schools in the 2012-2013 school year. Parents reported finding the new system initially
confusing, but ultimately more helpful in assessing their child’s growth and progress
in school. And classrooms around the world, including
public schools, private schools, and educational initiatives funded by nonprofits, are looking
to incorporate new methods in the classroom that place less emphasis on memorization and
focus more on innovation and how students can retain new knowledge. So even though grades are the oldest way of
doing things, they may not be the best for measuring students’ long term success. So how does this all add up? It seems grades do have some weight in determining
student outcomes because we’ve based so many systems around it, but this can vary
a lot based on the individual. While grades are extremely important in certain
trajectories, like going to college, attending graduate school, or entering into certain
professions, they ultimately aren’t the only determining factor of success. And although we’ve accepted them as the
marker of a good student, a perfect GPA doesn’t always represent things like creativity, ingenuity,
and intellectual passions. Which is why more school systems and educators
are looking for ways to measure student progress outside of letters and percentages. So what do you think? Have any other theories about how grades became
so entrenched in our education system? Drop all your comments and questions down
below (we swear we won’t ask you to share your old report cards) and we’ll see you
next week!