We Need To Rethink The Whole Idea Of School Grading

by Daniel Shotkin

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau prophetically declared that “we badly need someone to teach us the art of learning with difficulty.” Two hundred and fifty years later, Rousseau’s words seem clairvoyant in their relevancy to schooling in the United States. Education has come to the forefront of the array of issues emerging in the post-Covid era. The abandonment of the alphabet soup of standardized tests, student reliance on Chat GPT, and rampant grade inflation all point to a wider problem. And though some politicians see the Ten Commandments as the solution to classroom troubles, universal progress toward a real solution seems far away. Not that some don’t try.

Joe Feldman is not an activist; in fact, until recently, he was simply an attentive principal. Working for over twenty years in education, Feldman compiled stacks of hard data trying to answer one question: why was grading so inconsistent among his colleagues?

Two students enrolled in the same course put in a dramatically different amount of work yet shockingly got the same grade. In two classes of the same course, one got 70% A’s, while another received a much smaller 40%. Their grade essentially depended on the leniency (and frighteningly biases) of their teacher, and not on the contents of their course. This discovery correlates with the wider issue of grade inflation; from 2010 to 2022, the percentage of B and C students in all subjects declined, while the number of A students increased. Feldman relates this data to one idea—that student-teacher relationships have to be based on equity.

This idea is laid out in his latest book—Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Feldman believes that for many teachers, equity can be a concept that is far too easily brushed off because “teachers use grading practices that are traditional and end up perpetuating achievement and opportunity gaps.”

Furthermore, Feldman rejects the minutiae that often come into play when teachers run out of material to base grades on. To Feldman, an equitable grade should be based solely on the student’s level of academic mastery without including extraneous information like ‘Did they do their homework’ or ‘Are they bringing their notebook to class.’

Feldman preaches his ideas with a politician-esque aura: he wears a perfectly tailored suit, has hand gestures refined to a T, and has the characteristic deep andante voice of a seasoned orator. In short, Feldman is less a teacher than an advocate. Over countless teacher’s conventions and encounters with the press, he has repeated the same, simple, rhetoric: he believes our grading system is outdated and decentralized.

Mr. Feldman views modern grading practices as vestiges of the Industrial Revolution. In what could be mistaken for a rebellious teen’s tirade, Feldman states that “we were trying to sort kids, we were trying to control them and manage behavior, and we weren’t trying to educate every child.” To Feldman, continuing to use those traditional practices punishes students who have fewer resources and have been historically underserved, and rewards students who have more resources.

As a junior in high school, I realize that I am patient zero of any changes that will be made to our education system. But having read Feldman’s manifesto, I always believed that such reforms would come from far away—perhaps the pen of a politician or the gavel of a judge. This all changed when I met my Physics teacher, Mr Chen.

To preface, Henry Chen is not a status quo teacher. Known throughout the school for his eccentricities, you could fill a dictionary with terms created by Chen, and you could fill a book with his deeds (rollerblading out of a fire drill first comes to mind). However, what is perhaps most different about Mr. Chen is his grading methods.

Chen is a fellow convert to Feldman’s grading ideology and has developed a 6-point grading system after reading Feldman’s book. Additionally, he stopped deducting points in his class for lateness, messiness, or presentation, and rather based grades solely on accuracy.

So how does education reform look on the classroom level? To find out, I took a trip to room 100—the hub of education reform in my high school and Mr. Chen’s classroom. Opening the large wooden door with the words ‘CHEN-DEN’ plastered on it, I found Mr. Chen dancing around the whiteboard, discussing something with a pack of sophomores. I walked up and slipped into conversation. After several minutes, the conversation drifted to education and, by extension, Mr. Chen’s thoughts on grading:

“I’ve been getting wearier and wearier of traditional grading ever since finding out about non-traditional grading back in my graduate school days,” he began. After a slight chuckle, he added, “Especially after reading Grading for Equity I noticed that traditional percentile grading has MORE degrees of failure than passing, so 0-65 are ‘failing’ grades while 65-100 are ‘passing’ grades.”

“So do you think traditional grading misses out on a lot?”, I asked.

Pausing for a brief moment, Chen said, “One of the biggest ideas that I think a lot of teachers would feel uncomfortable about is the idea that punishing students works. [Grading for Equity] showed that students that are punished can give up by seeing lower grades, with no way to show their improvement and no chance to show what they can do.”

“So what do you look forward to getting out of this new system of grading?”, I asked.

“I hope that the transparency our newer systems give us will have the same effect on students in that they’ll be mindful of learning instead of just eating up knowledge and regurgitating it. This method of learning is archaic and will become increasingly problematic as knowledge and information trends evolve..”

Chen and Feldman’s thoughts on education are not revolutionary; but they show that most education issues today can be boiled down to one simple fact: our current system of grading reinforces practices set in a time far different from that of the present, with different values and ideas. As knowledge becomes exponentially more important over time, the way we teach it needs to change.

Equitable grading reforms are mandatory if we want to adapt our education for the 21st century. But Rousseau was correct in his support for “the art of learning with difficulty”—though education reform is necessary, we should not expect it to come easily for students. Chen’s reformed classes are widely regarded in my school as some of the most difficult that are on offer at my high school, and this difficulty makes many drop out of his class just weeks into the school year. This reaction to grading reform is similarly evident nationwide. According to the Program for Student International Assessment, American students perform more poorly than students in the most educationally successful countries. If we expect our already-behind students to embrace more rigorous standards of learning with open arms, we would be mistaken.

Still, the systemic reform that is so needed in our country today can come from minute changes by the Mr. Chens and Joe Feldmans of tomorrow’s classrooms. No matter the difficulty, putting fairness first and punishment second will make our education system a better place for our students to live, grow, and learn.

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