the case for letter grades(?)

R – Jacob Shore is a literature Professor at Wagner College in New York. I came across an article he wrote for, in which he carries the argument that letter grades should not be banned in schools. My rebuttal is the topic for this weekend’s post. I will preface this all with the following statement: none of what I’m about to say means I’m “right” and he’s “wrong”. I also don’t claim to know more about education and assessment than Mr. Shore. As a matter of fact, I’m sure I don’t. The only point to this post is that I respectfully disagree with him on this topic, and in doing so I’m going to articulate why. Mr Shore’s article is in black, my comments are in blue.

Why School Letter Grades Should Not Be Banned From Schools

by Jake Shore, Demand Media

  • For the vast majority of educational systems, whether it’s K-12, higher education or anything in between, letter grades are the accepted means of assessing a student’s place in the context of a class, institution or the educational system at large. Even though letter grades have been and continue to be utilized by a great number of educational institutions, there is a lingering question about their value and efficiency. By examining the positive ramifications of letter grades, it becomes evident that letter grades should not be banned from schools.


Letter grades form a system for students to compete with each other in a way that’s healthy and positive. At the core of students competing for the best grade is the search and desire for knowledge. With all due respect, this is theory and not practice. The goal of the vast majority of students today is not “learning”, it’s “higher grades”. If that wasn’t true, no one, ever, would cheat on an assessment. No one. They’d never WANT to cheat! “That would be a misrepresenting what I actually know!” Riiiggghht….do YOU know more than a few students you have EVER worked with who think that way? Me neither. Competition has it’s place, but it ain’t here. Are we trying to perpetuate the understanding that education is it’s own reward; being able to meet essential standards multiple times over the course of a semester, or are we perpetuating just getting “better grades”? Each new assignment offers an opportunity to attain the highest grade, and the thirst for such an achievement is tied intimately to the desire for learning and broadening one’s perspective. You tell me: does this sound like YOUR students?


Letter grades make it easy and practical for a student to set and chase goals. By examining a teacher’s feedback, following directions and working hard, students are not only able to track their progress by identifying gained knowledge, but are able to see their grades getting higher. That’s right Sarah, if you work hard enough you can elevate your grade from a “D” to a “B”… an “A” is out of the question of course because you blew it the first few weeks of class.” Woot. Really? And since teachers who give grades do not allow their students to re-take each exam –  multiple times if the student wishes – and “count” only the best one, the student knows that thorough understanding of the material they missed the first time is irrelevant because they now can only get things up to a B anyway… and that’s if they’re perfect the rest of the way, which isn’t likely because they already got a “D”! Standards scores are intentionally fluid, Grade scores are intentionally static and permanent (“…how can we determine class rank if we don’t?”). Which of the two authentically fosters students to meet our academic goals for them? The formation of a goal and the desire to achieve it doesn’t only help students grow within their educational institution, but is a lesson that they can use long after graduation. “The desire to achieve it”… my students have so much going on in their lives with co-curricular activities and jobs and family obligations that they don’t have time to start their homework until 9:00 at night half the time. My students ROUTINELY tell me how they stayed up til 1:00 in the morning doing their essay on a book they only read two thirds of. Their “GOAL” at midnight was not to “learn”, it was to finish! “It’s okay if I don’t do well on this, the quizes will bring my grade up.” (their words folks, not mine) So the lesson they learn and apply long after graduation? “It doesn’t matter if I know it, just so long as I look like I know it.”



Despite the fact that many parents hope their child will enter an educational institution and strive for excellence, many students aren’t as concerned with what they are able to get out of their school experience (I thought “competition” and “goals” had already prevented this?). For students who aren’t motivated, low grades can provide a significant wake-up call. If a middle school student receives a D on a report card, it could be the motivating factor to pay attention in class and get homework done. If this was true, why would parents have to use external punitive measures? Aren’t students already inherently motivated by poor grades??? I have never – not once in 26 years of teaching – heard a student ever tell me they were motivated to learn the material they had just assessed poorly on…. until I transitioned to standards. But before then, for 26 years? “Yeah Berg, I’ll try to do better from now on.” Oy.


In addition to the reasons why grades are positive for students, teachers also benefit greatly because of the system. The letter-grading system provides teachers with a concrete and efficient way of evaluating students. Please read my blog post from last week. Oh, sure, it ABSOLUTELY provides the “efficient” part alright… divide how much correct by how much possible and type it in powerschool underneath “Vocab quiz #7”. The problem is that letter grades also provide the APPEARANCE that students have been “concretely” evaluated. They don’t actually tell you how, or even what. Whether it’s quizzes, tests, midterms, finals or group projects, the letter-grading system offers an organizational method that’s been proven to be effective. The justification of grading is to offer an effective organizational method even though it’s blatantly vague and subjective? I thought it was to accurately report student understanding and proficiency?!?!?? 

This great picture of the grade yelling for help comes from a blog post from Kent State University which stated advice from teachers how to properly gallery_bad-grades_galleryhandle bad grades. These are, 1) “Ask yourself if you really deserve an above average grade for the work you turned in” to which I say, define “average”, and 2) “Talk with your teacher about why you received the grade.”

If you even have to ask why you got a certain grade, you are making my point for me.

Bottom line: the case for letter grades still  looks as solid as a big ol’ piece of swiss cheese to me and I have yet to be swayed. Apparently I’m not alone:

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3 Responses to the case for letter grades(?)

  1. Pingback: letter grades: the big farce | Goober Music Teachers

  2. meghan gaven says:

    This is a timely and thought-provoking essay. Our district is making the change to numbers, away from grades, in the next year or two. I am interested to see how the many different teaching and grading styles are handled by the teaching staff. At the moment, even within the same department, teachers have vastly different focuses on how grades are achieved. For example, my older daughter’s sophomore Math teacher graded homework assignments – well, actually she gave points to the kids for doing them, whether they were correct or not didn’t actually matter. So the homework “grade” was actually a participation grade, and it factored into my daughter’s final grade. Not a grade-breaking percentage, but a percentage nonetheless. My younger daughter is now in 10th grade, and she never, ever does homework. Why? Because it isn’t graded. Her Math teacher doesn’t collect it and it doesn’t factor into her grade. (She’s getting an A in the class. She apparently doesn’t need to do the homework.) There are myriad other examples of differences in assessing a student’s performance within departments, across all departments in the school. It seems to me there will have to be a wholesale change in philosophy about what is really important both for teachers and students alike. If going to pure assessment is the answer, then great. I think it would be naive, however, to think that all teachers and students will make the shift to the high road with grace.

  3. Pingback: be bop a lula | Goober Music Teachers

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