Are school grades de-grading?


There is a movement afoot to eliminate grades for students, particularly in the middle schools. The argument goes as follows:
Giving grades cause stress for some students. Students particularly in the middle grades face a number of social, academic, and emotional changes, so giving grades adds to the anxiety.

Parents get anxious, so some teachers will inflate grades, either through awarding “bonus” points or by skewing grades to the higher end of the spectrum in order to avoid awkward conversations with these parents.

Letter grades in middle school have no bearing on future high school transcripts so acceptance into colleges is not jeopardized.
Grades can be subjective based on the teacher’s bias.

Giving grades snuff out the love of learning.

At least some of these reasons were behind the recent decision of the Barrington School Committee to ditch the honor roll for pupils in the middle school. Citing years of study of the issue and research, its members have jettisoned the listing from this point forward. Citing an undefined method of recognizing excellence in the future, the committee opined that year end recognition ceremony(ies) would be implemented.

So, just how do having awards for excellence at the end of the school year somehow disperse anxiety about grades? To be sure, there is research that does support the argument that grades can make kids crazy because their parents are obsessed. How would, “Johnny “or ”Mary”, however, make up his work at the end of the school year when his parents learn, “Whoops”, he didn’t get the lessons? Sending a child to summer school would also be an endangered practice under the same rationale since the ego of the student would be damaged.

Advocates of no grades usually argue that narratives are the way to ‘grade’ students because the narrative is more explicit. What isn’t explained, however, is why such a narrative isn’t just as subjective as the teacher’s grades. It still is an opinion and avoids none of the problems of parent-teacher tension where grades are not up to par.

A sidebar issue, of course, is that eliminating grading also shields a teacher and his/her skills in conveying the content of the course. No longer would there be any standard to judge whether "Mrs. Smith” actually taught the subject during the entire time in middle school. With the effort of teacher unions and state governors and educational leaders like Governor Gina Raimondo and RI Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, objective tests like the core curriculum exams or similar “regent's tests” are being indefinitely postponed. Whether or not it is intended, this is another elimination of ascertaining whether a teacher is effective in the classroom since there are no objective tests to find out how a student stands in comparison to others at the same grade level.

No doubt there will be uproar over this column for its position that no viable alternative to dropping grades has been proposed for true evaluation of what a student learns. We can all wax poetically about not dousing a student’s love of learning by giving a grade just like we did for the craze about sports and not keeping score. Just like everybody got a trophy, now it’s apparently time to put a ribbon on narratives which can be mealy mouthed. Good grief! What has happened to us?

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet


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