The Failure of Grades (Part 1 of 2)

Image from Baloo's Cartoon Blog
Image from Baloo’s Cartoon Blog

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Every year, around March, many parents all over the Philippines get extremely anxious and nervous. What is this time of the year? It’s report card distribution day! Of course, there are a few who look forward to this day. They are mostly those who can’t wait to take photos of their children’s report cards and post them on Facebook.

The silent majority, however, comfort themselves by saying “grades aren’t really that important” and things like that. The apparent hypocrisy of that remark, however, will be sorely tested if their usually-average or summa (sabit) kid suddenly gets high marks — guess who’s going to be posting photos of the report card on Facebook? The reverse also holds true. Very few parents will remark that “grades aren’t really that important” when their kids get failing marks and have to take summer classes or worse, repeat the entire year, or change schools.

It is funny how our emotions, and even our judgment of our children and others, are ruled by a bunch of numbers. When I was a teacher, there was no day I probably hated more than the day I had to submit my students’ final grades. I hated it because it was such a cold and impersonal assessment that said very little about the student. I hated the way grades could instill false confidence and pride. I hated the way grades could cause unnecessary despair, harsh judgments, physical abuse, and even suicide. I hated the way grades cause people to wrongly use it as an indicator of future success in one’s career or life in general. By now, we have thousands of anecdotes of successful people to know that their grades in school have little bearing on future accomplishments.

Do you know how the grading system began? One of the earliest documented records of grading was in the late 1700’s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, by a tutor in Cambridge University named William Farish.

He probably got the idea of grading students from the way factories exercised quality control for their products. A shoe factory, for example, would pronounce a shoe as “up to grade” if it was good enough to be sold in the market. In the same way, a student was judged by a singular mark which pronounced him up to standard to move on to the next level. At that time, this was revolutionary because it allowed Farish to “process” a large number of students at any given time. This rapidly caught on with other teachers because it provided a shorthand and impersonal method of evaluating students. A teacher could grade a student even if he didn’t know anything beyond his name and ID number. In short, the grading system paved the way for the mass production of education, which was probably a good thing for that particular era. But it is now high time we reviewed this method of evaluation because we have already shifted from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

Education in the Industrial Age was mostly memory-based. You memorized facts and procedures. In this respect, grades work. Getting a grade of 98 on a test means you have memorized 98% of the facts correctly.

The landscape today has changed drastically as tons of information is available freely at the flick of a finger. Education today, supposedly places great emphasis on creativity, and interdisciplinary connections. However, I say “supposedly” because the grading system is still largely based on how well one has memorized the material or the procedure, or in the case of essay questions, how well one’s answers conform to the teacher’s opinion.

In short, we are emphasizing 21st century values but are using 18th century tools to evaluate those values. Clearly, there is a mismatch, and even teachers feel this difficulty but find it very hard to break free and still retain their jobs. But how does one grade creativity? How does one grade effort? How does one grade resourcefulness? How does one grade the ability to learn?

So a teacher in a traditional system is forced to go back to quantifiable and objectifiable measures of grading, and thus lose a lot of richness and depth of material and methodology that could have been possible if grades were not a hindrance.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. How would you grade this article? Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.

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4 thoughts on “The Failure of Grades (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. *Sigh* I never did like grading and I’m really bothered when my students get grade conscious. I don’t give tests because I prefer having discussions with them doing the talking and me doing the facilitating (sometimes, I’m the one who raises her hand to ask questions just to see if they have answers that are different from mine). I really enjoy it when members of the same group would be honest about disagreements regarding their case studies/topics. The results now is that my grades are “gamified”, it becomes a reward system for those who try (even if they fail, they have chances of improving).

  2. I absolutely agree, Now that facts are easily accessible to students. Education today should be overhauled and we should now put great emphasis on how these facts are used in solving problems. We should no longer educate children to be just another cog in the wheel. Our education system should now revolve around math and science, and as much as possible, incorporate new teaching technics like introducing them to khan academy style of education.

  3. donot compare me with others, correct and help me to achieve. Do not condemn me i am slow to grasp your teaching. I promise to do well with your help, love and guidance.

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