Ever since reading Rochelle Gutierrez’s article “Embracing the Inherent Tensions in Teaching Mathematics From an Equity Stance”, I see more and more hard questions in education in terms of the tension they create. In many cases there are two or more valid perspectives on a tough question, and exploring the inherent tensions — the importance of context, the impossibility of managing what is best for every student simultaneously, the contradictions inherent in many teacher choices — is a better approach than trying to come down on one side or the other. From my perspective, grading presents exactly that type of tension.
I see the pitfalls of grading every day. Grades create incentives for students to perform rather than to learn and to focus on individual tasks rather than big ideas. Grades perpetuate status issues, as some students perceive themselves as “smart” while others perceive themselves as “dumb”, perceptions that they often carry with them for their entire lives. Grades encourage measurement of what is easy to measure, and discount what is hard. Grades waste time that could better be spent focusing on learning. There may be better and worse ways to grade, but the constraints that schools put on most teachers are not well-designed for learning.
Then I read a recent blog post by Doug Lemov arguing that eliminating grades would bring back aristocracy:
Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out.
Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.
When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.
There is the tension. Whether I like it or not, grades serve the function of sorting and ranking students for their future pursuits, and that sorting and ranking will continue regardless of my decisions as a teacher. I’ve had too many students from well-off backgrounds better able to advocate for themselves and figure out the system, or have their parents advocate for them. And I’ve had too many students who have fewer resources to draw on, unable to receive those same advantages. Would eliminating grades exacerbate those inequities, so that education will become one more place where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
I have no answers. But I do know that navigating this question requires navigating the tension between the damage grades can do to a learning environment with the damage eliminating grades would do to equitable student outcomes.