On failing grades

In every class I’ve ever taught, I’ve emphasized the importance of practicing (1) self-awareness in service of greater social consciousness and activism, (2) critical inquiry and skepticism in service of truth and accountability, and (3) empathetic imagination in service of other people. In other words, I’ve asked for nuance and complexity, and I’ve invited students to make peace with ambiguity and uncertainty. And then at the end of it all – every time – I’ve reduced my students to a letter.

Why do I settle for such hypocrisy? For this fundamental betrayal of what I actually value?

Before acknowledging my continued complicity in a system I can’t justify, let’s look at the system itself and lay out several discursive reasons for why I don’t believe in grading:

  • Students perceive it, rightfully, as judgment, not feedback/information.
  • Whenever a grade is involved, it takes the cake over any words you might ice it with.
  • Grades reinforce extrinsic motivation, which participates in a larger cultural disease wherein we seek validation outside of ourselves and are never satisfied – or even in touch with – whatever the hell’s going on inside of us.
  • Grades undermine learning as an end in itself.
  • Grades reinforce a power game I don’t want to play. My hope is to share authority with fellow learners, aka fellow human beings, so how does a grade communicate anything meaningful about a student’s humanity?
  • Grades reduce what students have done/who they are to some arbitrary symbol, and it’s terrifyingly easy for students to internalize that arbitrary symbol as an identity marker because they have the appearance of finality, as if to say, “this is you.” Their perceived weight is felt.
  • They are nothing but a business transaction.
  • Rubrics – those lovable guardians of the grade galaxy – are a convenient way of dressing up grades and exonerating them from their true disservice.

And finally:

  • Nothing I’ve ever learned that has actually stuck with me was graded.

So what does a grade actually show? Ideally, it’s what the student deserves based on how they fit some obnoxious codified combination of standards, competencies, and/or objectives (depending on the teacher’s peculiar diction). It’s all typically well-meaning on the teacher’s part, but that meaning, well…it’s situated in a system that needs revolutionizing (to borrow from my boy, Ken Robinson). If you only find justification for grading within the system, and you never look carefully at the system itself, why should I buy that self-sealing logic? Why do I stay in a position to reward students for being good at school and punishing them for being bad at it? How is this bizarre concept and construct called “school” the end of learning? (We think it’s not bizarre only because it’s all we know.) Why am I now ranting in reductive fashion against a reductive practice?

Because school is so normalized, we forget our shared insanity in sustaining its traditional practices. We throw up our hands and go, “well, this is just how things are done, I guess.” And that’s some serious bullshit. If I expect my students to bristle whenever they hear some nonsense like “that’s just how things are” (aka “because logic”), then why in the world am I doing a thing simply because I’m supposed to. Simply because that’s how school works. Correction: that’s how school operates, and it can be ruthlessly surgical. I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought it worked.

Who’s to blame here? Nobody. Everybody. It’s an oppressive reality that, without enough people to question it, will simply persist. Business as usual. And so I’m knowingly choosing to be an oppressor.

Let’s take a quick step back: I’m not confusing grading with giving feedback, which is at its best dialogic and useful in setting high expectations for students (and, as a reminder, students are people). I’m not asking that we remove accountability; in fact, I’m asking that we trust ourselves to heighten it without the false crutch of grades (yes, the society tokens that parents are paying for).

As a brief and no-doubt-totally-unfair piece of anecdotal evidence…I directed a pre-college program this summer that was project-based and experiential; joy was our primary aim, and the students weren’t graded. The results? Based on their feedback, life-changing learning. After all, what grade has ever transformed you?

It’s easy to mistake not offering a solution here as proof that there really isn’t a problem. It’s easy to forget that I’m writing all this in response to my very privileged position in very privileged learning environments. It’s also easy to keep doing things just because that’s how they’re done. And that’s why we’re failing.


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