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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: With Pass-Fail, What’s the Point of Grades? (Guest Post by Jack Schneider)

This opinion column appeared in New York Times, June 25, 2020

Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian), an assistant professor of leadership in education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countless colleges and universities shifted from to A-F grades to a pass/fail system. As officials at Wellesley College explained, the general aim in doing so is to “support one another without being required to make judgments.”

Many K-12 school districts have done the same. From Palo Alto, Calif., to Wake County, N.C., local officials have concluded that now is not the time for grades. As teachers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District declared, “We cannot grade with equity when students’ experiences learning at home will be so varied.” And it’s not yet clear that most schools that have made this switch will fully return to letter grades in the fall.

But not everyone is happy with this outcome.

Some parents and activists are anxious that, without grades, students won’t receive adequate feedback on their work. Others worry that altering or eliminating the traditional grading scale will undermine student motivation and reward slacking off. As one Oregon parent pointedly asked in one of many online petitions pushing for the reinstatement of letter grades, “How do I explain to my child that has great grades that she should keep working hard when anything that is D- and above will still ‘pass’? This is ridiculous.” A similar but separate concern, expressed by ambitious students and their parents, is that without letter grades students will be at a disadvantage when competing for scholarships, college admission and merit aid.

The logistical calamities presented by the coronavirus have suddenly, and forcefully, surfaced an underlying problem frequently ignored before the crisis: A-F grades serve several different purposes, and those purposes are too often in conflict with one another. Americans may come to recognize by the end of this schooling crisis that we would all be better off without letter grades.

The original aim of grading, which can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, was to motivate students. As educators found, students tended to work harder if there was a brass ring for them to reach. This fact became more important in the latter half of the 19th century, as an increasing number of states made schooling compulsory.

With a new influx of reluctant pupils, many K-12 teachers were faced with a challenge even greater than keeping the average students focused: maintaining the attention of students who didn’t want to be there at all. Grades, then, also became a mechanism for coercion — rewards, but also punishments, with bad grades meant to serve as a socializing source of shame.

Grades as we know them now have yet another origin too, rooted in efforts to communicate with students and their families. Feedback, as any educator knows, is essential to learning. But as class sizes grew larger in the 19th century, American teachers were increasingly pressed for time. Looking for a shortcut, many schools developed new systems for providing feedback to students. The boldest of these physically rearranged students in the classroom — hence the phrase “head of the class.” What endured, however, was the “report card,” which used pre-identified codes — like numbers or letter grades — to streamline the process of evaluation.

Unlike student seating charts, report cards could be sent home to parents, strengthening communication with families. And eventually, policy leaders realized that if grades could relate something about student learning to parents and families, they could also communicate info more broadly — to other schools, to state offices of education and to employers.

Standardized report cards, in essence, could create a national market for student knowledge and skill, in the same way that letter grades for products like grain had created commodities markets. Just as the quality of Grade A beef could be understood without firsthand knowledge, so could the quality of an A student. With the evolution of the transcript — the permanent record for storing grades — student performance could be communicated across both time and space.

But there was still a lack of uniformity. Unlike many countries where a central ministry of education directs policy across the nation’s schools, the U.S. system has always been characterized by decentralization. Subject to local control, many schools and districts used 1-100 scoring systems; others used letters; some even relied on 0-4 systems. Eventually, however, the pressure for standardization from elites led to a grand merger: A 1-100 score that could be converted into an A-F grade, which, in turn, was convertible again into a grade-point average.

The merger was highly useful for these domestic policy elites, dealing with a rapidly growing nation, who then used the new regimen to connect America’s fragmented educational system. Schools, colleges and employers could nominally work together without actually changing their independent models.

By the early 20th century, grades as we generally see them now had become a core feature of American education. But as any programmer can tell you, tasking a single technology with multiple distinct roles is a bad idea. Letter grades do several different things, none of them well, and the result undermines student learning.

Consider the fact that the permanent nature of grades makes them an incredibly high-stakes affair for students. This has a serious impact on the degree to which teachers can use grades to effectively communicate student progress. Think of how a low grade, intended to convey that a young person doesn’t yet understand a concept, will instead read to the student as an act of cruelty — an attempt to ruin her future. And the student wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to see it that way; transcripts in a self-proclaimed meritocratic world mean that grades, like diamonds, are forever.

Similarly, using letter grades as a currency across agencies and institutions has, in reality, negatively distorted student motivation for generations. Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades. This was even the case in 1918, when American economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen observed that the pursuit of grades “progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.” And a century later, it remains true, as students scramble for prized, résumé building credentials at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity.

Americans have long been aware of the problems with the current model. Grade inflation is an epidemic, particularly at elite schools. And “grade-grubbing,” the pestering of teachers to change scores, is a scourge too. Parents complain about stressed out students haunted by the prospect of an imperfect “life-ruining” transcript. And teachers bemoan the endless grind of grading.

Yet despite these obvious problems, grades are deeply embedded into the culture and function of American education: They are used for state graduation requirements, military eligibility, community college transfers, and scholarship determinations; and they are one of the chief mechanisms for linking America’s 100,000 schools with over 5,000 colleges and universities.

In short, this grading conundrum won’t be easy to solve. But the inherent flaws of A-F grading have never been clearer. And, because of that, several sensible reform ideas — unreasonably ambitious in normal times — may offer a path forward.

One smart proposal involves the use of student portfolios. Rather than reducing everything a student has learned to a single score or letter symbol, schools and colleges might ask students to assemble evidence of what they know and can do. Models of this can be found in progressive networks of public and private schools, as well as in programs like International Baccalaureate and the Advanced Placement program. Portfolios are by no means a silver bullet, but they have a number of important strengths: emphasizing the substance of learning, encouraging revision and acknowledging the different paces at which students reach proficiency. Perhaps most importantly, they motivate students to improve their work and not merely their grades. This, of course, is only a brief sketch — a map of future prospects rather than a concrete plan. And it would require fairly unprecedented coordination across different organizations and government agencies. But the road to reform always begins with an awakening to possibility.

Our present use of grades is a matter of historical accident, not design. The result is that grades fail to advance the multiple purposes they ostensibly serve.

Pass/Fail grading — the stopgap that many have turned to in the wake of the pandemic — is not a long-term solution. The problem can only be addressed at its root. Shaken from our complacency by a crisis, perhaps we can begin the conversation about what comes next.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...

Jack Schneider

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at UMass Lowell and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Asses...