Why Do Grades Hold So Much Power Over Our Children's Futures?

Insights  20 June 2018
By Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined


Education Reimagined partnered with 180 Studio and ATTN: to create a video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series digs into why we narrowly group children by age, promote memorization over deeper learning, use grade levels as indicators of “moving up,” and confine learning to four-walled classrooms. Complementing each video, our Associate Director, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.


When we think about school, it’s almost impossible to imagine the experience without letter grades and grade point averages in the forefront. So, it’s surprising to learn that standardized grading practices are relatively new.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century, in fact, that they came into being. Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president, tried to divide learners into four ranks or grades: Best; Second Best; Less Good; and Worse. To advance its new system, Yale even implemented a “Book of Averages” in which an average of each learner’s grades was recorded on a four-point scale—not unlike the modern GPA system.

Over time, colleges began to convert those percentages into letter grades, and those letter grades into an evaluation on a four-point scale. This “quantification” provided the illusion of an objective way to compare learner performance.

The GPA system is powerful because it aligns with a widespread belief that most phenomena occur around a middle point, with outliers on the high and low ends. This is popularly known as a normal or bell-curve distribution.

Our systematic assumption of the validity of a bell-curve distribution of achievement has meant that, for as long as anyone can remember, a few among us will always excel, most will be rated satisfactory or average, and a few will fail. This justifies the use of norm-referenced standardized tests, grading on a curve, detecting ‘‘at-risk’’ learners, and the whole concept of an intelligence quotient, or IQ—quite an evolution for a system that began with one man’s novel idea.

Why then, over the years and decades, have we given so much value to this myopic way of thinking?

As it turns out, based on what we now know about how people learn, GPAs may not be the best reflection of a learner’s abilities. In fact, when many of us receive letter grades or percentage scores, research shows it actually makes us less likely to engage in high-quality learning.

When the grade is the focus, in other words, we tend to lose our intrinsic motivation, and school becomes a sort of game to be won before “real” life begins.

Myriad studies show that intrinsic motivation is critical for success in life. Intrinsic motivation is generated internally, and it leads people to engage in activities for the sake of their own satisfaction. On the other hand, motivation generated externally is extrinsic, which means it is being forced by external factors or people.

By design, a grades-based system promotes extrinsic motivation. Unintentionally, that system has also led to increased levels of stress and anxiety—young people, parents, and educators.

 

This means they were encouraged to select a few pieces that reflected their best work but are also encouraged to choose pieces that demonstrate moments where they struggled.

Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Associate Director of National Outreach and Community Building

The question in simple: Do we prefer to place greater value on grades or on learning itself?

If it’s the former, why should we be surprised when students select easier classes—or “bird courses”— to boost their grades and cumulative GPAs rather than the courses that are more challenging or interesting to them? And, how can we blame our public schools for spending so much time on literacy and numeracy when we know that a teacher’s job security is being disproportionately determined by reading and math scores?

We already know how the rest of the story goes. Once everyone is gaming the system, the system itself becomes a race to the bottom. And, sure enough, studies show that when any of us base our sense of self worth on external factors such as grades, status, or rank, it leads to low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health issues.

Becoming a life-long learner requires appreciating the process of learning and focusing on being able to master things.

By contrast, in a mastery- or learning-focused system that is not about grades, there might still be an assessment or a rubric that lays out what learners need to know and be able to do. But, the purpose of the rubric is to provide a learner with information about where she may need to continue focusing her efforts. In theory and in practice, all learners have a chance to keep improving until they have reached a level of mastery or acceptable performance.

Some will wonder: Then how will we know who is better?

And here, we must ask ourselves: Better at what?

The universal objective is not to be better than anyone else; it is to be one’s best self.

From Research to Application: How Portfolio’s Expose the Unique Passions Within Every Learner

One of my favorite experiences each year is at my sons’ public school. Each spring, learners go through a process called Passages.

Passages is an opportunity for them to review the work they have completed over the prior two years. They spend months compiling a portfolio of work to present as evidence of their learning and their readiness to take on the next challenge in their learning journey.

The Portfolio is divided into different sections:

  • Who Am I (to myself)?
  • Character Excellence
  • Service and Compassion
  • Who Am I in (to my community)?
  • Who Am I (as a writer, reader, scientist, mathematician, and historian)?

Learners are asked to select pieces that demonstrate both growth and achievement. This means they were encouraged to select a few pieces that reflected their best work but are also encouraged to choose pieces that demonstrate moments where they struggled. Both showcase different areas  where they have made the most progress.

Once Portfolios are ready to be presented, the community—parents, grandparents, graduates, friends—spend half a day reviewing them. Three adults provide individual comments, feedback, and questions to three or four learners.

 

Inevitably, I found myself teary-eyed after hearing another young person reflect honestly and authentically about an area of his growth and development.

Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Associate Director of National Outreach and Community Building

The day Portfolios are handed back, a silence descends around the school as learners pore over the feedback, basking in a sense that their work and accomplishments have been recognized. They work over the next week to prepare for an in-person interview with their panel based on the individual letter their panel has written to them. They make note cards, practice their presentation, and get feedback from their peers.

The days of the public panels—which are made up of a combination of teachers, peers, and members of the larger community—are magical. As a panel, we often form an image of a young person based on their portfolio, but I have learned not to be surprised when my adult biases misrepresent the real learner behind the work.

One portfolio, in which the writing was rough around the edges, belonged to a young man in fifth grade who shared his passion for fire ants and insects. His poise blew us away. His ability to think in nuanced ways about the intersection of ecology, city development, and the social patterns of human society was incredible—and something not visible in his writing alone.

Inevitably, I found myself teary-eyed after hearing another young person reflect honestly and authentically about an area of his growth and development. In short, something had happened that made him realize the sort of person he wanted to be in the world.

How’s that for a metric of success?

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