Guest Post: The Detriment of Grades

by Osvaldo Granados

My student Osvaldo speaks truth to power in this extraordinary critique of grades. I am so proud to be his teacher.

“…The absence of grades is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for deep thinking and desire to engage in it” (Kohn 3). At its rudimentary core, the institution of grades is a system found in most schools across the world that centers on giving a mark based off the performance achieved by a student. These marks are intended to tally up and provide an overall grade for the class and later adding to the overall GPA (Grade Point Average) of a student’s performance throughout their school career. Though it’s existed for centuries in some form or another, very little has changed in terms of how grades function. This proves to be alarming for any rational individual when one considers the damage it’s causing to high school students in their pursuit of true learning. True learning is best described as the act of a child running into the arms of their benevolent mother, eager to tell her what they learned in arithmetic that day; it’s the act of spending time reciting which functional groups are weak acids or weak bases and relating it back to your friend Ashnil; it’s the process of obtaining a piece of information and applying it to real world situations outside of a school environment. As to encourage true learning among our generation of high school students, the education system should abolish grades in their entirety since they inhibit growth, cause self-doubt and don’t allow for room for improvement or challenges, and because they’re a very superficial way of ‘grading’ a student’s performance. 

First and foremost, grades undermine the general excellence of students through its coercive and threatening tactics which changes a student’s attitude on work ethic. The use of grades in an education system proves to yield a superficial impact when regarding the overall attitude of a student since one will often look the other way when faced with any sense of challenge in school due to a lack of motivation. This often leads a student to take a step back and contemplate doing what’s best for their desired GPA instead of doing what’s best for their educational experience as a whole, ultimately damaging any morale the student may have had for their education and even their future as a whole. [According to fellow student Jamilla,] “Dan Pink’s belief about what motivates us is very interesting in my opinion. From what I gathered, he believes that the biggest motivator for people is ‘purpose.'” The ultimate driving force among men and women throughout human history is the motivation one has within oneself, which is the key to finding purpose which is generally seen as a life goal to most individuals. Without a sense of motivation, humans would inevitably reach a saturation point on their quest to seek purpose, and without purpose, mankind would go extinct. But have you ever stopped and asked yourself the perplexing question of what motivation is? Although it may initially seem like a facile question with an even more trivial answer, there’s more depth to it than one may think. Motivation is the will to do tasks in contemporary life and as previously mentioned, plays a major role in a student’s life since it’s what gets them up in the morning for school; just to have it repeat day after day in a groundhog day fashion for various years. Although some may find themselves losing their drive due to external reasons such as household issues, the loss of a loved one, or even a faulting relationship, many manage to find a reason to keep going through the wonders of life. Grades, however, halt this process with degenerative and dangerous effects to the student psyche. When a student receives a bad grade, they’re more likely to dwell on their mistakes and fail to move on from their failures without learning anything. If a student were to receive a good grade, they might be inclined to not study for their next exam and ultimately fail it due to their inflated ego from the previous exam. A student’s motivation toward schoolwork decreases to an extensive degree regardless of what grade they may have received beforehand which impedes upon the overall excellence of a student in school. Students are also less inclined to be focused on their actual learning objectives when faced with grades because “…the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing” (Kohn 2). Since students are only focused on the grade they’re receiving, they’re negligent of the actual education they are receiving. The whole point of the education system is to prepare the future generation for a lifetime of blue collar and white-collar worker jobs so if students aren’t focused on the content they’re learning, there’s ultimately no point to the education system or grades. Despite this, some people have a high regard to the grading system. They believe grades provide a profound system which motivates students to study and do well in class and in life. They feel some students may be inclined to study and learn the material instead of focusing on the grade, which is of course the goal of the education system. The number of students who experience true learning while earning the grade they receive is unfortunately slim. The majority is made up of students who work the minimum amount to receive the grade they want; they’re the ones to learn without actually “learning” anything in the class. It’s a grim reality that’s faced by many students, including me. This ultimately proves a danger to society when one considers that society depends upon the educated student with a high morale and a yearning to pursue an even higher education on top of what was given to them.  

Secondly, when a student is in the presence of grades, they tend to be under the impression that any sort of action they do will be held against them in the form of grades. Although this may not seem like much at first, it plays a detrimental role in a student’s psyche as they’re now under the constant oppression of grades which ultimately leads them to opt out of challenges and cause more self-doubt within themselves. In Kohn’s article, he further emphasizes the degenerative effects of student confidence when faced with grades, “Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks” (Kohn 2). The uncanny truth is that high school students are willing to avoid challenges made for them to grow as students and as people if it means that their grades stay intact. The constant dread of grades is what depletes a student’s confidence in themselves and has them fearing any inconvenient or challenging task that might pose a threat to their grade.  This carries implications farther than the classroom environment ; however, since if these students are willing to neglect challenges at such an early point in their life, they’ll be susceptible to it in their adult life which could carry major consequences with it, such as missed promotion opportunities, job opportunities, etc. I’m no stranger to this as I’ve found myself in situations where I’m given the option of choosing an effortless project or an arduous project. I ultimately choose the effortless project since it’s what ultimately secures the high mark for the well-being of my GPA. It’s once again the decrease in confidence that causes me to doubt myself and other students alike to question whether or not they really want to do something that can present a devastating impact on their grade if they were to mess up in some way. It’s worth considering that although I do get the grade I want out of choosing the easier task, I don’t necessarily end up benefiting anything with this decision since grades are the superficial skeleton of the education system.   

In spite of the previous arguments being made against the institution of grades, many believe grades help students pass a course with the initiative to obtain an A in a class as previously mentioned. This notion of course couldn’t be further from the truth as students strive to do the very least for the perfect grade. This want to pass a class the easiest way possibly mainly comes from a potential distaste in a subject. I for one dislike mathematics even though I’m relatively good at it so I tend to do the bare minimum required to obtain the grade I want (which is usually an A+). Although there isn’t much can be said about the matter, there’s certainly a lot that can be done to solve the matter. Apart from getting rid of the grading system as a whole and getting students to stop viewing school subjects in terms of grades, teachers and students alike should make learning a relaxing environment where one can make mistakes free of point charge. Another benefit that’s argued upon to death is that the grading system is the self-esteem boost that’s given to individuals who succeed with the grading system through superb grades. Although this wouldn’t apply to those struggling, it does come as a major confidence builder to those who are constantly succeeding and getting good grades in school. This confidence would also go a long way for those in need of it in school and in life. A high confidence in Oneself of course leads to a higher degree of success in life than most people with an average amount of confidence. That’s just the thing, however; it only applies to those who are excelling the highest in any given school. The overall benefits coming from nearly perfect grades aren’t present for most people, only the top % of any school which doesn’t help the majority in the end. In theory, some high schools and colleges might want to close the gap between those struggling and those excelling in all their classes but it’s wishful thinking more than anything. Many have tried to close the gap with a variety of programs to help those struggling to succeed and ultimately gain a confidence boost, but it never wielded an overwhelming positive result to the fray. 

In denouement, the grading system is a superficial method that inevitably does more harm than good to high school students across the world through its undermining of excellence and ability to decrease a student’s confidence. The grading system as a whole has been around for countless centuries, yet very little has changed over the course of time which conveys the negligible effects it’s had over time. It can’t be completely certain that all issues present within the education system would be banished without the presence of a grading system, but it can be known for certain that it would make a positive impact for staff and students alike, where staff would no longer have to stay up countless nights reading papers and students wouldn’t have to be the ones stressing about writing the perfect paper. What we need now in present day history is a system that would effectively replace the grading system and would revolutionize the way we see the education system and our self-worth; a system based on the critique of our own work effort where we the students would be the ones evaluating our own performance. When given a sense of autonomy, such as how I was given the freedom to write this paper without the looming threat of a grade, students will feel a sense of vigor within them that allows them to be honest with themselves and honest with their writing. As such, they’d feel no reason to lie about the grade they truly deserve regardless of how little or how much effort was put into an assignment. This conformational shift in the structure of the education system is what would ultimately abolish the parasitic relationship between a grade and a student and encourage true learning once and for all. 

Works Cited 

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades (##).” Alfie Kohn, 26 Feb. 2020, 

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