Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Harmfulness of Grades in Education

Originally published: August 13, 2006, 3:32 AM

I get really angry thinking about the way education is carried out in this country. Specifically, I hate the whole idea of ranking students based on their performance on compulsory work. I don’t have a problem with grades being used as a means of certification. For example, I agree that it makes sense to grade students who all have the goal of becoming doctors, because there should be some kind of test to ensure doctors are responsible, capable people. But these pre-med students are not under the compulsion that I am talking about. They know what their goal is, and they have freely chosen it. I ask, “what certification are middle school, high school, and even first and second year college students working toward that warrants the use of grades in their classes?”
First of all, shouldn’t the point of education to be to educate the students, rather than to find out which students are “best”? The counter-argument to this is that “grades aren’t there to rank students, but rather to let students know where they are.” If it were true that it’s the goal of every student to get into med school some day, then I would agree that grades do a very good job of telling students where they are in relation to fulfilling their dream. However, it is my experience that many students don’t really know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
Rather than be a predictor of a student’s future med school potential, education should strive to teach students how to apply knowledge of a subject to their everyday life. And the fact is grades do a routinely terrible job in measuring a student’s ability to apply their knowledge of a subject to their daily life. (There are plenty of students who get A’s in psychology, philosophy or religion, but it’s rare for a student to allow their life to be significantly changed by what they learn in these classes. What’s more, I believe a C student is just as likely as an A student to let their lives be affected by a subject.)
Okay, so grades are useless for showing how much a student really got out of a subject, but we need grades as a way to make sure people show up for class and learn to be good, responsible citizens, right? NO, NO, NO, NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NOOOOOOOOO!!! The way to encourage others to better themselves is always through showing your interest and concern for them and can never be accomplished by forcing them to adhere to your demands. Forcing demands on others is a technique that should only be brought out when necessary; it is not a philosophy that a healthy system can be built upon. Yes, we need to set high standards in our schools and to hold high expectations for the brightest students. But it is imperative that students view these standards and expectations as arising from our concern about them rather than as arising from the competitive demands of the social and economic system.
Imagine being an observer at a basketball camp. Rather than letting the kids enjoy playing basketball, the camp directors decide to figure which kids will have the best chance of playing in college. But the way they do this is that they tell all the kids to go and collect as many things having to do with basketball as they can. The kid who can collect the most about basketball surely is the most knowledgeable and devoted to it, they figure, and will therefore make the best college player. Some kids run off immediately to find books, balls, trading cards, and whatever else they can find relating to the game. Another group of kids ignores these directions and start playing just for their love of playing basketball. But when these kids see the camp directors praising the first group of kids for what they’ve collected and telling them what good college players they’ll be, more and more kids stop playing basketball and go off to collect paraphernalia. The small group of kids that keeps playing basketball is largely ignored. Most of them never even get a shot at playing in college though, while scholarships are readily handed to the kids who have large collections of Nike shoes and NBA jerseys.
Now replace “basketball” with “education” and “playing in college” with “being successful.” That’s a picture of what education is like today. I swear to you right here; it will be torn down.