Let’s take grades off their pedestal

By KEMI FUENTES-GEORGE

I have always hated grading. The debate over grades in regard to our truncated semester has reinforced this immensely. To be clear, I don’t hate reading and evaluating student assignments— although reading and evaluating can be tremendously time-consuming (and often repetitive), it’s exceptionally worthwhile. Evaluations are not only an important part of student progress, but also provide the professor another way beyond class discussions and office hours to get to know students. Grading, however, is different.

Let’s be real. Grades are reductive. Weeks of work boiled down to a single letter that, absent a narrative, provides almost no information to an outside reader about a student’s actual trajectory during the semester. Grades depress risk-taking. Students are encouraged to avoid interesting but potentially challenging classes out of fear that it will tank their GPAs (and on the flip side, they are encouraged to take classes that they’re not interested in to raise their GPAs). Grades encourage focusing on the wrong things. Any conversation about whether a criticism merits a 3 point deduction or a 3.25 point deduction is one conversation on grade reductions too many. Grades are not the only possible indicators of improvement. As professors, we regularly submit articles for publication, get feedback on them and then respond to these critiques, all without getting grades. Grades create perverse incentives. As reported in this paper, cheating on assignments is widespread enough, leading to periodic attempts to rethink the Honor Code and its enforcement.

All of this has come into even sharper focus recently, as we debated (seemingly forever) what to do about grading for this semester. This was particularly distressing, given how the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the already wide disparity among students with and without privilege. I understand that the college is working on making high-speed internet accessible to those who otherwise would not have it, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that high-speed internet is far from the only difference between the haves and have-nots. For the past several weeks, I have spoken to students (some in my class, some not) dealing with all manners of challenges. One was sick for almost two weeks, with a high fever, respiratory distress and other symptoms of Covid-19, but could not get tested and had to gut it out. One is working 25 hours a week to help provide for their family given the economic upheaval. One is in a two-bedroom apartment, sharing a room with a parent with little to no privacy, no separate workspace and added familial burdens. Giving those students letter grades with anything resembling the same criteria as those who have a separate workspace, their own room, economic security and a stable family situation seems shambolic.

Of course, the recent letter by Quinn Boyle ’21.5, Jack Brown ’22 and Rati Saini ’22 raises an important point: some students — including those from less privileged backgrounds — were hoping to use this semester to raise their GPAs. However, this underlines the problem with grading en masse: This objection about GPAs is not that students are going to learn, or fail to learn, and is in fact divorced from the actual content of classes and the purpose of taking them. To be fair to Quinn, Jack, Rati and the supporters of their petition, their opt-in position is entirely understandable given the structure of incentives set up by grading. They’ve got good points!

But so does the platform of mandatory Pass/D/Fail —and mandatory credit/no-credit. But it has become clear to me that none of these proposals address the underlying problem of grading and its structure of incentives. It’s like arguing over what the best color scheme is for a house on fire. It misses the problem.

Are there other options to the current system? Of course there are. Reed, Brown, Hampshire and Sarah Lawrence use a variety of approaches to evaluate student progress that either supplement, modify or abandon the traditional grading system entirely. Surely we can recognize that those colleges are all capable of educating and engaging students.

I don’t know what our options are, but we do not have to be stuck with this system indefinitely. This crisis is exposing the problem of grading, but Covid-19 hasn’t caused it, and these underlying issues will persist after we learn to manage the coronavirus. Students: Imagine what life would be like if you could take the classes you were genuinely interested in, without being hung up about your GPAs. Think about how creative you could be with your classes and assignments. Professors: Imagine if all you had to worry about was making sure your feedback was clear and useful, rather than having to quibble over whether you should have taken off a fraction of a percent for an assignment or not. Keep in mind that, as multiple studies have shown, giving students higher grades leads systematically to more favorable student evaluations, which has been one of the primary drivers of grade inflation. Administrators: Imagine if you didn’t have to think about dealing with grade inflation, because we didn’t have to address student concerns over grades, and could focus instead on student learning (see again: the Reed College system).

None of this is going to fix the current problem of what to do about this semester. But it’s well past time to think seriously about how we grade and assess students. There are many things wrong with the current grading system, and in my ideal world, we would use this opportunity to think about reform, rather than only patching the crisis and returning to business as usual when it’s over. Students and families: I promise you, you are not actually paying for grades. You are paying for an education. Grades are only incidentally related.

Kemi Fuentes-George is a professor of political science at Middlebury.

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