What do grades say about students? — Response to “Degradation”

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My high school physics teacher once said that he was paid for grading assignments and tests, not for teaching. He would agree with Michael Gillespie who called grading “the worst part” of academics in his article “Degradation” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gillespie talked about the controversy that some elite colleges such as Harvard give most of their students A’s. It is easier for the teachers because they don’t have to grade assignments as carefully or confront complaining students. It is easier for the students since they get the grade that they want. Gillespie also suggested colleges and universities to report class rank instead of letter grades.

Gillespie said “education means leading young people to improve themselves, to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses,” and I agree with him. Getting a bad but honest grade provokes students’ incentive to work hard and find out their weaknesses.

I admit that getting a decent grade in college is important, especially as a Chinese student studying in the U.S. Many of us share the pressure of getting straight A’s in college because of our educational background and parents’ expectations. The situation is not much better for domestic students. Before registering for classes, we all ask around for the ones that are light on homework and professors that are gentle on grading, and this could lead to eventual low enrollments for certain classes.

At University of Wisconsin-Madison, many professors have called the school prestigious and the students “cream of the crop.” I can imagine Harvard students hear similar titles more often than we do. However, I am surprised that most Harvard students get A’s, and I don’t think they do “because they are ALL ‘A’ students” as Bob Swift commented under the article.

“No one is perfect, and that’s why pencils have erasers,” an anonymous quote says. We all make mistakes. Getting answers wrong on tests is normal, and that is how we learn. By giving students better grades than what they deserve, teachers prevent the students from improving. “Education is about learning, failing, making mistakes,” wrote Jeremy Littau, a former journalist who specializes in teaching, on his website.

Letter grades might not be the best way for graduate schools or employers to evaluate students’ learning outcomes. “Grades are notoriously subjective, unreliable, variable from professor to professor, course to course, and college to college,” ceasar commented under the article. In my opinion, pass/fail system is not a better solution, because it decreases students’ incentive to study and the competitiveness among students which they will experience in the future.  

I think grades should reflect the amount of effort each student puts in the course as well as his or her standing compared to others in the class. It should also indicate the quality difference between their works and what is required in the real world.

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