Secondary school teachers across the United States have distributed “A”s “B”s, “C”s, “D”s, and “F”s to their students for centuries. However, instead of creating a reason for students to comprehend and learn the information the teachers present in class, the enforcement of letter grades creates competition among classmates and stress in the lives of students. In addition, the resulting stress causes students to lose interest in the act of learning and pressures them to memorize non-essential facts so they can complete assignments for the sole purpose of “making the grade” or acquiring scholarships. Due to these realities, America should take drastic measures to abolish the traditional, problematic letter-grading system and replace it with a less stressful, more effective pass-fail method that will help students to feel more confident about their own work and less apprehensive about meeting the grade expectations of parents, teachers, classmates, or themselves.
Some individuals believe that the letter-grading system is essential to secondary schools and should remain in its present condition. The individuals who argue this point also argue that the letter-grading system serves as a way for colleges and organizations to distinguish the “elite” hard workers from the rest. For example, Alex Kingsbury, author of the article “Yes, Your Grades Mean a Lot,” argues in favor of the current system, and sees high grades as an important factor that provides student scholarships and allows colleges to recognize good students. Kingsbury states, “Scoring top marks is the most lucrative way to earn money for school, since academic performance is usually a criterion for distributing scholarships from many foundations, universities, and states”(par. 3). This is true-students who receive near-perfect grade point averages also receive many scholarships. In addition, Kingsbury states, “[…] it’s important to get good grades so that you can get into the college you want (to say nothing of the bonus of actually learning something in high school)”(par. 3). This statement is true of today’s average college admissions standards. College admissions officers are more likely to accept a student who receives exceptional grades as opposed to one who receives mediocre grades.
However, one might argue with Kingsbury’s first point. Although academic scholarships do give students with high grades the opportunity to receive financial aid for college, they fail to acknowledge the efforts of those students who work diligently, but cannot grasp the material well enough to receive an “A” or “B.” Further, if the purpose of schooling is to instill knowledge in the minds of youngsters and to motivate them, as Kingsbury quotes teacher Michael Maguire, “to try [their] best” at each subject, the idea of scholarships, as well as the letter-grading system, defeats this purpose (Maguire qtd. in Kingsbury par. 8). The letter-grading system does not only encourage students to “try their best”-it also creates competition among students who strive for exceptional grades in order to receive a scholarship, tension between teachers and students, students and their parents, and parents and teachers if the student does not receive the desired grades or scholarship, and a sense of inferiority in the student if the student “tries his best” but does not manage to receive the “A,” the “B,” or the scholarship.
In his second argumentative point, Kingsbury makes the assumption that good grades determine that a student has “learned something” in high school. This can be true, but it is not a proven fact. For example, a student who memorizes information to do well on a test and to receive the desired “A” or “B” does not necessarily “learn” the information. In support of this idea, philosopher Paulo Freire, writer of The “Banking” Concept of Education, states that education is “[…] an act of depositing in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat”(Freire 260). Here, one can see that teachers gain control over their students by “depositing” information in the minds of the students and encouraging the students to memorize, rather than absorb, think about, and challenge the material. Further, most students know that the teachers will test and grade them on this information. Therefore, they memorize words rather than abstract thoughts. This memorization of words turns students into “mechanical” creatures rather than critical thinkers. In response to this idea, Freire states:
It is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be human. Knowledge emerges only though invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other (Freire 260).
Freire believes that students who memorize information and “file” it in their minds for the sole purpose of “making the grade” fail to think critically and creatively. By concentrating on the grade itself, a student is not likely to think about a particular subject or idea for an extended period of time.
As stated in the introduction of The “Banking” Concept of Education, grades often hinder “critical perception, interpretation, and rewriting of what is read” because many students study the information on which their teachers promise to test them with the intention of obtaining a high letter grade. In addition, because students realize they do not need to know certain information for a particular test, they fail to pay attention to the other “irrelevant” information. This is a problem in secondary education because the sole purpose of school is to promote the learning and thirst for knowledge in young students. Therefore, if the traditional letter-grading system continues to exist, most students will remain motivated to study in order to receive good grades. At the same time, they will remain unmotivated to learn.
One might argue that the elimination of the traditional grading system would cause students to lose motivation for studying in order to master the requirements of a specific subject. Another might believe that the idea of a pass/fail method would eliminate feedback between teacher and student. On the contrary, it is the responsibility of the teacher to motivate, encourage, and give feedback to the student regardless of the grading method. However, with a pass/fail grading system, students might feel less pressure to meet certain grade requirements. For example, John Holt, author of the article “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading,” delves into the psychological aspect of learning. Holt believes that when children do not think they are learning information, they perform better in school. Holt might agree that the elimination of letter grades and the installation of the pass/fail method would give students motivation to do the work and give them more time and space to think freely about certain topics. Holt feels that “if books cause [students] humiliation and pain, they are likely to decide that the safest thing to do is to leave all books alone”(Holt 10). One might argue that the same exists with grades-if grades continue to humiliate students who work hard and have trouble obtaining “A”s and “B”s, those students are less likely to obtain a college education.
However, with the pass/fail method, students who make a strong effort to do well in each class (although they would not necessarily receive a 4.0 grade point average with the traditional grading system) will receive a “P” rather than a low “B” or “C.” Teachers can evaluate these students with numerical, effort and critical thought-based rubrics and keep log of these rubrics in lieu of grade transcripts. In this manner, students who may not normally want to enter college might be encouraged to do so. This would create a trend of more highly educated students in the years to come.
In addition, John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City Teacher of the year and author of The Underground History of American Education, asks, “Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in grades?”(Gatto 33). One might offer one solution to this classroom monotony: eliminate grades, eliminate the boredom. With the pass/fail method, the stress often involved in the student’s attempt to receive high grades will cease to exist and allow communication between teacher and student to flow freely. As Freire states, through dialogue, “[students and teachers] become responsible for a process in which they all grow”(Freire 265). Therefore, a pass/fail system that erases the pressure of letter grades and creates free-flowing communication between students and teachers eliminates the need for letter grades. As Freire believes, if communication exists, there would be no need to test or grade students on material (Freire 263). Through hands-on techniques and accelerated discussion, teachers would assume that the student is already learning and thinking critically about that material. Further, one might argue that the act of learning the material reigns over the act of memorizing it. The former helps the young student to thrive in the classroom while the latter turns the student into a teacher-fearing, grade-obsessing object.
In essence, if the United States continues to follow the traditional letter-grading system, tension will linger in classrooms. Communication between students and teachers will cease to exist. Students will continue to feel humiliated and “defeated” when teachers give them grades lower than their peers. Does the United States want a student to feel “punished” for receiving a “C” or a “D” rather than an “A” or a “B” although that student may have tried his hardest? Or does the U.S. want the student to be at ease with pass/fail system, informing the student that he or she did the work necessary to pass the class and succeed as a student? Which of the following is more important: a letter grade that the student will eventually forget or the gusto for learning that will last a lifetime?
Friere, Paulo. The “Banking” Concept of Education. Class Handout. ENC 2085.
Gatto, John Taylor. “Against School How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, And Why.” Harper’s Magazine. July 2002: 19-24.
Holt, John. “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.” The Underachieving School. Writing
and Research Across The Curriculum. Docutek Electronic Reserves. Manhattanville Coll.
Lib., Purchase, NY. 22 Feb. 2005 page=search>.
Kingsbury, Alex. “Yes, Your Grades Mean a Lot.” U.S.News & World Report 137.7. 6 Sept. 2004. 72-73. Academic Search Premier. Manhattanville Coll. Lib., Purchase, NY. 21 Feb. 2005 .