Re: grades

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Fri, 30 Aug 1996 15:21:18 -0400

On Wed, 28 Aug 1996, Jeffrey R Galin wrote:

> 1) If when we say gradess are bad, we need to ask "bad for what?" Yes
> grades are not useful markers of evaluation. When students or teachers
> use them in place of constructive evaluation, there is a problem;
> 2) If we say grades need to be eliminated, we need to aks wehther we are
> talking about the elimination of both grades and evaluations, or just
> grades.

On this second question the answer lies in the first. Grades in place of
evaluation are bad. They don't really say anything specific but are so
wrapped up in a priori denotations: excellent, good, fair, poor,
failure. So a student may see an A on a paper and think it is excellent,
but too often the student can not say why it is excellent, or what about
it is excellent.

Even when teachers link grades to explicit--contract systems are an
example, but not the only one of course--criteria, or even when teachers
detail in conjunction with students how and why criteria will be applied
and work with them to arrive at criteria, students will often not 'read'
that criteria into the grade.

Thus one thing to be gained from the elimination of grades is that, in
Elbow's phrase from his "Liking" essay, is to enhance evaluation. I
don't think anyone can teach without evaluating the learning, and I don't
think it's wise to teach writing especially without teaching writers how
to do that evaluating on their own. In many respects the ability to
evaluate *is* the ability to write.

> Also, we need to consider whether in fact the actual functions
> that grades serve are the problem or whether the ways in which grades get
> used is the problem;

I'm not sure how you mean functions. I don't think ranking is
necessarily a bad function, though of course it is abused, but name
something that can't be abused. Grades are used to rank. They do that
well in so far as people believe an A is better than a B. They're short,
easy to read, and easy to sum up. Of course they're not good indicators,
often times, of what's been learned. They don't tell a student much, or
his or her other teachers, parents, grad. schools, etc. about what the
student actually knows. We've probably all gotten a high grade from
cramming then forgetting after the test, As probably abound in subjects
we can't remember a thing about. So they're snapshots that are good at
saying, 'this student knows how to get an A.' The ideal is that to get
an A you show some mastery of content or of a skill in a course's

That said, there are times grades are wonderfully accurate. I know there
are students whose work I read, whose writing is fresh, whose abilities
and ear for language are engaging, whose insights are complex and
nuanced, whose work I read and say this is an A writer. I think most of
us have writing that we love to read, really admire and like, and if
asked we can point to its structure, its argument, the shape of the
sentences, the choice of words, the phrasing, even the punctuation with
detailed and precise accounts of why they are all good. We have standards.

Though I would argue that most of us do not see these standards as
fixed--which might undo the definition of standard. Our standards are
more rhetorically-based than rule-based (I'm not touching pomo.);
however, I think we can derive a set of skills, habits, and approaches
that we can present to writers which we believe will bring them to the
point where they can write the kind of stuff we think is good, or are
likely to claim is good as defined above.

It's better to evaluate their progress in mastering the skills, in
acquiring habits that work for them, in trying different approaches by
seeing what kind of 'product' they got. But the trick is not to grade
the product but to work from it, be it draft, notes, discussion, e-mail,
facial expression, use it as a mirror to reflect back on how they got
there. No big secret that, but doing so requires a dynamic where ranking
is beside the point and where judgment, though necessary, is used to
offer reasons for working further, not as edicts presenting a static

Grades by their history are bound to judgment as edict, ranking as
passport, and evaluation as mindless adjective. The only sure way to
shake that history is to cast it off as fully as possible, otherwise it
trips you up. I trips up a lot of us anyway, even Eric, in the end,
because we're required to use them. The trick, for me anyway, and of
course it makes me complicit, is to find a way to honor both my contract
with the college--to hand in a grade sheet and to make them accurate and
fair and representative as possible with what they are expected to
serve--and to honor the contract with my students--the syllabus in which
the course's goals, pedagogy, assumptions, grading system (self-grading,
with certain caveats and conditions) are presented.

> 3) If we are serious about eliminating grades, then we need to ask how
> can we avoid falling into other forms of grading called by different
> names;

Well this is key. I think we'll always have some form of ranking, some
method of credential; they're important and necessary ways of making
choices. If we eliminate grades, as some places have done successfully
(Evergreen for example) and switch to narratives, letters, descriptions,
we'll have all the information we need to rank people for whatever
purpose, much as happens when a series of candidates is interviewed for a
job. What's lost is convenience. But accuracy is gained, as well as a
better sense of the person who is doing the judging. I don't know much
about a student who got an A in high-school English. I know much more
from a letter of recommendation the teacher wrote that described the
course, what was read, what was expected, what was valued. I know
something about the teacher too, and the degree to whether I want to
trust him or her. It makes it easier for me to make an accurate
assessment of the student. (Can you tell I just finished reading the
admissions folders of my advisees?)

Grades represent other people's judgment, and they ask me to trust that
judgment; people who rail against grade inflation are railing against
judgments that don't match their own. I'd rather not have to rely on
those judgments solely--they can't be escaped and they can be powerfully
influencing in a narrative or letter or description, but that gives me
more to work with. I'm more comfortable with fuller measures for ranking
and judging and selecting, which is really what we're talking about I
think at some levels. Besides, I'm more confident that using fuller
evaluations and written reviews and explications are of more help to
students than grades are; so even if those are used to place or displace
a student down the road, which will happen one way or another, they can
also be used by the student to change or learn so that when they get down
the road people won't want to displace them. Grades are terminal and
look back on a course and sum it up in a single letter. Evaluations do
some of that, but they also leave room, good ones, for what else can be
done, for where to go forward. In that sense they're not terminal,
they're guideposts.

> 4) finally, eliminating grades is like treating a cold with chemotherapy
> which would certainly turn evalation into someting rather different. That
> is clamouring for the elimination of grades is like trying to purge the
> symptoms of a percieved ill by irradicating the cells that produce them.
> Maybe a better example is the treating of gangreen in a toe by cutting off
> a leg. Sure the system would change in some ways without grades, but into
> what?

Grades don't cause a cold. Grades treat the cold with chemo--they're
drastic, bombastic, and indiscriminate. They mark people, like
cancer patients with lost hair. (I'm queasy using this metaphor because
I've seen too much cancer and apologize to those who've dealt with it in
one way or another.) There have been studies (which I can't recall off
the top of my head) that have shown how teachers react differently to
students based on what they believe their prior grades have been. So it

I'd rather a wholistic method than one which pretends to have the
surgical precision of grades but is, in your amputee metaphor, about as
nuanced as those surgeons who had to cut so quickly during the Civil
War. Maybe, like that procedure there was a time when grades where
thought to have made sense, back when education believed in Brentham and
factories and bureaucratic models. But if we're going to evolve our
pedagogy into process models, away from current-traditional assumptions,
we need to find ways to make our ranking and evaluation consistent with that.

> Ultimately, seems to me that the battle to eliminate grades is a silly
> one. The argument reminds me of one made by Howard K. Beale in the 1930s
> that the forces that control the schools need to be removed so that we
> could all concentrate on the real work of learning. Such an argument
> ignores the fact that education is always political and always a function
> of the state. This is why I said earlier we need to choose our battles.
> Why not push to increase the function of evaluation within the
> institution. That seems to me to be a more productive battle. Why not
> develop methods of teaching that demphasize grades, that reward personal
> success, and that call attention to the diffeence between grades and
> evaluation? Why try to take on the whole system at once from the vangage
> point of the underside of the iceberg?

See, this is exactly right. Short of starting our own schools, we can
only really do as you suggest, but even that is frought with politics and
debate. It's even harder to change curriculum and pedagogies. So the
NCTE's English Standards, which try to guide teachers to what you ask,
are under some scathing attacks because they do challenge the assumptions
about grades. In my daughters school where many teachers don't grade in
K-3, it's hard for teachers in grades 4+ to use the same system because
the parents want to see (high ones of course) grades.

> I just don't see the point.

Well there're two points. One it needs to be an issue, so that change is
an option kept on the table. I'm thinking of political discussion as
model and how the terms of debate are shifted right, how a whole range of
ideas and points of view are gone.

Second, there's a compelling logic to the argument that can only begin to
be accepted by making the argument. To make what you suggest possible, I
think the more extremem position needs to be expounded. Not so much to
make your ideas more palatable, but to make them even understandable--the
gist is that we need to assess in ways consistent with how we teach.
That's not easy to explain and arguing against grades often goes a long
way in explaining that.

> > crumudgenly,
> jrg

Sorry this is so long, if you've survived this far, but Jeff's got this
habit of asking good questions...

crumpudgenly, I guess...

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344