It is quite appalling how schools have come to rely on the five-point letter grading system for evaluating something as important as academic performance. Letter grades are subjective and have become deeply ingrained in the educational system. From elementary school through graduate school, students are evaluated using a letter grade scale or the grade point average. The grading system has become the educator’s most powerful bargaining tool feared by students. It has become the judge compressed into letters of the alphabet. The five-letter grading system is not necessarily informative, as it is a gross conclusion of what students are capable of learning and doing.
One good thing about the educational grading system is that it holds its significance. Grading a student’s performance allows them—and their parents—to recognize areas that need help or where the student needs to spend more time studying. And though grades serve as a solution to the challenge of assessing students’ performance, it is time schools begin to shift their focus away from the regular grading system and try to implement something new.
The educational system has become deeply conditioned by letter grades. It sets up students against each other and encourages competitiveness between students – they are now motivated by a compulsion to outdo their peers rather than a desire to learn.
Reasons to shift focus away from the letter-based grading system
- Sometimes, this grading system limits students. They fail to see the personal benefits of a good education.
- It contributes to the diminishing value of learning.
- It redefines success, making students have little or no ability to practice subjects they have supposedly “passed.” Success does not solely come from having an “A” in a quantitative mathematics class. Success also comes from remembering what was taught and having the ability to apply those lessons to everyday life.
- The traditional grading system promotes contempt and mediocrity, as students with lower grades tend to have lower self-esteem. Then they begin to feel they are not hard-working and incapable of performing as well as their peers.
- Students tend to seek validation from the letters of the alphabet rather than harnessing their potentials.
Four Alternative Grading Systems
Schools can explore other alternatives to the traditional letter-based grading system, such as:
Mastery-based education helps students master a set of skills equivalent to their grade level. Once students become proficient in a skill, they progress to the next level. For example, in a math class, students may work on mastering the multiplication table. After demonstrating competency throughout a designated number of times, they move on to another skill.
This means that underperforming students do not get failing grades. Instead, they continue to practice concepts until they have grasped them—and then move forward. Teachers also give students updates on their progress, including what they still need to master. And as long as students pick up the skills they need by the end of the school year, they can advance to the next grade level.
This system allows students to progress at their own pace. Fast learners can advance quickly and excel, while slower learners have the time they need and the opportunity to understand the concept.
Live feedback involves giving students constructive criticism and advice as they work. Rather than waiting till the end of an assignment or session to receive a report, students receive guidance and input from their teachers while they work.
The live feedback approach emphasizes collaboration between teachers and students. Teachers help students along the way, responding to individual student needs, and students—in turn—feel encouraged to learn. Live feedback also gives teachers important insights into student learning in real-time. This allows teachers to review their materials and method of teaching.
Self-evaluations are another way to track student progress. This alternative helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses, giving them a chance to see where they may need to improve. It is more like reflective learning, where students own and monitor their learning processes. Self-evaluations also allow students to become problem solvers and shifts the focus from results to process.
Gamification in education involves applying game concepts to learning. In other words, learning the skill and subject matter becomes a game. Gamification offers an interesting and motivational alternative to letter-based grading.
For example, teachers can replace letter grades with point systems. Students collect points for each achievement. And these points can buy students badges that show their mastery of concepts or skills. This approach also converts homework and class time into opportunities to advance, as in a game, making learning fun.
Learning in school has lost its appeal to students. The sole aim of a college education now seems to be a requirement for a stable job and income. Everyone wants a good grade to get a good job and support their families, which is not out of place. But most future employers will not care what grade students earned. Employers want to know what challenges students faced in school, how they managed those challenges, and what experiences changed.
Students develop competence, personal integrity and wholeness, establish identity and purpose, learn to manage relationships and emotions in school. But none of these have anything to do with grades. Good grades should not be viewed as the foundation for a successful future. Instead, students should acknowledge the inherent benefits of learning and overcoming challenges.
Hence, schools should find effective alternative grading systems to measure students’ progress and motivate them to become better because improving the self should be the ultimate goal of college and life.