There is always something or someone to blame in our struggle for education reform. Sometimes it’s the “bad teachers” who get the blame. Other times it's standardized testing, insufficient funding, or slow-moving bureaucracy. I blame grades.
Grading students, from A to F, has become synonymous with education itself. Report-card day is an American rite of passage. Yet, there's reason to believe the structure of grading students is the biggest culprit in America's long, steady decline in education—SAT reading scores are at a 40-year low, and one recent study ranked the U.S. 17th in education, worse than Poland, Canada, Ireland, South Korea, and Denmark. It's becoming increasingly clear that the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.
A 2002 study at the University of Michigan found that 80 percent of students surveyed based their self-worth on academic performance—more than cited family support as a source of self-esteem. A 2006 study at King’s College showed adolescents with low self-esteem were more likely to have poor health, be involved in criminal behavior, and earn less than their peers. Since it’s overwhelmingly poor students who are prone to bad grades, a self-reinforcing loop is created. Poverty leads to bad grades and low self-esteem, which leads to more poverty and social dysfunction.
In its earliest forms, education was a Socratic practice of self-knowledge; an isolated act of enshrining religious traditions; or, most commonly, an informal transfer of skill on the homestead, with parents teaching children how to plant, harvest, raise livestock, or practice some craft passed through generations. That all began to change in 1792 when William Farish, a tutor and soon-to-be chemistry professor at Cambridge, became an early advocate of evaluating student performance through quantifying test results. A century later, the logic transformed into a letter-based scale first seen at Mount Holyoke College in 1897. By the 1930s, the ABC approach had been adopted by a wide group of schools and universities around the country and, not coincidentally, would be reabsorbed by a number of industrial interests, including dairy, beef, poultry, and plywood. (That’s some A+ plywood!)
These changes coincided with the rapid expansion of compulsory education in America, a legal standard that had been adopted by all 50 states by 1917. Grades were the foundation of this expansion, providing data points for a system in which one person would get a corner office and another would be lost to a life flipping burgers or changing motor oil. If you want to succeed in life, stay in school, get good grades.
The catch is that fear of negative outcomes has been repeatedly shown to be a major impediment to learning. A survey of students at the University of Cape Town found that stress and fear of failing tests led to "classic symptoms of procrastination and avoidance," confusion and low self-esteem. “ ... [I]t's one of those things where if I have to fail a test, I'm Like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can't fail a test.’ It's like a really serious strain,” one subject reported. Another showed the classic habit of grade-weighted failure leading to disengagement: “But I just didn’t like the fact that I had failed, so I just moved on to something else.” These responses are echoed by a number of studies that show students’ willingness to take on challenging tasks diminishes when grades are involved, but without grades, students left on their own tend to seek out more challenging problems.