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Is our Course Grading System Broken?

Perhaps you’ve heard that a North Carolina Community College -- Stanly Community College – has decided to drop the “D” grade. Students will either be given a “C” grade,” which is most likely to happen, or given a “F” grade for the course. The reason for the move is too many students received D grad, which is passing, but it holds those students back from transferring such grades (i.e. for course credit) and may deny them enrollment in higher-level courses that have prerequisites.

Apparently, the move was initiated by Math and English faculty members because these courses are gateways to others and if a student gets a D or F, s/he can’t move on to other courses and this could delay their graduation. In my opinion, this is reverse logic. Since these courses are a gateway, colleges should be doubly-sure the students have the requisite knowledge to move on. They also teach essential skills to be successful in college and, in the case of English, to function in the workplace. How many times have we heard that today’s college graduates can’t communicate? College officials seem to think students will rise to the occasion and most of them will “earn” the C grade. Perhaps, but I think it’s much more likely faculty will bump marginal students up to the C level rather than give them a F grade.

The whole grading system has come under attack. I cringe when I read some of the reasons. One education expert, Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and Schooling Beyond Measure, believes letter grades are not only unnecessary but harmful. In an interview with Time magazine, Kohn suggests that the research “shows that kids who are graded – and have been encouraged to try and improve their grades – tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible…and think less deeply than kids who are graded.” He points out that “the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports – qualitative accounts of student performance – or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.”

I think a more subjective grading system is important because it allows a teacher to elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses of each student and how they can improve. I suppose this could be done with online communication with parents and meetings and conferences. Of course, we have to be realistic and consider that to do this means overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated teachers will have more to do, a problem in the era of larger class sizes.

Let’s not throw baby out with the bath water. Grades are important if for no other reason than they signal future employers about the student’s accomplishments, which is a proxy for work ethic and personal responsibility. Moreover, it gets students ready for a competitive world where grades are replaced by promotions and pay raises. Finally, the problem isn’t the grading system. The problem is we have become a society where we don’t like judging others when the judgment can be seen as overly critical. We would rather move students along then tell them they’re not cutting it. That’s not the way the world works.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 13, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Sign up for his Winter 2018 Newsletter.

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