January 29, 2023
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ColumnsThe 'U' in Education

Letters don’t make a student’s grade

It’s no secret I’m obsessed with getting good grades. But by focusing so much on grades, I focus less on mastering the material and more on getting high marks. Students’ obsession with grade point averages often leads to stress, affecting almost 40 percent of high schoolers, according to NPR. But a new grading system may bring an end to letter grades in both college and grade school education.

In the 1960s, Yale Law School replaced traditional letter grades with a pass-fail system. Harvard Law School followed suit in 2008. Since elementary school, most of us have been taught to believe that letter grades give us an accurate reflection of our abilities and work ethic.

However, rather than focusing on learning material in classes, students graded under a grade-letter system are often obsessed with getting high scores on tests or papers in a short period of time. Also, each teacher creates his or her own grading scale and percentage weight designation in the points-based system. This means letter grades are often subjective and not uniform, making them hard to compare among professors.

Many educators are advocating for a standards-based grading system, which allows teachers to designate different levels of proficiency, rather than letter grades, for each academic standard within a subject. Brian Stack, a New Hampshire high school principal, said his school uses rankings defined as exceeding, meeting, in progress and lacking progress. This way, students would know they need to improve in problem solving if they are designated a “not proficient” note. Brown University uses a similar system. Standards-based grading is used in hopes of eliminating much of the stress of grades and would shift the focus toward valuing learning more than just passing a class.

Of course, it becomes much harder to compare students who have been graded on a pass-fail basis. This could impact college prospects for both high schoolers and undergraduates, especially in graduate programs where high competitiveness, and therefore class rankings, play a huge factor in admissions.

However, at both Yale and Harvard Law Schools, students are graded on a pass-fail system and are currently among the top law schools in the nation. Top students can earn honors designations that exceed the pass, low pass or credit earned options.

Grades often create stress for students who believe they are an accurate reflection of intelligence. Giving students real feedback rather than subjective letter grades is more likely to drive academic success.