The Grade Divide

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Take a moment to think about the purpose of grades. What comes to mind?

Historically speaking, grades were verbal reports from the teacher to parents about what students knew and could do, as well as areas in which they could improve (Brookhardt et al). Percentages and letter grades entered the academic scene in the early 20th century, which is about the time “specific communication of what students knew and could do” left the conversation.

But without specific details about what a student knows, what purpose do grades serve?

In his book, A Teacher’s Handbook: Building Communities of Self-Directed LearnersLarry Genistates that grading is part of an authoritarian system (Bradford) to reward and punish students. They inhibit genuine learning and act as extrinsic motivators. Grades sort students along the bell curve (think college and how professors determined cutoff grades using standard deviation). This idea of sorting is something that many teachers might feel is a natural part of school; some students do really well, a large majority will do okay, and a handful…will not. But what are the implications of sorting students?

Let’s look at some facts:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data on achievement gapsshows that there is a widening gap between White and Black/Hispanic students

  • Socioeconomic status has a “substantial effect” on student grades (Johnson, McGue, & Iacono)

  • For over three decades, girls have earned higher grades and grade point averages than boys in school (Grasgreen)

  • Sixty to seventy percent of included students with disabilities receive below-average grades in their general education classes, with more than half of all students having a grade-point average below 2.24, with 35% below 1.75 (Munk & Bursuck).

Grades, as educators have been reporting since the early 20th century, have contributed to the divide of learners based on race, socioeconomic status, sex, gender identity, ability, and more, granting even more access and opportunities to those who already had them.

To me, this screams inequity.

But imagine a scenario where all students did well. What would that mean or how would that look? Some might say that the curriculum is watered down, that the class is too easy. Others might suggest that grades are inflated (Herron & Markovich). But isn’t the purpose of school supposed to be for all students to learn as much as possible and for all students to demonstrate a high understanding and synthesis of the content?

Is it not feasible for all students to achieve at a high level?

Geni suggests that the deemphasis of grades can lead to structural changes that are both necessary and important in developing genuine learning experiences for our students. The idea that “each student, regardless of background, should have equitable opportunities to demonstrate their mastery of course content and skills and be held to fair educational expectations” should be the basis for improved grading practices and improved learning (Hanover Research).

But how can educators address the issue of inequitable grading practices?

As my fellow #TG² mate Peter Anderson suggests, developing structures that deemphasize grades changes everything while changing nothing at all. Class may run as it has in the past. What differs is the lack of leverage that grades have on compliance and work completion. This forces the teacher to evaluate each piece of work that they assign, questioning if it will benefit student growth and learning.

Don’t get me wrong: going gradeless is scary. From what I gathered from my own unscientific poll, many teachers are unwilling to take this step into the unknown. Perhaps the first step is to minimize grades, as Sarah Donovan, Ph.D. suggests. Perhaps students could evaluate the quality in their work in a way that mirrors teacher practices (Spangler). Perhaps students should be the ones providing evidence of their own learning in a student-led conference or portfolio.

There is no single, prescribed way to do this. It is important to find what works for the teacher and the students.

So, take a moment to think about grades. What is the distribution? How are students sorted? How can we include student voice in the conversation? How can parents, guardians, and teachers help bridge the grade divide?


Gary Chu is a high school mathematics teacher just outside Chicago. Connect with him onTwitter. Find more of his writing on Medium.