Grades: Measure, Motivate, Monitor?

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Apparently the median grade at Harvard is an A-. For me, this begs the question -- yet again -- why do we have grades? What is their purpose or function?

Report Card

I see three possibilities off the top:

  1. Grades measure how a student performs
  2. Grades motivate students to work harder
  3. Grades monitor how a teacher is doing

If grades measure a student's performance, I find them detrimental to learning. Students who already know the material do best in these situations, and so those with the highest grade are those who lease need the course. That seems backward. Conversely, those students who have the most to learn are penalized unless they are able to, at the moment of examination, demonstrate a complete grasp of the content. Again, if the purpose of a course is to teach students new skills or knowledge, measuring performance is the wrong way to go about things.

If grades are to be a carrot to lure students onward, I find them deleterious to learning. For those of us who care about grades, we focus on the grade and ignore the opportunities to push ourselves. I played the grade game and won, but to an unknown loss in high school. For those who realize the grade game is stupid and opt-out, there is no other motivation to learn in the system. It is designed to offer a single reward, and if we don't want it, there is no reason to bother. My wife, as well as many of my friends, all experienced this demotivation.

If grades provide a way to monitor teacher performance, they have proven destructive to learning. I've read numerous reports of teachers and school districts cheating on tests to raise scores. The teachers I know are furious and frustrated that they are more and more required to "teach to the test" instead of doing their jobs. That system is broken. It pushes teachers to want to hand out As so everyone thinks their students are doing great. This is, it appears, Harvard.

Better, by far in my observation, to dispense with grades altogether. As homeschoolers, we get to focus on instilling a love of learning, a desire for knowledge, and a passion for getting things right. We don't need to play games or find external motivations or artificial ways to validate the work we do.

So keep up the good work!

Standardized tests can be a great way to find areas of struggle and help you refocus your efforts. Your student may really enjoy positive feedback as you mark work complete. And I think it is a great idea to celebrate accomplishments.

But let's do one better than Harvard and focus on learning and not some skewed grading system.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Guardian

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