Marks and grades still matter in school

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Appeared in the Epoch Times, February 23, 2023
Marks and grades still matter in school

For many teachers, marking assignments is the least enjoyable aspect of their job. Few things are more tiring and frustrating than reading and writing comments on a pile of essays only to have students throw their papers in the garbage seconds after getting them back. It certainly raises the question why teachers bother to go through this process. At a minimum, there’s got to be a way to make school assignments more meaningful to both teachers and students.

Some teachers think they have found the solution—get rid of marks and grades entirely. A recent CBC story featured a high school English teacher’s experiment with “ungrading.” This teacher does not give students marks on their assignments, but simply provides feedback students can use to improve their work in the future. At the end of the term, students meet with the teacher to make their case for the final mark they think they deserve.

While this teacher might think that marks and grades are no longer necessary, the reality is quite different. It’s one thing to try out ungrading in a handful of classes with an enthusiastic teacher and highly motivated students. It’s another thing entirely to assume that this approach would work in all grades with all students.

For example, subjects such as math are quite different from English. In math, there’s a premium on efficiency and accuracy. Allowing students as many attempts as they need to solve a problem might sound like a good approach, but this doesn’t work in professions such as engineering and medicine where accuracy is, in many cases, a matter of life and death.

As a case in point, on Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge in the state of Minnesota collapsed during the evening rush hour. Thirteen people died. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the collapse occurred because of a calculation error made by the engineers who designed the bridge. Because of their error, the bridge’s gusset plates were only half as thick as necessary, and the bridge collapsed because of too much weight.

Obviously, high school students are not designing bridges or calculating the dosage of drugs to administer to babies with heart failure. However, they should learn necessary skills and some important life lessons including that accuracy matters and that they must identify and correct errors as quickly as possible.

It’s also important to note that there’s nothing new about ungrading. American education guru Alfie Kohn has been pushing for the abolition of marks and grades for decades and his writings are frequently cited by ungrading advocates. However, Kohn is a writer, not a public high school teacher. Neither is he an assessment expert. To put it bluntly, Kohn has no experience implementing his approach in a real classroom with real students.

In addition, Kohn doesn’t just want to remove marks from individual assignments, he wants to abolish grades from schools. With his approach, students who pursue academic excellence would quickly find themselves at a disadvantage, since their efforts would no longer be differentiated from those who do not apply themselves in school. One wonders how scholarships or university admissions would even be determined if enrolment officers had no grades to use when making important decisions.

Marks and grades still matter in school because they provide important feedback to students. There’s a world of a difference between an essay that merits an “A” and one that deserves an “F.” Teachers are not doing students any favours when they shield them from feedback that they merit and deserve.

To be fair, many teachers spend too much time marking individual assignments. There’s a strong case to be made for streamlining this process and reducing the number of assignments that get submitted for formal assessment. However, this can be addressed by helping teachers become more efficient at their jobs, not by eliminating grading, which is a key part of it. While ungrading might sound like a new and innovative trend, it’s simply the latest manifestation of an old education fad. Marks and grades have been around for a long time because they work. Teachers should keep on giving students their grades. The ungrading movement deserves an “F.”

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