In an attempt at easing the high school-to-college transition, some U.S. universities have begun implementing unorthodox student assessment methods, reigniting a debate over whether the traditional letter grading system still works. The new trend, called "un-grading," is a part of "a growing movement to stop assigning conventional A through F letter grades to first-year college students and, sometimes, upperclassmen," NPR reports. Though it existed before the pandemic, un-grading has "taken on new urgency" as of late, "as educators around the country think twice about assigning those judgmental letters A-F to students whose schooling has been disrupted for two years," The Washington Post wrote last year. Teachers and faculty at Texas Christian University, the University of New Hampshire, and Florida Gulf Coast University, for example, are among the growing group experimenting with some form of un-grading, which might involve allowing students to pick between written and verbal exams and letting them choose how their homework impacts their final score.
To help make better sense of the debate, we've outlined a few of the pros and cons of traditional letter grading below:
Pro: Letter grades hold students accountable
Advocates for the conventional grading system say it helps students easily identify "their improvements, mistakes, and areas they can work on," per Harlem World Magazine. Indeed, a precise scale for performance feedback allows students to discover their strengths and weaknesses and "build self-analytical skills."
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"Things like grades and clear assignments can be enormously useful handrails to help you make your way," Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told NPR. Assuming that students are "too fragile" to receive feedback from the teachers "strikes me as missing a pretty significant element of the purpose of higher education," he added.
Con: Letter grades de-emphasize learning
Critics of the letter grading system say that "students have become so preoccupied with grades, they aren't actually learning," NPR summarizes. "Grades are not a representation of student learning, as hard as it is for us to break the mindset that if the student got an A, it means they learned," said Jody Greene, special adviser to the provost for educational equity and academic success at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In fact, Greene added, letter grades "are terrible motivators for doing sustained and deep learning."
The use of "letter grades as a currency" has "negatively distorted student motivation for generations," Jack Schneider, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, wrote for The New York Times. "Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades."
Pro: Letter grades are universally understood
"Grading systems are universal in nature," Harlem World explained, and using a system that is understood across institutions makes it easier for students to "analyze and figure out where they stand in the world on the basis of their grades."
Indeed, that the letter grading system is easy to understand is "one clear advantage over other models," Evan Thompson wrote in a blog for The Best Schools, an education resource website. "Everyone knows what grades mean," making it "easy for students to understand where they stand in a class or on a particular subject."
Con: Letter grades perpetuate an unfair system
Champions of un-grading say it addresses "the unfairness of a system in which some students are better ready for college than others," NPR summarizes. For instance, UCSC's Greene told NPR, lower-income students are most likely to feel anxiety about grades. "Let's say they get a slightly failing grade on the first quiz. They are not likely to go and seek help. They're likely to try and disappear," Greene said.
Letter grades have been used to "justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student's race or class," Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, chief academic officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Pedro A. Garcia, senior executive director of the division of instruction, said in a 2021 letter to principals. In continuing to use the old system, educators "inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps, rewarding our most privileged students and punishing those who are not."
Pro: Letter grades encourage competition
Letter grades incentivize students to perform well by encouraging them to compete with each other, wrote educator Patricia Willis in a blog for Study.com, an online learning platform. Competitive students "are willing to work hard because they want to be first among their peers." A pass/fail system, on the other hand, leaves "little incentive for students to work hard." This can be especially true if students "feel that extra effort makes no difference in the end."
Con: Letter grades fail to provide room for improvement
"The A-F letter-grading scale offers little room for improvement once the assignment, assessment, or course has concluded," said Jon Alfuth, senior director of state policy at the education nonprofit KnowledgeWorks, in a letter to the editor at Education Week.
"Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn't mean I don't have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test," Yoshimoto-Towery told the Los Angeles Times. "Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so."
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