As of last year, there were an estimated 50 million students in the United States who were attending public elementary and secondary schools. Within the next few years, these children will be having full time jobs and contributing towards the growth of the nation. It is no secret that good education has an effect on progress of a people, which is why it is important to ensure that education systems are constantly evolving. In this spirit, the grading system that is employed by majority of the schools in the USA is observed to give rise to many problems, and it will have to be changed if we want the children of the future to be competent.

The present scenario

The present system makes a student sit through a class for an entire year and allows progression to a higher grade once they prove their proficiency at the end of the year. This kind of a system assumes that students have gained expertise in their subjects before they are made to sit through more advanced classes. But empirical evidence shows that students can progress to higher grades even when they are not competent enough to grasp advanced concepts.

The grading system has, for many years, been the subject of criticism as many people become acutely aware of the effect it has on children. One of the primary issues is that the grading system focuses on achieving marks, instead of learning the concept thoroughly. The intrinsic motivation for students in such a system is to get good grades, and this forces them to take lesser risks in their learning process, instead of exploring topics that lie beyond their current skill set.

The very approach to learning is corrupted when the message given by an educational institution is “grades matter more than learning”. As the students study a book with the intention of memorizing facts, their quality of understanding the essence of the text is diminished, and this effect is magnified as the students progress through higher levels of the education system.

Why improvement would not really help

Many people are of the opinion that an improvement in the education system is a necessity, but they may not be very open to completely doing away with the grading system. Several schools around the country try to augment the grading system by introducing innovative policies, yet these methods do not stand the test of time. The reason that superficial improvements to the grading system do not work is because it is psychologically flawed.

Experts of pedagogy agree that the learning process inherently motivates students, not because they stand to gain good grades, but because the subject matter interests them. The grading system, instead of acknowledging this quality, forces a structure of rewards and punishments in the hopes of spurring young minds to work harder. Studies conducted by educational psychologists reveal that simply focusing on the assessment process can undermine the quality of learning, as the students monitor their performance instead of trying to grasp the nuances of the subject matter.

How to move towards standards-based learning

The process of change towards standards-based learning is arduous and it will require the combined efforts of school administrators and teachers, if a school hopes to use such a system in the long run. To make a gradual move away from the grading system, a school administrator needs to first have extensive discussions with teachers, parents and even students about the effects of the present system. The main rebuttal people have against changing the grading system is that it becomes nearly impossible to collect data about a student’s performance. But there are far better methods of assessing mastery which involves gathering information about the capability of students.

Once a considerable number of people are in support of the idea of moving away from the grading system, a school can start to eliminate the traditional system for the youngest students, so that the system can be continued as they progress through their education. Instead of completely eliminating grades, an educational institution may choose to reduce the focus on academic success to show students that learning is more important that scoring well.

Teachers will have a major role to play in the efforts of an educational institution, as they will need to adapt to new methods of assessment. There will also be considerable resistance from parents and students alike, who will argue that excellence needs to be documented with data. When faced with such situations, remember that the goal of a school is not to grade students competitively, but to increase knowledge within each student. With persistence and skill, it is possible to eliminate the grading system and move towards a competency based learning system in the long term.

Anthony Hubbard

Anthony Hubbard joined YouthBuild in 2005 and quickly moved through the ranks to his leadership role of Director. Under Anthony’s leadership, YouthBuild has been deeply invested in efforts to promote a “multiple pathways” agenda in which urban youth have greater access to higher education.

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