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The Case Against Grades

The country's "most outspoken critic" of our national fixation on grades and test scores explains to teachers -- and parents -- why giving children grades does more harm than good.
[This is a slightly expanded version of an article originally published in Educational Leadership.]
"I remember the first time that a grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing….Suddenly all the joy was taken away.  I was writing for a grade -- I was no longer exploring for me.  I want to get that back.  Will I ever get that back?"  -- Claire, a student (in Olson, 2006)
By now enough has been written about academic assessment to fill a library, but when you stop to think about it, the whole enterprise really amounts to a straightforward two-step dance.  We need to collect information about how students are doing, and then we need to share that information (along with our judgments, perhaps) with the students and their parents.  Gather and report -- that’s pretty much it.
You say the devil is in the details?  Maybe so, but I’d argue that too much attention to the particulars of implementation may be distracting us from the bigger picture -- or at least from a pair of remarkable conclusions that emerge from the best theory, practice, and research on the subject:  Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.
Why tests are not a particularly useful way to assess student learning (at least the kind that matters), and what thoughtful educators do instead, are questions that must wait for another day.  Here, our task is to take a hard look at the second practice, the use of letters or numbers as evaluative summaries of how well students have done, regardless of the method used to arrive at those judgments.

The Effects of Grading
Most of the criticisms of grading you’ll hear today were laid out forcefully and eloquently anywhere from four to eight decades ago (Crooks, 1933; De Zouche, 1945; Kirschenbaum, Simon, & Napier, 1971; Linder, 1940; Marshall, 1968), and these early essays make for eye-opening reading.  They remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization. 
In the 1980s and ‘90s, educational psychologists systematically studied the effects of grades.  As I’ve reported elsewhere (Kohn, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c), when students from elementary school to college who are led to focus on grades are compared with those who aren’t, the results support three robust conclusions:
  • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.  A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related and, as far as I can tell, every study that has ever investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative effect.
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.  Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count toward their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks.  They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly -- not because they’re “unmotivated” but because they’re rational.  They’re responding to adults who, by telling them the goal is to get a good mark, have sent the message that success matters more than learning.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.  They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”  In one experiment, students told they’d be graded on how well they learned a social studies lesson had more trouble understanding the main point of the text than did students who were told that no grades would be involved.  Even on a measure of rote recall, the graded group remembered fewer facts a week later (Grolnick and Ryan, 1987).

Research on the effects of grading has slowed down in the last couple of decades, but the studies that are still being done reinforce the earlier findings.  For example, a grade-oriented environment is associated with increased levels of cheating (Anderman and Murdock, 2007), grades (whether or not accompanied by comments) promote a fear of failure even in high-achieving students (Pulfrey et al., 2011), and the elimination of grades (in favor of a pass/fail system) produces substantial benefits with no apparent disadvantages in medical school (White and Fantone, 2010).  More important, no recent research has contradicted the earlier “big three” findings, so those conclusions still stand.

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