Do we care whether colleges like our grading systems?

The dust has settled from the start of the academic year, and a few educational bloggers are suddenly plunging into excellent, broad questions about the nature and purpose of school. For example:

  • Annie Murphy Paul has opened a discussion about the degree to which the purpose of schooling is to acquire skills to successfully compete in the global economy.
  • Grant Lichtman has bravely posted twice on the question: “Who is the School’s Customer”?

Thoughtful bloggers are asking great questions. It’s a fine way to start the new year.

Let me, in turn, ask a question that in some ways relates to both discussions above. At my school, students are settled into their first readings, units, projects, and activities. Soon, they will begin receiving grades of various sorts. These grades provide information about various aspects of their education.

Information for whom?

When I posted earlier on Timothy Quinn’s “On Grades and Grading,” I noted that Quinn believes that grading systems should be designed exclusively with pedagogy in mind. In his view, the needs of college admissions officers or employers are irrelevant. After all, they want to rank and sort students, and where is the pedagogical value in that activity? In fact, he suggests that educators might do best by their students by eliminating succinct grades entirely.

Since I posted this piece, I have had some good conversations with friends and colleagues. Some praise what they see as Quinn’s purity of purpose. Others find his dismissal of college admissions detrimental to the prospects of students in their care.

To be fair to Quinn, let me provide his own elaboration on the subject:

Admissions officers and employers can use whatever grades are provided to help them do the sorting, but producing grades that are user-friendly for these two groups should not be a concern of educators. Admissions officers and employers may be dismayed at the prospect of having to do more work in sorting students, but in the end, they will be happier if they are getting better-educated applicants due to more pedagogically sound grading policies. (14)

On one level, I find this perspective quite refreshing. As a participant in a 1:1 iPad pilot this fall, I find myself experimenting with new ways of providing feedback that are more sophisticated than what I’ve achieved in the past. Moreover, I think that there are sound reasons why schools might consider pass/fail or other options for new students in their communities. I am open to those arguments. Let me also warmly acknowledge the fine secondary schools, private and public, who have already experimented with (or proudly uphold) the elimination of letter or number grades altogether.

Yet I also pause to consider the ramifications of a four-year secondary transcript without succinct grades. Colleges are already calculating student G.P.A.s and ranking students using their own preferred methodology. If we do not use a transparent, comprehensible, and (on some level) concise grading system for these external actors, are we losing even more control over how colleges “read” our students? How often will overworked admissions officers actually read our copious documentation, our complex notations, or our course-specific check boxes? Will they misinterpret what we provide? What exactly is our obligation — if any — to our peers sitting at those desks? What is are our obligation to our students?

Will they really know that our students are better educated based on the more pedagogically sound grading systems we use, as Quinn suggests?  I would hope so. But I wonder.

Perhaps I am overreacting. Your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Do we care whether colleges like our grading systems?

  1. The dissonance is clear in this discussion. But take the college admissions office out, and the answer, with only learning at the center, is pretty darn obvious. Grades largely exist to put students into the next box on the assembly line. Most of us don’t have the courage to leave that line and venture into a new learning ecosystem. Yet.

  2. Frank: No, I don’t think you are over-reacting. Maybe two or three generations ago, when schools like yours were primary feeders to a select group of private colleges, those admissions officers would have taken the time to understand a non-concise grading system. These days I doubt they would. And if you have students applying to big state schools (Michigan, i.e.) and you don’t give a concise GPA you’re just raising the importance of SAT scores for those applicants.

    Glichtman: Grades exist for lots of different purposes. Giving feedback to an external audience about students’ relative or absolute success in a particular endeavor is one purpose. I suppose you could call that “putting students into the next box on the assembly line.” But would you us the same terminology for selecting the members of the varsity track team? Or telling an exceptional student and her prospective employer that she is exceptional?

  3. In the “real world” that we are supposed (as parents and educators) to prepare students to enter, prospective employers have never asked me for my transcript. They want a letter from my former employer – who in one page, or maybe two, sums me up. That, plus my past experiences including places from which I’ve graduated are what HR and my future boss have to go on. It is a myth that competitive colleges really rank students anymore except in the broad sense – enrollment management means that they need so many scientists from column A, so many humanists from column B, a tuba player and a tight end this year. They don’t want someone who got into a lot of trouble in school (academic or disciplinary). I think aside from that grades are irrelevant and that when someplace prestigious bucks the trend the whole thing will crumble. Having said that – I think absolute grades (based on rubrics, not a distribution or curve) and feedback, and expecting revision and improvement, is important to the learning process. College admissions is a little broken, in the sense that their expectations are working against innovation (courses that cross content silos, taking statistics rather than calculus, even though as a scientist I can tell you that I never used the latter, and we ALL need a good dose of the former as world citizens). I’d love to see college admissions, employers, and high school teachers meet up and fix the system.

  4. To paraphrase Ken Robinson, K-12 education seems to be a protracted process of university admittance. Few of us truly feel that grades help us educate students, and most veteran educators can point to times when grades hurt kids unnecessarily. The massive growth of testing culture in the US has occurred, in part, because too few outsiders trust our grading systems – they did not believe that an “A” in an secondary English course showed competency. So I am left wondering what the purpose of grading is, and whether we need to radically re-think it. I have no interest in grading high school students purely to help college admissions offices. Let them figure out who to accept or reject. Our obligation is to our students. I do not have the answer, but I have a sneaking feeling that we need to do some serious thinking on this issue.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: