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DUREGGER: The absurdity of the American grading system

The introduction of grades into school systems only diminishes the academic potential of its students

<p>Ever since third grade, when most students had gold stars <a href=";id=896CJW7EBD5D"><u>replaced</u></a> with letter grades, academic success has been pushed by leaders of the educational community.&nbsp;</p>

Ever since third grade, when most students had gold stars replaced with letter grades, academic success has been pushed by leaders of the educational community. 

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There is nothing quite like waiting to receive a grade. Whether it be submitting a project, turning in a final exam or simply completing homework, there always seems to be an air of worried restlessness that follows any assignment completion. Hours turn into days, and days turn into weeks of over-analyzing each question, desperately trying to remember what answer was put for each prompt in hopes that it will satisfy the instructor. And then it happens. During a routine check of the online gradebook, the grade shifts. As fast as the harrowing process begins, it’s over, all with a single number. Then the period of worried restlessness resumes, not for a grade but for the future because a student believes their entire fate rests in the hands of their academic standing. How meticulous, existential and soul-crushing that must feel. 

It is disappointing to think that this is the reality many students face during their academic careers. Ever since third grade, when most students had gold stars replaced with letter grades, academic success has been pushed by leaders of the educational community. Students were pitted against one another in academic contests that judged who could read the most books in a month, who could spell the most words without error or the like — all before they even hit puberty.

The history of the grading system in America is unclear. It is believed that descriptive adjectives were first used by Yale University’s president in 1785. However, it was not until 1830 that Harvard University began using a numerical scale to assess its students. New scales of merit began to be experimented with during the 1850s and were formally adopted in 1897 when Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts began the system of descriptive letters and percentages that we know today. Since then, the grading system has remained, assessing students’ intelligence with letters of the alphabet. 

It would be easy to say that the American grading system is outdated. But unfortunately, it should have never been enacted in the first place. Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, high-school instructional coach, says that “the problem lies when the product itself is elevated above the process.” Since its conception, this traditional system has valued excellence in the form of high marks, which are then correlated to high levels of intelligence and thus success. Why is it that students are taught for over a decade to receive good grades when no grades are handed out in the real world? In the real world, grades are not the end-all-be-all of life. One survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that internships were the highest rated attribute considered by employers whereas college reputation and GPA were the lowest. 

Not only that, but grades fail to even achieve what they are intended to do — assess students’ level of mastery. Students are so caught up in wanting higher grades that they are moving away from the intrinsic motivation of learning for knowledge, leading to depleted academic motivation altogether. School districts across the country are beginning to realize this and have begun employing mastery-based learning in their classrooms. These programs encourage students to master a set of skills completely before moving on to the next. There is no passing or failing, only learning and growing. 

Being successful is not dependent on grades. The existence of grades themselves is inefficient and does nothing but create universal, unrealistic standards that students are expected to meet. What truly matters is effort. Take Albert Einstein as a chief example — he dropped out of school at the age of 15, and when applying to polytechnic school later on, flunked his exam. Albert Einstein, a world-renowned physicist who won a Nobel Prize in Physics, introduced the theory of relativity and laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics among many other things, failed an exam. In actuality, the academic system failed him by not tending to his developmental needs and instead, tacking a letter on a single assessment and dismissing his potential. 

So today, when the bad grade finally appears in the grade book, take a second to think why that might be. Perhaps more studying could have been done. Oftentimes, though, it is the professor, the teacher or the school system itself that is at fault. It is the responsibility of those who hold educational rank to reform their teaching, remove grading and rethink the role of academic success in the real world. 

Grace Duregger is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.


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