Grades are such an integral part of schooling today that it can be difficult to imagine how schools could ever operate without them. Students are told that getting good grades is the ultimate reason to work hard. After all, grades are used to judge a learner’s history and status, and even predict—and sometimes dictate—their future. Given the significance assigned to this component of our educational system, we might think that it has a deep and rich history associated with learning.
Yet, grades and grading have not always been the way in which learning was measured and reported. Prior to the introduction of grades, the quality and preparedness of students were connected to the educator, or educators, under whom they studied. When seeking a position, students presented the name and reputation of their teacher or teachers. The reputation and testimony of the person(s) under whom they studied was used to assure the preparedness of the position seeker. However, this approach presented at least two challenges: first, educators’ reputations were dependent on ensuring that their students gained the intended knowledge and skills, and second, such a tight connection between learner and teacher meant that educators could support a limited number of students at any time.
In the late 1700s, a tutor at Cambridge University, William Farish, borrowed the practice of grading the quality of shoes made in factories and applied that practice to students. Finished shoes were given a grade based on the quality of the workmanship they represented; better-quality shoes were worth more, while lower-quality shoes were priced low or rejected. Interestingly, Farish’s idea caught on almost immediately, became common practice in schools within a generation, and has remained the most common way to judge learners and learning ever since.
Why is this history important, and why might it matter today? Let’s explore.
First, students and learning are much more complex than stitching and leather, and learning is infinitely more difficult to measure and judge than the ruggedness and style of a shoe. Deciding to consolidate the multiple dimensions of learning into a single number or letter compromises understanding and ignores the complexity of the process.
Second, while a poor-quality pair of shoes may not be comfortable or last long, failing to learn risks handicapping future opportunities for students. Further, a low grade does not just imply poor-quality learning; it often means that some learning did not occur at all. Consequently, future instruction based on the assumption that prior learning occurred further disadvantages the learner and compounds the error.
Third, when grades are applied to shoes, the identity of the shoe is intertwined with the quality of its materials and workmanship. Alternatively, students are much more than the grades they receive. Yet, grades too often are used to assign identity, define expectations, and determine the levels of adult effort and investment that students will experience.
Fourth, a shoe may be the product of the assembler’s effort and skill, but learners play a key role in the teaching and learning process. Readiness, relationships, and instructional practices are all significant to the learning process. However, the assignment of grades can create a temptation to blame students for lack of learning rather than sharing responsibility, providing needed support, or taking timely steps to address barriers.
Fifth, while the idea of grading students like shoes provided an efficient way for teachers to teach more students, there remain limits on how many students a teacher can effectively support. It is true that many of the limitations present at the time grading was adopted no longer exist today. We know much more about how learning occurs and how to nurture it, and technology can help us to customize experiences and track progress in real time. Regardless, the ability to assign grades should not serve as a reason to continually expand the number of students teachers are expected to support.
The time has come to re-examine the traditional practice of assigning a single grade to such a complex process as learning. Students, parents, and others with an interest in learning progress and performance deserve more informative and actionable indicators of where learning has occurred, how much learning has occurred, and what needs to be done to see that expected learning will occur.