The Purpose of Grades is to Bribe and Threaten


Here’s your homework assignment. Ask a dozen teachers, what is the purpose behind grading students? I don’t know for sure what they’ll tell you, but whatever they say it will likely fall into one of three categories. The first category is the euphemism “to check for student understanding.” A well-intentioned teacher who spends considerable thought to assessment may say “to give feedback to the students and their parents”. The authoritarians will say something like “to hold students accountable” (many administrators would say the same about teachers). The first two categories you could do without an alpha-numeric score. I could tell a student what grade I thought they could receive on an essay based on a rubric and exemplars, or ask them good questions after an oral presentation, or report to their parents how many hours they spent at their internship (in my imaginary school, I send students out into the real world). Nothing done in typical or radical schools requires a recorded grade on a transcript in order to check student understanding or communicate with parents, and definitely not down to a single percentage point (somebody please tell me the difference between an 86 student and an 87 student).

Ask a teacher of a non-credit bearing course what their greatest struggle is. Those are the teachers who beg and plead for teeth to their programs. They’ll tell you their daily struggle is attendance and student buy-in. Therein lays your answer. The purpose in grading students is coercion. It works equally as a bribe as it does a threat, with the unfortunate (unintended?) consequence of training students to anticipate a stranger’s valuation of an arbitrary and often narrow curriculum as a superior indication of worth than intrinsic valuation of a self-directed, limitless curriculum.

Grading learning is sacrilegious, and will inevitably lead to a corruption of learning to the point it is not learning at all, but unconscious subservience. We are learning creatures; it’s in our DNA. We aren’t as strong as bears or as sturdy as goats, but we can build a house to live in, a gun to shoot the bear, and a stove to cook him up with a bit of butter from the goat. Nothing else on earth can do that, and it happens through an automatic drive for knowledge. We could wave a wand and make all schools in the world disappear, and learning will still keep on keeping on much as it has for the past ten thousand years. It’s natural and healthy because it is in our instinct to survive.

Our eating habits are distinctly human, too. We sit down with the people we like or love, often give thanks and go through little rituals like passing dishes around to every member or remaining seated until everyone is finished. We rarely eat with people we dislike, or with strangers, unless absolutely necessary. We eat like that for the same reason we love, empathize, and play (or learn…it’s the same thing). It’s gratifying for us. It strengthens us as individuals, families, and communities. It teaches us about ourselves and those around us. It makes us physically healthy.

The graded versions of these things are hotdog eating contests, spelling bees, matchmaking reality shows, recitals, trivia games, standardized tests, and so on. They are quantifiable because they are specific; you can peg it with a percentage or rate contestants hierarchically. None of it is the natural way of doing things, and taken too seriously or done for too long, none of it is healthy.

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One Response to The Purpose of Grades is to Bribe and Threaten

  1. Tiara Brown says:

    I agree with you grading students based on numeric scores is a bribe. When you see a low grade often we as students think we are stupid or completely do not understand the subject. When we get a good grade its like a statement that we are good and understanding. I agree asking someone questions after a presentation is a good way to grade whether they know the criteria or not. I think school is more about passing these days I speak even for myself to. Even if we learned and understood everything we went over we would still fail the course if we failed multiple test. What if we just weren’t good test takers?

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