Lindberg: Grades are a terrible measure of progress

Katie Lindberg

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

In the American school system, grades are a looming pressure every student has to deal with. Colorado State University is no exception. The prevalent prioritization of grades above all else is ingrained in our academic culture.

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All too often, we simply accept this as a frustrating yet necessary approach to education. But in reality, grades are nearly useless at best and harmful at worst.

As a teaching assistant, I constantly see my students fret about their grades. Sometimes a loss of just one point on a report becomes a matter of worry. I sincerely want my students to have a chance in lab to learn concepts hands-on, but many are too focused on only learning what will earn them a good grade. This is frustrating, but I cannot hold students responsible for this mindset.

We cannot blame students for hyper-monitoring their grades when education, as it stands, revolves almost completely around the grading system.

In high school, we’re told that our GPA and standardized test scores determine what colleges we can get in to, and it certainly doesn’t end once we get into one. Scholarships and financial aid depend on grades. We strive for an impressive GPA to put on our resumes. High performances are lauded and sub-par performances are chastised.

Skills and traits like critical thinking, teamwork, self-discipline, engagement and curiosity are more difficult to assess. But they are far more important for long-term learning and success than the ability to test well. According to a 2011 study by Darling-Hammond, student learning improves when instructors account for this and make course material accessible in multiple ways.

2011 study by education research site Visible Learning reported student improvement when different opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge were available outside of testing taking. Another 2014 study by Carol Ann Tomlinson – an associate professor with the University of Virginia – showed that by staying informed on their students’ unique strengths and needs, instructors were able to improve their students’ educational experience.

Grades do have a purpose in some regard. It would be naive to say that good or bad grades do not reflect anything about a student. Oftentimes, good grades are indicative of a hard worker, whereas less effort tends to earn poorer grades. In theory, a high expectation for grades should help students keep their priorities straight.

Grades are, on the whole, far too simplistic a system to accurately report on student progress. Yet even if they are aware of this reality, students have almost no choice but to prioritize grades anyway. 

But there are too many flaws in practical application. Grades are far too often based on tests and other forms of evaluation that simply cannot accurately report on a learner’s progress.

Some students, myself included, are naturally good at taking tests. It was always a breeze for me to get good grades. I made it all the way to graduate school before realizing that, in the real world, the ability to score well on a test is almost completely useless. Suddenly my lack of self-discipline, study skills and countless other practical abilities became painfully apparent.

Intelligence cannot be boiled down to a number. Grades are far too simplistic a system to accurately report on student progress. Even if they are aware of this reality, students have almost no choice but to prioritize grades anyway. The emphasis is far too strong.

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Quality education requires that we shed the narrowly-focused grading system we’ve known for too long. We as students are not to blame for missing out on valuable learning in favor of high-grade performances. We should know that our education is much more than a number. We must do whatever we can to help free future students from the unnecessary burden of grades.

Katie Lindberg can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @quantumCatnip.