Here are the only three reasons I can think of that could possibly justify grading:
1) Motivation: Grades induce a kind of artificial, extrinsic motivation to strive for the reward of a high grade, or to avoid the punishment of a low grade. Either way, its the carrot or the stick that is the driving force.
2) Rank and Sort: Grades place students nicely on a fabricated heirarchy of haves and have-nots so that we can order those who are more worthy for post-secondary admissions and job placement.
3) Feedback: Grades provide students and parents with and idea where they stand.
I honestly can't think of any other reason to grade, and I honestly can't think of any good reason to use grades to achieve any of the three goals above.
Here's a quick look at why grades don't make the grade when it comes to achieving any of these goals.
Firstly, to fully grasp the chasm that exists between what science knows about motivation and what we typically do in schools, you must read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes. The first 300 pages completes an autopsy on the idea of using extrinsic manipulators to achieve compliance, while the final 100 pages of notes, references and citations drive the final nail into the coffin. A basic summary would go something like this: there are actually two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic, and they are inversely related; meaning, that if one grows, the other will diminish.
Secondly, the issue here isn't that we are not sorting children well enough. Rather it is that we spend any time at all sorting them in the first place when we could be using our time and effort to help them improve. Ranking and sorting, bickering over grade inflation and rigid criteria and higher standards does nothing to help children become better people. Kohn puts it quite succinctly:
What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.Thirdly, reducing something as messy as real learning to a symbol, letter or number provides little to no useful information. It simply can't tell a kid what they have done or how they could get better. Studies have shown that grades are a pathetic way to provide students with feedback. Period.
Like so many things in life, we have become distracted. We have been distracted by grades, honor rolls, achievement, winning, losing, test scores, data... and the list goes on and on.
Assessment can be simplified into two steps.
At first this may sound overly simplistic and rather benign, but here's the catch. You never need to use tests to gather, nor do you need grade to share.
So what do we do. I have mades some suggestions here. And I have more on this topic in the coming days.
For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.