The problem with grading, based on a recent study

Learn about the problem with grading in education, and why Primer Microschools don't have grades.

May 23, 2024

Education has been intertwined with grades for generations. It’s a facet of education that has rarely been up for debate, until now.

In a recent eye-opening study by TNTP, the traditional grading system has been put under the microscope, uncovering some hard truths about the grading system.

Disparity in grading standards: the great unequalizer

The study illuminates a stark reality - the lack of consistency in grading standards. Students face vastly different expectations, depending on the school they attend. This not only creates an uneven playing field, but questions the reliability of grades as an accurate measure of academic proficiency.

Misalignment with learning objectives

Grades, ideally, should be the North Star guiding students toward mastering a subject or skill. However, the study suggests a misalignment with learning objectives. Instead of reflecting a student's true understanding, grades can be influenced by factors such as behavior, attendance, or unrelated circumstances. This misalignment distorts the essence of grading as an assessment tool, leaving students adrift without a true measure of their academic compass.

The emotional toll of grades

Perhaps the most poignant revelation is the emotional toll grades can exact on students. Rather than being a motivational force, grades often lead to stress, anxiety, and a fear of failure. The pressure to achieve high grades overshadows the joy of learning, creating an environment where students are more concerned about the outcome than the journey.

Kohn's insights

In his article "Degrading to De-Grading," educational expert, Alfie Kohn further challenges the grading system by arguing that the focus on grades can hinder genuine learning. Kohn contends that too often, grades become the end goal, overshadowing the process of understanding and acquiring knowledge. He suggests that by de-emphasizing grades, we can create an environment where learning becomes the primary focus, fostering a deeper and more meaningful educational experience.

Three main effects of grading: unveiling the impact

Kohn’s research highlights three consistent effects of using and emphasizing the importance of letter or number grades:

1. Reduced interest in learning

Grades often diminish students' intrinsic interest in learning. Extensive research in motivational psychology reveals that the more students are rewarded with grades, the less they tend to be interested in the actual learning process. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced when students associate tasks with assessments, leading to viewing learning as a chore.

Alternative education thought leader, Ana Fabrega, author of The Learning Game further echos Kohn’s research by writing:

“Experts agree that it is almost impossible to measure genuine learning. We can’t “measure” learning because the most genuine parts of learning aren’t measurable. Genuine learning often happens outside of school, when kids are relaxed, exploring, creating, and trying things out without worrying about being judged. Standardized tests are measuring the wrong thing. And if we are measuring the wrong thing, why are we even keeping score?”

2. Reduced preference for challenging tasks

The pressure to achieve higher grades often results in students choosing easier assignments, emphasizing the importance of grades over intellectual exploration. This behavior is a rational adaptation to an environment where grades, not the depth of understanding, take precedence.

3. Reduced quality of thinking

Studies show that students receiving numerical grades exhibit lower creativity compared to those receiving qualitative feedback without grades. This is especially evident in tasks requiring creative thinking, highlighting the negative impact of grading on cognitive processes. Even when comments accompany grades, the overall achievement is superior when comments alone are provided, emphasizing the limiting nature of numerical scores.

The Primer possibility: extending beyond the confines of grades

Primer offers an alternative route to assessing student progress; An approach that moves away from the traditional grading system, and fosters an environment where learning is the primary focus. By de-emphasizing grades, we prioritize a holistic and meaningful learning experience for students.

Lindsay Freeman, Primer’s Head of Curriculum connects this research back to the why behind Primer Microschools. She says:

“Kids have so much passion for the things they’re passionate about. If you ask a kid what they love, they never say ‘I don’t know.’ They’ll tell you 1,000 things. The impactful role we can have in education is to connect the things kids are passionate about to the things they learn. This style of learning will not always connect to a job, and it shouldn’t have to be. Kids have their whole lives to worry about what they’re going to do for work. School is the moment for exploring.”

Learning is not a means to an end, but a lifelong adventure. Join in the conversation to reimagine education, where students set embark on a journey defined by curiosity, creativity, and an unwavering passion for learning at

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