Nothing but numbers: the power of grades in schools


Everyone knows the story of a typical high school educational experience. Day after day, teachers assign numbers to work that you complete, grading how good of a job you did on the assignment. Seems relatively mundane when looking at the broad strokes like that. But when you come at it from the student’s perspective, these grades mean everything. Whether or not they get into college, their parents yell at them, or if they academic probation, this seemingly standard grading plays a defining role in people’s day to day lives. And that has to stop.

It’s obvious why grades and education don’t mix. Education, by its very nature, is something which is not quantifiable. How can we judge how much someone understands an idea or a curriculum based purely on a test? And yet, grades and the numbers that they bear are an attempt to standardize a measure of achievement in a class or on a test. What the overemphasis of grading leads to is students focusing purely on exactly what is on the test and not on learning and ingraining the content on the test. It results in students cramming and memorizing the material being tested followed by immediately forgetting it all.

And unfortunately, that’s not what an education is really about. To be truly educated, one must learn. To educate, according to Merriam’s, is to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction. Grades prevent that. Grades cause students to no longer care about what they learn in class and only care about the number.

Not only are grades a detriment to the educational welfare of the students; the outsized impact that they have on peoples’ lives is simply unhealthy. Students, particularly those in high school, are forced into caring about the number. And what does this cause? Again, this causes them to focus only on the grade, instead of the education. The scourge of parents who get angry when a student brings home a sub-par mark, or barring that, the scourge of students who are afraid of parents who might get angry, leads to more stress than grades cause normally. These external stressors cause even more of a problem, adding onto the negative effects that grades have on education.

At the end of the day, when your son’s or daughter’s report card comes home, and when they get their AP scores back, I’d urge you all to talk to them before you get angry over one bad score. Because although they’ve been used for a long time, grades aren’t necessarily a good thing. Remember that a student’s education hinges on what they learn, not what their scores are. Real education can’t be shown in numbers.