The Trouble with Assigning Grades in School

College Advice

The educational system needs some way to inform students of how they’re doing in school.  Did they grasp the content or not?  Do they understand what they’re supposed to be doing?  Did they write a successful essay or not?  Even so, the grade system is deeply flawed and it’s troubling to see how much value students attach to the letters on their transcripts.  Below I list some reasons I wish we could move away from our current grading system.

Grades in a course Are Somewhat Arbitrary.

Students often ask for rubrics when they have an assignment.  Seeing that a thesis is worth 10 points and that the Works Cited is worth 20 makes the grading system seem so logical.  In reality, however, there’s no intrinsic reason a thesis should be worth 10 points rather than 8 points or 15 points.  Even so, students still seem to find it comforting to attach a solid number to everything.

Further, students will  sometimes dispute whether a paper is really deserving of an “A-” but if an instructor tells them it’s a 92, for some reason they’re convinced that this number reveals the paper’s true worth.  Even though deciding whether a paper should merit a 93 or a 92 or a 91 is also pretty arbitrary.  What is the difference between a paper that receives a 91 or one that receives a 92?

Grades Across Classes Mean Different Things.

Prof. Y gives bonus points in her English 101 class.  Prof. Z does not.  Prof. Y gives everyone an “A” on the assignment if they do all the revisions she points out.  Prof. Z won’t give a paper an “A” unless she really thinks the paper deserves an “A,” no matter how much it was revised.  Two students doing the same work could receive entirely different grades depending on whether they take the class with Prof. Y or Prof. Z.  So how does someone looking at transcript know how much weight to give a grade?  How would they know that it’s actually more difficult to receive a “B” in Prof. Z’s class than it is to receive an “A” in Prof. Y’s?

Grade Inflation Has Made Grades Meaningless.

Thanks to grade inflation, a good many students have 4.0 averages or above.  In some classes, you may find students who say they never received less than an “A” during all of high school.  It immediately becomes clear that they’re not working at “A” level (though they don’t know it).  All this means is that looking at a person’s transcript and seeing a column of “A’s” and “A-‘s” tells you nothing about the level of work an individual has performed.  When everyone has an “A,” how do you tell who’s outstanding?


Students attach so much value to grades that they often consider anything not graded as not worth doing.  Reading a book, writing a response, sharing their thoughts in class–none of it seems valuable to them unless someone’s measuring how well they do it.

Ironically, this attitude ends up putting more pressure on students.  Instructors may find themselves having to give a grade to everything just so their class does the work.  Otherwise the students are obviously going to spend all their time doing the work for someone else’s course–the course where they’re going to get a grade for every little assignment.


Many an “A” student has found themselves emotionally devastated by receiving their first “B” for an assignment.  Of course, receiving a “B” usually means nothing about the individual in question, other than that they didn’t perform all the work of a certain class.  Even so, it can be difficult for students to accept that they’re still valuable and intelligent after such an occurrence.  Their self-identity is too tied up into their grades.

This attitude can affect other areas of the student’s life.  Some students tend to view the world as another type of school.  They look at things and want to assess them like an assignment and give them a grade.  But life isn’t graded.  No one’s going to assign a number to how well you do your job or to how successful of a poem you wrote.  You have to find other ways to value things.

Krysta 64

12 thoughts on “The Trouble with Assigning Grades in School

  1. orchidsarefascinating says:

    Totally true and is part of the reason I started homescholing. I wish there was a better way.


  2. Briana says:

    I’m a huge fan of letter grades instead of numbers. I completely agree there’s essentially no difference between a 88 and an 89, particularly when you’re grading something like an essay. (I can see in a subject like math that there might be very detailed rules that dictate what actions lose what number of points.) There’s no point in having a teacher agonizing over whether something is an 87, an 88, or an 89 when they can just put a B+ on it and convey the message. (Which means teachers who do things like giving you a “B+/A-” drive me crazy.) What does THAT mean?


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, the infamous “B+/A-“! On some level I get it. But on another level I just find it confusing. What exactly are you telling the student? Your paper…it’s just in between there somewhere. But both are already ranges, so….


        • Krysta says:

          The dream of education is that students won’t be driven by grades and will be intrinsically motivated instead. That is, they should be looking beyond their value as a number and finding ways that education is personally valuable to and for them. Of course, if you have some pass/fail courses and some graded courses, many students, because their motivation is grade-based, will focus on the graded work and not the pass/fail course. But I don’t think the solution to the grade mentality is to decide that students will only ever be extrinsically motivated and that we should play on that to get them to do their work.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. TeacherofYA says:

    I know exactly what you mean! I got a 73 on my literature review, but I got a 100% on my Autobiargument. So I was crushed by my 73. I couldn’t enjoy the 100% anymore…many of the students in the class received similar grades on their papers. I felt like I sucked. Now my confidence is shaken and I’m worried all the time.
    There’s a lot of pressure to get As and Bs/Cs are “not good enough,” even thought their very definition means “above average” or “average.” G-d forbid any of us are average!


    • Krysta says:

      Oftentimes it’s not clear to me why teachers are putting so much pressure on students. Of course you want students to do well and you want students to put in effort to improve (and many won’t put in effort unless you penalize them through their grades–this is why you have some instructors who start everyone off with a “C” at the start regardless of their work level). However, a “C” on one test is something you can recover from. A “C” on your transcript is something you can recover from!

      And unless you’re applying to some sort of highly prestigious program where they want a certain G.P.A., your G.P.A. is unlikely to matter much at all–employers don’t typically ask for a college transcript when you apply for a job.

      The reality is that not everyone is stellar at everything they do. The reality is that even stellar students have off days or sometimes experience circumstances that prevent them from performing at the level they’d like. But the education system often makes it seem like no one’s allowed to be less than exceptional at anything or at any given moment. And I think that’s just hurting students because it prevents them from trying new things or taking intellectual risks sometimes, because the worry is that if you try something new or different you won’t succeed and no one’s going to value that risk you took–they’re just going to judge you for not succeeding.


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