Grading students serves the system – not learning

To the editor:

I was pleasantly surprised by Douglas King’s “A Defense of the ‘Ungrading’ Movement” (July 13, 2022).

This article was very good, I thought, at uncovering the intentionality inherent in the assignment of grades. The process of grading pupils and students serves the system — not learning.

As an unintended consequence, King’s crucial admission/realization begins the search for ways to restructure the power relations in the classroom, and as a result, reaches more deeply into actual reform than ever before.

I will be the first to admit that I did not realize that the term “grading” first had roots in the factory system, nor had I considered the implications for education.

As Randall Collins has pointed out, “Students electing to remain within the system [of higher education] have adopted the goal of high grades, irrespective of content and by any means whatsoever, producing an inflation in college grades, while at the same time achievement levels have been steadily dropping. … [T]he reasons for going to school are extraneous to whatever goes on in the classroom. Reformers expecting that intellectual curiosity can be rearoused by curricular reforms or by changes in the school authority structure were projecting their own intellectual interests onto a mass of students for whom education is merely a means to a nonintellectual end.”

But “None of them” – not even Ivan Illich’s radical ‘deschooling’ proposals — “came to grips with the underlying issue: the fact that education is part of a system of cultural stratification and that the reason most students are in school is that they (or their parents on their behalf) want a decent job.” (Collins, 1979/2019: 254ff)

I am also reminded of what W. Edwards Deming, the management guru, had to say about grading and performance appraisals in general:

“Deming viewed all performance appraisals — starting with grades in elementary school and moving up to merit systems for rewarding and punishing employees — as a continuum of pain meted out over a lifetime. He believed that people are born intrinsically motivated with high self-esteem and tend to enjoy learning and cooperating with others. These attributes are gradually eroded by the extrinsic motivators employed by educators and businesses, until the only thing left is a desiccated husk ready for the trash heap — or retirement.”

As Prof. King rightly notes, “[W]hat most people might think of as ‘traditional’ grading systems are actually fairly recent phenomena. Older pedagogical systems — e.g., Platonic, Scholastic, and Jeffersonian — utilized no such gradations of student performance …”

Yet, it would be a mistake to ignore the global role played by Civil Examinations and education in late Imperial China (1400-1900 CE), which served to establish the first professional class based on ‘demonstrated knowledge’. Clearly, however, the focus was on the needs of the dynastic bureaucracy, and not learning per se. Arguably, if we removed everything NOT focused on learning in higher education, not much would remain.


Glen McGhee, Dir.
Florida Higher Education Accountability Project