COVID-19 Made Grades Disappear; Here's Why We Shouldn't Bring Them Back
A former teacher and Ivy Leaguer explains that grades are counterintuitive to real learning.
I meandered through my education. Bouncing between inner-city public schools as a child, I excelled thanks to nightly family read-alongs and weekend trips to museums, but I was bored in class. Teachers would hand out worksheets and I’d finish them within minutes.
“What’s next?” I’d ask with a child’s glee. It was always another worksheet.
Although the monotony of rote learning crushed my soul, it didn’t hamper my performance. My high scores got me a scholarship to one of the country’s top prep schools, which counts the rich and famous among its elite alumni. (They definitely weren’t doing worksheets.)
When I got there, school suddenly became challenging for the first time in my seven years of education. On top of juggling advanced Latin, French and English, I was supposed to break down the chemical composition of my shampoo and understand what authors from the 1800s meant when they wrote effusively about the moors of England and Moors of Spain.
The less I understood, the harder I worked.
I was too used to getting As to stomach anything less. I studied a lot, and it paid off. The reward wasn’t just about the higher grades. It was also about the pretension I had picked up from my new classmates and was now able to partake in. “We must be destined for greatness,” I thought, “If we can translate accounts of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption decimating Pompeii!”
The sense of intellectual superiority and hard-earned top marks felt good momentarily, but it was an empty triumph. I didn’t really care about the chemistry of my Pantene, or rural British life centuries ago. Learning became nothing more than a hard, dull chore.
Burned out and bored once again, I was determined to get out of the drudgery so I transferred schools.
I chose wisely. My new school had no grades.
How Does School Even Work Without Grades?
As a 14-year-old who’d always wanted to slack off but was too scared to, I couldn’t believe that I was being given the freedom to learn without accountability. “Why would I bother studying?” I wondered. This progressive school’s answer was that I’d be propelled by my excitement about the content. I could pick from a diverse selection of classes, and this ownership and choice would motivate me intrinsically to work hard.
This wasn't the case for me—at least not that first year. I dropped Latin immediately, and took as few classes as possible. I did the bare minimum to get by. I couldn’t get past my newfound freedom to arrive at the love of learning I’d been promised.
This is where most of today’s students are headed. With remote learning becoming the norm during the pandemic, many teachers have abandoned grades for simple pass-fail measures. Eliminating grades last semester didn’t lead to a great learning transformation where American teenagers dropped their iPhones to pick up fat books. But it could have.
In my case, it took a couple of years without grades—and with classmates who had been learning this way for their whole lives—before the philosophy of learning for learning’s sake sank in. Still, my core belief that “school = boring” held on for dear life.
Moving to a Pass-Fail System Is Only the First Step
This is the challenge we face today. If grading systems change, but school cultures don’t, a transition to pass-fail becomes meaningless. When I was a teacher, the most common questions weren’t about digging deeper into the content I was presenting—they were variations of, “Will this be on the test?”
When education is limited to being a means to an end, it strips learning of the chance to be joyful. When my high school removed the end from the equation, I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t like to work hard—it was that I didn’t like to when what I was working on was meaningless to me. I don’t care what my shampoo is made of, just that it washes out the dirt.
Even in the idyllic learning environment of my high school, I still took tests. Thanks to Latin class, my strong vocabulary helped me ace the SATs. That, along with my teachers’ written reports (our school’s stand-in for grades), got me into Yale. Once I got there I wasn’t worried about returning to being graded. I was realistic. I figured that if I got Cs I’d be happy. I would be going to one of the top schools in the country, after all.
I felt out of place in the Ivy League. None of my new classmates understood my gentlewoman’s C-average plan. For many of them, the fun was in the competition for As, not the learning.
I wrote papers on subjects I wanted to learn about, not what professors assigned. My instructors didn’t love my approach, but couldn’t deny the effort I put in, or the quality of what I produced. I wasn’t getting A-pluses, but I wasn’t getting Cs either. And I was getting deep knowledge of subjects I cared about—that was how I measured success.
After college, when I became a middle school teacher, I kept this same metric: Are my students enjoying learning? Are they taking initiative? Are they working up to their potential? If the answer to these questions was “yes,” I thought I should be crowned teacher of the year.
My supervisors didn't agree. What mattered most to them were state test scores.
If We Get Rid of Grades, Let’s Also Eliminate Standardized Testing
Most standardized tests were canceled last spring. This was good news. Today more than ever, kids need teachers to engage them in meaningful ways, not “drill and kill” them with test prep.
This pause in grades and high-stakes exams presents an opportunity to transform education. Can we trust students' curiosity and innate desire to learn, not just the accountability of GPAs?
If we do, we’ll give kids the chance to let joy guide their learning. With this freedom, their enthusiasm, attention and abilities will be astounding—like nothing we’ve seen in traditional school. After the pandemic ends, let’s not go back to our old ways.
When we leave the jail of quarantine at-home schooling, let’s not return to the prison of grades.