The other day I was thinking about the drive students have for a letter grade. Students will lie, cheat, steal, complain, whine, cajole, charm, and hack their way to a better letter grade. Yet, rarely will these same students put that level of effort to actually learn something in the same subject. Actually, they would if we expected it, and do, if they are interested in something. But when our expectation is a letter on a piece of paper, then that becomes their all-out goal.
My point is that maybe it is time for letter grades to go. Or at least maybe we should stop caring about them so much. A letter means nothing, except what people give it. A student that received a 4.0 from Harvard through grade inflation and cheating may know a lot less than someone who earned a 3.0 from a state school. As I look back to my classes in college, I always coveted that “A,” yet rarely did my grade reflect what I actually learned. In one Psychology class, I worked my butt off and got a B+. I learned a lot. In other classes, I learned little but still got that “A.” Years later, I don’t care about the letter grades, unless it is when I send my transcripts somewhere, or someone needs to know my GPA. Sure, it was very high, but what have given me success in nearly every environment are things that I didn’t learn in school, and that couldn’t be reasonably graded anyway.
As a teacher, I would rather have a student who is a hard-worker who learns something, than a lazy person, who learns nothing, but cheats his way to an “A.” I would rather a “B” student that gets some life-changing insight from my class than someone who gets an “A” just by memorizing facts. Such is the nature of “learning.” It is really hard to measure actual learning, and even if we were to measure learning, it is even harder to measure any kind of future success based on learning in a classroom.
Maybe I am being unhelpful here, because I am not offering a replacement for letter grades…yet, but I think student learning is much more complex than a letter grade, and the race to get that “A” no matter what is simply crazy.