What Are Grades For Anyway?

With COVID-19 and education going mostly online, we now have to grapple with how to assign grades. At Georgetown, students now have the option to take a pass/fail grade in the courses they are taking instead of the letter grades; A, B, C, D and F. I still continue to give assessments in my class. After all, both instructor and student still need feedback. Still, it may be a good time to reflect on this question: What are grades for? Some claim that grades motivate students. Without a carrot or a stick, we apparently think that students are not going to be engaged in their learning. Being engaged obviously depends on what we do in our instruction yet we still cling to this notion of grades pushing students to learn. I had an experience when I was in my teens of attending a summer school without grades. It was a summer session at the Ateneo de Manila University when I just finished third year high school.

The Ateneo Junior Summer School, Class of 1980
The individual circled on the second row is Philippines senator Koko Pimentel.

It was one summer without grades, but it was one class that definitely did not lack motivation. We had assessments. We received feedback, but most of all, we established relationships.

During this time, it is a lot easier to see that our schools are so much more than just a place for academics. Schools are clearly social settings where relationships are both created and nurtured. This is clearly one item that online education finds very difficult to imitate. Yet, we are equally worried about grades. Is it because we want to compare? Grades, after all, are used for making decisions with regard to admission to certain programs and scholarships.

Right now, we are given a clear opportunity to reflect on what grades mean. The Fairfax county public school system just managed to send learning packets last Friday on lessons meant for the Monday of that week. Some children have parents who have the time and expertise to coach their children during these times. How about those parents who are still working in essential sectors such as groceries, gas stations, and hospitals? Are we then grading children according to their parent's availability, according to their parent's educational attainment, or worse, according to how well a school district can deliver learning packets?  Because if we do, there are certainly a lot of "F's" to give. These grades do not mean what we think they do. And this is true not only during this pandemic, but has been true all along. That is why there is a poverty achievement gap. That is why there is a race achievement gap. That is why grades should not really mean much. Perhaps, we will learn this time.