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Columnist: It’s a mistake for educators to do away with letter grades

The everybody gets a trophy mentality has found its way into education with the traditional letter grading system coming “under attack.”

In a column published Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, Jennifer Braceras of the Independent Women’s Forum details the trend in education that includes moving away from letter grades and using a proficiency scale instead to measure a student’s progress.

From the column:

As the postmodern takeover of American education nears completion, the practice of assessing student performance with letter grades is under attack. Education disrupters claim grades and GPAs create an unfair academic hierarchy and put undue pressure on high-achieving students, leaving the rest mired in low self-esteem.

Combine these objections with the political insistence that all students graduate “college ready” and armed with “21st-century skills,” and a revolution in assessment is well under way.

Many elementary-school teachers years ago abandoned letter grades in reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead they write progress reports that assess, on a scale of 1-3 (or 1-4), the student’s proficiency in various skills. The reports typically indicate whether the student has achieved competency, is “progressing” toward competency, or has not made progress.

Braceras argues that the new system is focused more on a student’s future ability rather than measuring their past success with the material they are learning. With this, she notes that students can slack off earlier in the year and still wind up with a good score on the proficiency scale:

This method of assessment makes even less sense in high school, where students are savvy enough to know that they need not work hard in October to show proficiency in June. Nevertheless, standards-based grading (or its cousin, “competency-based grading”) may be coming to a district near you. It has taken root already in schools from Maine to Idaho to Florida.

For Braceras, the traditional grading system isn’t without problems of its own. However, she argues it works well and provides opportunity for those students who might otherwise be left behind.

“[G]rades are a more comprehensible and holistic measure of achievement than newfangled alternatives. Perhaps most important, they provide a way for bright and hardworking students from lower-income families to prove themselves and win admission to the nation’s elite colleges,” Braceras writes.

She warns it would be a mistake to continue with the “war on grades”:

Some people would rather give every child a trophy than let poor performers feel bad about themselves. But anyone who wants to limit the influence of money, connections and bias on students’ post-school prospects should fight like hell to keep grades.

Read the full column.

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