What is the Purpose of Grades?


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What is the Purpose of Grades

January 1st 2022

Why were grades invented?

In 1792 a Cambridge University tutor, William Farish, came up with a method that would allow him to take on more students with less effort. This was the beginning of the academic grading system as we know it. He got the idea from the assembly lines at factories as they had a method to determine if a product’s quality was high enough to sell. This method would later be tested by Harvard and other schools to identify if a student learned enough to obtain a degree. What they didn’t realize is that William Farish came up with “grades” to increase his salary and lower his workload. He did not come up with it to improve the learning of his students, or to ensure they understood the material, or because he was thinking in their best interest. He was being paid per student and he found a way to increase the number of students he could bring through the program.

What is the purpose of grades?

Farish’s grading system was originally designed to decrease the amount of work per student, however, over the years schools have used the grading system as a means to regulate the quality of students it produces. The only issue is that the schools misunderstood what a student’s grade meant. A student’s grade is not measuring the quality of the student, but the quality of the given education. Based on this misunderstanding, schools concluded that if a child does not get a good grade, it means the student either is not capable of learning, or didn’t do enough to get a good grade. Both of these reasons identify the student as the issue. The truth is much different. A low grade does not identify the capability of the student to learn or the effort they put into the class—it identifies that the academic system is not working. Bad grades mean the system is flawed, not the student. To this day, many schools still follow this same philosophy.

The Mistake School Make

How did this mistake happen? When a grading system was applied to assembly lines, a product would go through the entire assembly line. At the end, an inspector would identify a grade for the item—usually a pass or fail. The intent behind the grade was not so much to evaluate the product’s suitable to sell, but it was to evaluate how effective the assembly line was at producing the product. When too many products receive unsatisfactory grades, the factory did not ask the product to change, it would adjust the assembly to be more effective.

When applying this analogy to the school system, the student is treated like the product, and the school system is like the assembly line. Thus, a low grade doesn’t signify a problem in the student (product), it identifies a problem with the school (assembly line). If educators followed this philosophy, then they would also adjust the assembly line to improve grades.

However, this is not what happened. As grades became more important, and students began receiving lower grades, the school system was not asked to change their systems and how they teach. The student was expected to be better, to study more, and to do more homework. Eventually, the school systems realized that a teacher could have a great impact on the grades of students and decided to enact methods to hold the teachers accountable for the students’ performance on tests and grades. The problem is because there are so many variables determining a student’s grades, none of these methods are proven to work.

Why Grades Don’t Measure Student Effectiveness

If scoring highly on a test was a good measure of a student’s knowledge and abilities, then grades would be very accurate at measuring a student’s future success. However, does doing well on a test determine if a student will be successful in life and will add value to society? This is what education is supposed to be measuring. This is why companies and colleges look at students’ grades and class rank. Companies only want students that will be successful in life and will adding value to their industry. The real question is, do grades determine if a student will be successful when they get out of school? The answer is no.

How do we know this? We just look at the successful people in life and those that add the most value. Multiple studies have found that many of the most successful people in life did not receive a higher education, and most of the richest people in the world received an average of a C or 2.0 grade point average (GPA) in college and in high school. In fact, most students who receive a high GPA in school end up working for students who received lower grades.

Many companies have identified that most students graduating from college need to be trained because they did not learn the right skills and information in school. So even if grades accurately measure how well students learned information in school, much of this information is not even needed to be successful in companies and in life. This makes grades not only an inaccurate measure of if a student will be successful, but also makes them meaningless.

Did the grading system make education more efficient?

Although the grading system is not an accurate identification of how well a child can learn and their ability to be successful in life, did the grading system make education more efficient? Usually, when something becomes more efficient the quality also improves. This is the effect the assembly lines had on the industry—increasing the quality of products for a lower cost. However, grades decreased the quality of education.

Why did it work for assembly lines but not education? The issue is that assembly lines are efficient because the product is always the same, but students are not always the same. When you create a system that doesn’t recognize the students’ differences, it makes it tougher for them. In other words, the system didn’t increase the efficiency of education. For this to happen, it would have had to decrease the cost, while maintaining the same quality or a higher quality. What grades did was lower the cost, but also lowered the quality of education. The issue is that no one realized that the quality had decreased. They didn’t realize their measurement system was not accurate.

5 Things you can do to Help Your Child or Students

The grade system has caused many issues for many students. From convincing students they cannot be successful, to causing mental instability and issues for students. If you know a student that is suffering due to the grading system, here are four things you can do for them:

  1. Give them resources that minimize the effort they have to put forth to get good grades – These resources could be tutors, professional training, or material that makes studying and understanding the material easier.
  2. Take them out of academically rigorous programs – We have found that many parents try to get their students to go through academically rigorous programs, believing this will be the key to success, but research has shown otherwise. Many students that are in programs they enjoy and are easier for them, do better in life than they would have going through the rigorous program.
  3. Help them find something they enjoy – Even if your child cannot get good grades, if they are involved in a sport, club, or hobby that they excel in, they will find confidence and not let their low performing grades convince them they can’t be successful.
  4. Do not support the grade system – The less you talk to your child about their grades and the more you educate them on other indicators that identify they will be successful, the less stressed your child or student will be and you will find that they perform even better without your pressure on their grades.
  5. Create opportunities for learning without grades – There are many education and personal development programs that help students understand the purpose of education without grades. Make sure to check out our 2022 Arizona Youth Summer Camps as a great place to start.

About the Author

Read more about Dr. Jacob’s latest book.
Dr. Jacob Kashiwagi is business management consultant and acting Chairman of the Board for Leadership Society of Arizona. Dr. Jacob has worked on 1,100+ industry projects valued at $3.6 billion with a 95% success rate. He has taught over 1,300 college students and 2,500 high school students.

Read more articles by Dr. Jacob.