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The Problem with Grades

The Problem with Grades
A classroom in Alabama in 1939, when GPA was a relatively new idea.

You’ll learn: How grades and other scores can hold you back.


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Now let’s get on with it …

I’ve received more outreach than usual about Chapter Six of Scarcity Brain, which explains the downsides of quantification.

We live in a world where we want to put numbers and data and figures behind everything. Quantification allows us to boil down something complicated into a simplified number.

But we can become overly obsessed about the number and miss why we’re doing the activity we’re measuring in the first place. You see this in health trackers, fitness numbers, business, nutrition, relationships, and more. I could go on.

The downsides of quantification are apparent in grades, a topic I briefly cover in the chapter.

After reading the chapter, my friend Adam Bender reached out to me. Adam is a successful figure in the hunting and conservation industry. Here’s what he wrote:

That grades section hit me in the feels.

I was told I was mentally challenged as a child because I was such a bad test taker. My grades were average at best. When the other kids went out for recess, I went to the little building out back to learn how to take tests better.

Reading the chapter sort of validated what I fell inside all along. I knew I was destined for more and wasn’t going to let grades or tests get it my way. Now I’ve been to 31 countries, have a wife and four kids, and a great career.

Not every student is able to, like Adam , realize they’re capable of so much regardless of a grade or test score.

In fact, given how competitive college admissions are today, students are now more stressed than ever about academic performance metrics. Some view their grades as an all-encompassing stamp on their worth.

Grades can take wind from the sails of kids who have A TON of promise but whose way of thinking and being in the world doesn’t jive with our rigid education system.

Grades have a long and complex history. They didn’t rise to help students learn and be better humans.

Today, we’re diving into:

  • A brief history of grades (this helps you understand their downsides).
  • The downsides of grades.
  • How quantification alters all sorts of behaviors.

Let’s roll …

Grades: A Brief History

In short

Grades don’t help learning. They rose to make the lives of administrators and employers easier.

The details

The history of grades in the United States is fascinating. It’s a prime example of how we often trade accuracy for ease.

1700 to 1800: Rankings create robots

In the 1700s, teachers at new American universities like Yale were trying to figure out how to best prepare their students for the future. We needed to make America great.

An intelligent citizenry was, naturally, the first place to start.

We decided to copy the German education system, which ranked students from best to worst.

The idea was that a transparent ranking system would force students to compete with one another, leading them to work harder and learn more.

But once the ranking system was in play, the American teachers quickly noticed a problem. Students began obsessing over their rank rather than their education.

The students would memorize the material, regurgitate it, fiendishly check the leaderboards, and then move on.

They were more like robots who could spit back facts rather than deep thinkers who could put all those facts together into thorough understanding.

1800 to 1850: Written evaluations improve learning

By the early 1800s, university administrators realized we needed a different approach. We needed to do something that incentivized students to truly understand the material.

So teachers began giving students in-depth written evaluations.

Teachers would explain to each student:

  • Their strengths.
  • How they might think differently about certain ideas.
  • Specific ways they could advance their understanding to improve.

It worked.

Students began understanding the deeper nuances of the material and could better apply it to their lives and work.

1850 to ~1900: An influx of students makes written evaluations too time-consuming

By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution had taken hold. The country was growing and advancing, and more people were moving into cities.

The number of young people in schools tripled, thanks to a growing population and new child labor laws that realized we should probably have our young people in classrooms rather than coal mines.

All of these students were moving from school to school—from elementary to middle school to high school and, for some, to college.

The written evaluation system became time-consuming.

Scholars at Holy Cross wrote, “As the scale of the education system became larger and more complex, the limitations of these early forms of (written) grading became more acute.”

Imagine being a big university that received thousands of applications for a few hundred spots. With written evaluations, admissions committees had to analyze a mountain of information about every student.

~1900 to today: Grades help administrators and employers but not students

Because they were overworked with written analyses, school administrators pushed a new idea: the grading system.

They developed the letter grading system of A through F. It was slowly implemented across the country.

Eventually, administrators made it even simpler: Into a numbered GPA scale that averaged all those letter grades.

“Unlike ordered rankings,” explained a study in the Journal of Curriculum Studies, “which only communicated a student’s relative standing within his or her class, grades also promised to serve as an external communication device—to admissions boards, employers, and others.”

This made the lives of admissions committees infinitely easier. They just had to look at the GPA number and write a quick standardized letter to the applicant that started with “Congratulations” or “We regret to inform you …”

Same for employers. A potential employee with a 4.0 appeared “smarter” than one with a 3.25. You didn’t have to do much thinking beyond that.

The downside of grades

In short

Grades fall under a phenomenon called “value capture.” When we stamp a number on something, we often focus on the number at the expense of the activity’s original goals.

The details

Fast forward roughly 250 years, and we face the same problem we noticed back in the 1700s.

“My students obsess over their GPA rather than focusing on whether they understand the skills and ideas they need to thrive in the job market.” That’s according to Thi Nguyen, a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, who I spoke to while reporting Scarcity Brain.

Grades fall into a much larger phenomenon Nguyen calls “value capture.”

When we stamp a simplified scoring system on an activity, we begin to fixate on the scoring system and chase points rather than experience the activity’s original goals.

Consider how GPAs change the goals of going to school. There are many reasons for going to school.

  • To learn the material.
  • To be able to use it to get ahead.
  • To think clearer.
  • To recognize flaws in your logic.
  • To learn how to respectfully disagree and argue your position.
  • To prepare yourself for a career.
  • To make friends.
  • To learn how to conduct yourself socially.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

But, as Nguyen pointed out, all of those goals often get ignored. Instead students focus on GPA.

“Those metrics take over our motivations,” said Nguyen. “We often lose sight of the real importance of the activity.”

Nguyen has tried to ungrade—to return to written evaluations. But administrators won’t have it.

He even teaches a class on this. “My students’ favorite day in my Intro to Philosophy course is called ‘Are Grades Bullshit?’” Nguyen said. “I never see intro students more engaged and mind-blown than on this day in class.”

“Students tell stories about how they used to love school, and now they hate it,” Nguyen said. “They talk about having their curiosity burned out and about all the things they used to care about but have stopped.”

The simple metric of GPA can come at the expense of far richer and more interesting experiences.

Some universities are now trying to ungrade.

The transition is, of course, not perfect. There are many ways to provide feedback; some approaches may incentivize mastery and hard work more than others.

For some career fields, we may actually prefer robots who can execute flawlessly whether or not they’re deep thinkers. For example, surgeons or bridge builders, as an education policy analyst at the American Enterprise Association said.

Here’s a longer analysis of the debates within ungrading.

The rise of numbers everywhere

In short

Simplified numbers that remove nuance are everywhere—impacting your life right now.

The details

Grades and GPA rose thanks to the Industrial Revolution. But they weren’t the only standardized, oversimplified number systems we got around that time.

As our economy grew and grew, all sorts of booming industries needed a similarly straightforward and systematic way of tracking an influx of information.

We applied numbers to all sorts of products—from grains to lumber to cattle and more.

This allowed our growing industries to price and rate systems so they could function at an industrial scale. “Mass processing, whether of grain or academic achievement, required standardization,” wrote the Holy Cross scholars.

Quantification is necessary for our society to run. We need it.

But it’s now in places where it can steer us away from an activity’s original goal.

For example, people may buy a fitness tracker to get healthier. And they’ll often chase reaching a specific number on their tracker in the name of health.

Yet, if we were to ask them how they define health, the definition surely wouldn’t be a number on a tracker.

In other words, quantification can give us some general, very rough guidance along the path to a goal. But it’s not the goal itself. Not even close. And we shouldn’t forget that.

I’ll write more on numbers in health in the future. Until then …

Have fun, don’t die, question numbers.


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