Op-ed: A Case for the Elimination of Grades

Lilia Cohen

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College is frequently referred to as a site of new beginnings. For many 18 year olds, college is the first time they leave home. But, as long as letter grades are used to measure academic achievement, this fresh start will continue to be a pipe dream.  

It doesn’t matter if you attended a fancy prep school or an underfunded public school; we have all been conditioned to take responsibility for the grades that we receive. We see an A and think success and we see an F and think failure. In reality, though, the grades we receive are largely a result of factors out of our control and ultimately have little to do with hard work. The practice of grading is a key site that reproduces and legitimates our alleged meritocracy, which is why we should eliminate them.

In our capitalistic society, the distribution of goods is driven by structural inequalities. Access to resources and opportunity is profoundly unequal. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘meritocracy’ as: “the society in which the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance.” Because the United States remains deeply committed to the ideologies of a meritocracy, the value of hard work prevails and structural inequalities are ignored. We still subscribe to the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality and fall hard for the myth that hard work necessarily lends itself to success.

In her essay, “The End of Educated Democracy,” Wendy Brown explains that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in the United States lend themselves to an understanding of opportunity as “tethered to merit and work rather than inherited privilege.” There are many factors of inherited privilege that contribute to a college student’s GPA.

For example, there is a significant performance gap among students along racial lines. According to the most recent statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education, 75 percent of all white students graduate college with a GPA of 3.0 or higher while only 55.3 percent of black students graduate with comparable GPAs. Additionally, black students are three times as likely as white students to graduate with a GPA of less than 2.5.

One explanation for the unequal distribution of grades by race is that college preparatory courses are disproportionately accessible to white and Asian-American students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Black, Latinx and Native American students are far less likely to attend high schools that offer advanced STEM courses than are whites and Asian-Americans. While 69 percent of public high schools offer Advanced Placement courses or the International Baccalaureate program, these courses and programs are disproportionally comprised of affluent students who are white and Asian-American. Only 18 percent of students who pass AP exams are Black and Latinx, despite the fact that they make up 37 percent of high school students. In addition, white and Asian-American kids make up the vast majority of private schools. Students who take challenging courses in high school are more prepared to take on the rigor that comes with college. And if white and Asian-American students are far more likely to have access to demanding classes in high school, it’s no wonder they receive higher grades in college.

Another explanation for the disparity is the small number of racial minority instructors at all educational levels. The role model effect suggests that individuals are more likely to advance in their personal and professional lives if they have a role model who physically resembles them. Only seven percent of primary and secondary school teachers are black. Six percent of college and university professors are black, eight percent are Latinx, and less than one percent are Native American.

A third explanation, closely related to the second, has to do with implicit racial biases. Non-black teachers have lower expectations for black students than black teachers have for black students. If a student feels that her teacher expects a lot of her, she is more likely to expect a lot of herself, and vice versa. In a school setting, this expectation directly translates into academic performance and thus, self worth. Rich kids (usually white, rich kids) get A’s, they feel validated, and they experience undeserved confidence. Alternatively, poor kids (usually poor, non-white kids) get D’s, they feel invalidated, and they experience an undeserved sense of failure. And grades seem to have more to do with factors entirely out of a student’s control (race and socio-economic status, per se), than any choice he or she makes.   

It is evident that grades reinforce the logic and legitimacy of the alleged meritocracy that we live and grades play a perverse role if they aren’t an honest reflection of the quality of one’s work. Not only do letter grades currently function as a method of reinforcing and perpetuating class and race inequalities, but they also serve to mystify and falsely justify such structural inequalities. Eventually, they should be eliminated from educational institutions altogether. But colleges and universities are a great place to start. If we eliminate grades from institutions of higher education, perhaps students can truly approach college as a new beginning.

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