Trinitas Blog

Imagine a World Without Grades. You Can Do It If You Try.

Posted by Sean Hadley on Apr 3, 2022 5:35:50 PM

Untitled design-Apr-03-2022-10-28-49-01-PMImagine you are a young pitcher, standing on the mound of your first Varsity baseball practice. You throw the ball to the catcher, and your coach proceeds to tell you that it was a “C+” pitch. What would you think? The example seems ludicrous to us because we know what the young man needs: pointed, specific guidance so that he can improve the pitch. We know intuitively that the letter, in this case, is unhelpful.

Now imagine the same scenario from a slightly different angle. You are the coach. As you approach the mound and begin explaining to the student how to use their shoulders as they throw, you are suddenly interrupted. “Yeah, but did I pass, Coach?” You can imagine the frustration in this similarly absurd example. “A student would never say that!” you think to yourself. And you’re right; they would not. Again, this is intuitive; there doesn’t even seem a need to explain it. Similar scenarios could be played out ad nauseum, with different actors substituted in to show that applying a percentage system of grading to life is unhelpful at best and downright dehumanizing at worst. So why does this same proposal meet with such hesitancy when applied to the classroom?

There are a number of reasons, but most of them boil down to three things: the perception that a student is learning if they have the right letter (which simplifies the process), the perception that students with the wrong letter are the brunt of an arbitrary standard (from the teacher), and the perception that a good GPA will provide the smoothest path forward for students (resulting in good careers and happy homes). These are normal things for parents and students to wrestle with and should be overseen charitably. We at Trinitas understand that parents bring their children to us because they want what is best for them. And typically, this comes off without many problems. Yet the topic of grades persistently presents itself as a source of consternation.

I would ask that you bear with me over the next couple of weeks as I try and lay out a vision for grades at Trinitas. First, the brief history of grades as we understand it (with suggested further reading). Second, why the A-F grading scale works against the focus of a classical Christian school. And finally, what Trinitas hopes to accomplish with our proposed changes. At the end of this process, it is my hope that we will all have a better understanding.

Now, let us turn to history.

What system of grading did Plato use? Aristotle? Quintilian? Augustine? St. John of Salisbury? Erasmus? Martin Luther? John Milton? In short, none of them used anything comparable to the A–F system. Read any of the educational tracts produced by the thinkers listed above, and you will find measuring tools related to student competitions, public performances, attainable skills, and the like. But you will not find a single mention of grades.

Prior to the modern era of education, students were assessed according to their mastery of material.[1] But most of us have only known life within the A through F system of grading. Some of us might remember when it was a six-point scale, with A’s ranging from 100 to 94. Others may only know the ten-point system which is more common today, where an A is anything from 100–90 in terms of point value. But you may be shocked to realize that this system is rather new as a widespread scheme, becoming popular in the late nineteenth century.[2] The grading scale under review at Trinitas was originally used in colleges, appearing in various experimental forms in America between 1850 and 1899.[3] And when it was first widely employed, the grades were initially kept from students for fear it would give them the wrong impression about the purpose of learning. The A–F approach began as a way for teachers to privately evaluate students. While the system became standard in colleges in the first part of the twentieth century, it grew to dominance in United States grammar schools and secondary schools in the 1940s.[4]

And all of this leads to the realization that our current way of thinking about grades has not even been prevalent in the secondary classroom long enough to meet the 100–year mark that accompanies many discussions of classical works. Christian classical schools declare, in an age where truth seems subjective, that there is an established tradition that arbitrates our values. We appeal to the past to understand our present and to help us better prepare for the future. We do not shy away from innovation and invention, but we are always bringing the new and the current under subjection to the past. And it is time for such schools to do the same with the grading scale.

The percentage-based A–F system is a relatively new thing in the world of education, one that does not correspond to the real world in any meaningful sense. And it is something that should not be vigorously defended at a classical Christian school. These are things we know intuitively, as we can see in the baseball example from earlier. I hope we can see this historically now, and I will attempt to show over the next couple of weeks that we ought to know this by other means as well.

[1] This language is offensive to our modern ears. For instance, my word processor program noted that this language is “not inclusive” and should be revised. I hope to address this notion in a future post.

[2] Louise Witmer Cureton, “The History of Grading Practices,” Measurement in Education, vol. 2, no. 4 (May 1971), pp. 1–8.

[3] Mark W. Durm, “An A Is not An A is not An A: the History of Grading,” The Educational Forum, vol. 57 (Spring 1993), pp. 294–297.

[4] Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” Life Sciences Education, vol. 13 (Summer 2014), pp. 159–166.

Topics: Blog Posts, Classical Education, True Education, Teaching, Grades, Virtue

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