What's the Point of Grades?

Feb 16, 2023

If a student plagiarizes an essay, what would their grade on that essay be?

A zero, right?

"You cheated, so I award you no points." 

Makes sense. 

However, if you give them a zero, does that mean the door is closed to finding out what they know about writing essays? 

Because that’s essentially what happens. The zero doesn’t give any indication about what they know or don’t know about the subject matter and their mastery of the skill/content. All it tells us is that they cheated. It’s like the grade is for ‘integrity class’ rather than ‘English class.’

Which raises the question, are grades meant to reflect how much a student has learned; a snapshot of their knowledge and skills at a specific moment in time?

Or are they a measure of work ethic and integrity?

Which might be okay. God knows students do need to learn about the importance of integrity. However, what about the essay? Don’t they need to master that standard? Isn’t that an important objective of English class? The zero doesn’t tell us anything about their mastery of this skill.

So here’s the question: should grades be the primary way we reward or penalize student behavior in the classroom? If the answer is yes, we should discipline cheating and late submissions with grades, how then will we measure student-learning? Because I don’t think we can have both.

And if the answer’s no, grades should be a reflection of competency rather than a punishment or reward, what are some other ways to teach integrity and timeliness? Is it possible to teach those lessons without the gradebook?

Because students need those lessons probably even more than the content.

It’s a conundrum, one that should force us to rethink some of the traditional methods that we’ve grown used to, and make those necessary pivots to do what’s best for students. 

Also, quick note, I haven't offered any solutions here, and am really just raising some big questions. So feel free to use social media to join the conversation, but maybe even more importantly, have this conversation with the other educators you serve alongside. Because these discussions are worth having.

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