A Proposal to Deflate the Problem of Grades
by Jeffry C. Davis, English Department
David Swartz’s article on grade inflation at Wheaton was informative, yet it doesn’t really provide a conclusive answer as to why it occurs. Our registrar suggests that it’s simply a result of smarter students coming to Wheaton? Maybe, but I doubt that is the main reason. If we’re honest, I think we’ll acknowledge that the answer involves an increasing demand—by students and their parents—for success in life, which ultimately affects teachers and the way they grade. In the minds of many students, a tacit assumption controls their educational thinking: If I strive for good grades, and win them from my teachers, this will ensure my ticket to “the good life.” The good life sometimes includes acceptance into medical school, law school, business school, or some other graduate program, and typically leads to a high-paying job, bringing long-term financial security and, supposedly, happiness.
One of my deepest desires, as a teacher at this Christian liberal arts college, is that students will adopt a healthy, biblically-informed motivation for learning, one that gives them a different and better goal for learning than what the advertisers promote as “the good life.” Unfortunately, some students attempt to attain a market driven version of the good life by appeasing the GPA god (who, despite what some may think, is active and powerful on this campus); such students work hard to win the esteem of others (especially their parents), all the while competing against each other with a Darwinian vengeance. This kind of motivation, need I say, is not healthy or biblical. Furthermore, it often leads to bondage, turning knowledge into a commodity rather than what it should be: a means to learn about our Creator through a rigorous study of His creation, in all its fullness and wonder.
Because of the deleterious effects of a system of grading that inherently promotes competition and encourages students to perceive education almost exclusively in terms of its quantifiable ends, I propose that the faculty move to abolish the present practice of grading at Wheaton College, adopting instead an assessment approach that is better aligned with our aims as a Christian liberal arts college. This proposal, although it may seem outrageous to some, is based upon values which are conservative, biblical, and consistent with our educational mission. Allow me to explain briefly.
First, according to Thomas R. Guskey, in his article “Making the Grade: What Benefits Students?,” “Although student assessment has been a part of teaching and learning for centuries, grading is a relatively recent phenomenon. The ancient Greeks used assessment as formative, not evaluative, tools.” To be sure, Plato never got a grade from his teacher, Socrates (nor, for that matter, did the disciples get grades from their teacher, Jesus). According to Guskey, the whole practice of quantifiable grading and reporting emerged prominently in this country at the early part of this century with the increase of public school enrollments and the establishment of legislation for compulsory attendance. For centuries prior, students learned their material without the motivation of getting a good grade. What a radical, yet historically conservative, notion: to learn for the sake of what learning can do to you. Take away grades, and we are suddenly forced to develop a thoughtful rationale for why we study.
Second, is the hallmark of the Kingdom of Christ competition or collaboration? Clearly, the present system of grading does not tend to reinforce the values of working together and learning from each other, as members of the Body of Christ, but rather working alone and learning for oneself. I was saddened, last year, to hear one of my students recount how he was rebuffed by a classmate in a general education science course after confessing that he was struggling with his work and could use some help. “Read the textbook again,” he was scolded, “and figure it out for yourself.” My student told me that in some courses, because a curve is used, students are mindful that if they help other students to learn, that may raise the class curve and make it more difficult for themselves to “make the grade.” If we remove the fear of not making the grade, students will be freer to take the risk of helping a fellow student to become competent in a particular subject. This is not to say that slackers would be allowed to slide by with no effort. With a straightforward, pass/fail assessment system, as I encourage, those students who do not do the work will not pass; they will study until they gain a basic mastery of the material. Thus, students will be free to encourage each other toward higher motives and practices for gaining and retaining knowledge. In this manner, knowledge will become a blessing to be shared, instead of a possession to be hoarded.
Third, the elimination of grading will promote the values that inform our Christian liberal arts objectives, the primary one being this: to shape students into the men and women that God intends them to become. The historic purpose of liberal arts education has been to make people more humane through their study of the best of human culture and knowledge. Transform this aim with the wisdom of the Bible—especially the truth that none can become fully human apart from Christ’s transforming work—and you have the makings of a radically different kind of education. A Christian liberal arts college (interestingly, the word “college” actually implies a “body” or “community” of learning) is supposed to encourage students to learn (and live) by faith, not fear. Our love for God should be the primary motivation—not grades—as we yearn to become ever new creations in Christ.
Of course, you may say, “This proposal is ridiculous and impractical. It will never work. What a foolishly idealistic idea—to abolish grades! How would anyone ever get into grad school?” But actually, some colleges have already abolished grades, much to their own success. Students from these institutions, like St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Maryland, continue to land spots in grad schools, med schools and law schools. And teachers at these colleges, like Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, realize that grades, ultimately, tell us very little about what a person truly knows; therefore, they are willing to be innovative and counter-cultural, for the sake of their students, allowing their delivery system of knowledge and learning to be consistently guided by the values represented in their philosophy of education. The question is, “Are the faculty at Wheaton willing to do the same?”