To the Editor:
Educational merit in this country is largely based on quantifiable measures of learning. From a young age, students are taught implicitly that their academic achievements will be defined by their grades and standardized test scores. “Grades Out, Badges In” (The Chronicle, October 14) offers an interesting perspective on the use of education badges as an alternative to traditional letter grades. While I support the assertion that grades do not provide an accurate reflection of student performance, I disagree with the notion that the grading system should change to accommodate potential employers.
In an attempt to initiate a crucial conversation on the validity and reliability of the American grading system, proponents of badges propose another approach that would arguably lead to the same problematic outcomes. Although education badges are intended to acknowledge some of the non-cognitive, transferable skills students acquire in their courses, this concept is based on the flawed, hierarchical view that students’ accomplishments need to be assigned a value label. Essentially, our culture dictates that people’s academic achievements must be measured using standardized evaluation mechanisms that allow society to judge an individual’s talent in comparison to others.
Scholars do not value learning because they are too consumed with a desire for recognition. Students view academic courses as a means to end—a way for them to distinguish themselves as the best and brightest in a group of peers. More often than not, students with the highest grades and test scores are admitted into the most competitive colleges and universities, which lead to the most promising job prospects and the highest lifetime-earning potentials. Overall, our educational system has done a major disservice to previous and current generations of students by not giving them the freedom to absorb knowledge without the burden of competition.
A grading system assumes that some students will perform better than others and that their abilities must be labeled accordingly. What kind of educational system would allow students to perform poorly and then classify them with a letter grade that identifies their unsatisfactory performance? Is the educational system designed to promote student learning and competence or is it a stratified structure that systematically categorizes students into varying degrees of success and failure? What if students were not given the option to fail and could learn subjects at their own pace? Similarly, what if teachers were not forced to grade students and instead could focus their time on providing additional assistance to students who are struggling? In the spirit of school reform, we should consider a system that emphasizes quality learning and content mastery for every student, rather than a meaningless assessment structure that provides an unreliable indication of student competence.
The writer is a graduate student at the University of Southern California.