Reforming Amherst’s Grading System to Encourage Student Growth

Grades are a subjective system that systematically values a narrow set of qualities that so very often do not correlate to greater life satisfaction or produce better students of the world. Tests chronically misdiagnose ineptitude in a subject, and professors’ personalities have the power to fundamentally alter both the way material is taught and how students’ work is examined. One of the greatest and most accepted myths in the academic realm is such: Grading properly measures a student’s achievement, understanding and hard work. In fact, grading often produces contradictory results — it restricts curiosity and motivation to take intellectual risks and improperly labels students as likely to succeed.

Grades measure something, but that something is not necessarily the internal qualities that compose the most successful students. In her acclaimed essay “Valuing Applicants’ Creative Sensibilities,” Helen Vendler, a former member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions at Harvard College, wrote: “We are eager to harbor the next Homer, the next Kant, or the next Dickinson [but] the truth is that many future poets, novelists and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. [The most accomplished] through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning.”

While grades imply a student’s collective intelligence and prospects for success in future endeavors, grades are often based on a standardized method of learning, teaching and reiterating what was absorbed. Grading often overlooks the personal and intimate qualities that constitute an advanced learner — qualities that form the premise of a liberal arts education. Grades frequently undervalue the role of creativity or curiosity in establishing lifelong students. Grades ignore the importance of self-awareness in developing future leaders. Grades lack the capacity to measure the qualities that help produce a better humanity. These qualities include compassion, empathy, humility, courage, resourcefulness, resilience and a sense of and appreciation for beauty.

John F. Kennedy famously once said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.” And to this extent, he would be woefully disappointed. Our progress in the academic world has, more than ever, become prisoner to a system of letters and numbers which, more often than not, indicates how much a professor liked you, how often you spoke in class (a detriment to introverts everywhere) or how well you memorized a set of facts, which are often forgotten less than a day after an exam (Einstein is said to have said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”). Of additional concern is how often our educational system fails to understand how a world-class violinist can fail his chemistry class or how a renowned biologist could have flunked English.
Pertinently, a famed cartoon titled “Our Education System” goes like this: a monkey, an elephant, a penguin, a dog, a fish and a seal sit behind a tree and directly in front a man (playing the teacher) who says, “For a fair selection, everyone has to take the same exam. Please climb that tree.” The implication is that only one of the animals — the monkey — is able to climb the tree. The cartoon satirizes the educational system and is a spin-off of a quote by Einstein that goes, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” The chief aim of this satire is to highlight the frequently ignored concept of multiple intelligences (a concept which testing overwhelmingly fails to identify).

After all, it’s unreasonable to expect Mozart to have excelled in biochemistry, Picasso to have aced astrophysics or Hemingway to have dominated political science. No one expected Nietzsche to express mastery of calculus or Maxwell to develop love for foreign language. Nonetheless, if the next Tolstoy risks taking a psychology course and receives a C, he’s viewed as an undesirable student. To this extent, the two pass/fail courses that Amherst students are allotted are of unique help, but they are not enough. The current system of grades still reduces our motivation as students to take classes we are less comfortable with — for fear of receiving a bad grade.

Equally troubling are the details of testing and grading. Take, for example, the modern vogue of considering certain grades as superior to others. For instance, students are often told that an A in a humanities class is worth less than an equivalent A in the hard sciences. One must also consider unintended discrimination in grading. Psychological studies have shown that minorities, for example, do more poorly on exams if reminded of their race. And those with more resources — in other words, wealthier students — receive better tests scores across the board than those in more disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances.

Moreover, testing environments can heavily influence test outcomes. A student will often recall information easier and receive better test scores if tested in the environment he or she originally learned the material in. This is to say nothing of taking into consideration the issues that arise when trying to objectively grade in a subjective subject. For instance, it’s possible to receive three different grades from three different professors on the same paper. The fact that a grade can vary so heavily based on what breakfast we ate the morning before the exam, whether we’re having trouble with our partner, whether our professor is having a bad day or whether we picked Professor John Doe over Professor Jane Doe, is particularly disconcerting and further corroborates the increasing unreliability of our current grading system.
Studies have repeatedly shown that when grades are removed from an academic context, students feel freer to take intellectual risks, and the quality of their thinking improves (they are more likely to ask “Will this be on the test?” than “How can we be sure that’s true?” when they know they are being graded). Students naturally excel in the medium in which they feel the freest — a freedom that is inherently hindered by the use of grades. Grades fundamentally reduce the motivation of learning such that people are concerned more with their GPAs than with the intrinsic property of learning for curiosity or simply for learning’s sake.
When we grade the potential of students, we don’t account for things like their creativity, resilience, or, empathy, to say nothing of dozens of other characteristics. In the end, however, it is these traits that are more conducive to success and happiness and are more likely to introduce effective leaders to the real world.