Sunday, July 21, 2024

Are Grades Ethical?

Adeeb Chowdhury

Countless times through their educational journey, every student has felt anxious about not getting the grade they want on a test, assignment, or project. Everyone can recall the warm pride of receiving an A and the disappointment of seeing a D or F. But a deeper and more provocative question underlying the modern education system is this: are grades ethical at all?


This was the issue being explored in depth at the Ethics of Grading panel discussion hosted by the Center for Teaching Excellence and Institute for Ethics in Public Life at SUNY Plattsburgh. Hosted by Associate Professor of Public Relations Michelle Ouellette and featuring a panel of speakers with a rich professional background in education, the discussion centered around the nature of grades and whether they truly belong in the future of teaching.


Dr. Jessamyn Neuhaus, professor of history and interim director of the Center for Teaching Excellence as well as the author of “Geeky Pedagogy”, focused on the true role and obligations of educators.


“Our first obligation is to help students do better, improve skills, and increase their knowledge,” Dr. Neuhaus said. “In what ways does the traditional system of grades help us meet these obligations? Or a more urgent question – in what ways does it actually interfere with our obligations?”


Dr. Neuhaus commented that in many ways, grades are counterproductive towards such goals. She argued that they often make students passive, since grades represent an external motivator instead of an internal, intrinsic one. This removes the emphasis from actual learning and places it on attaining desirable grades. 


“As educators, it is our special and ethical responsibility to confront these questions,” she said.


Dr. Young Yu, associate professor in teacher education, department chair for the B.S.Ed. Program and former pedagogy fellow at the Institute for Ethics in Public Life, concurred. She mentioned the book “Reading Smarter, Not Harder”, that provides intriguing insight into the issue of grading. Dr. Yu used the example of an assignment on which 20 percentage points is reduced for each day that a student turns it in late.


“This system is standard in classrooms at every level of education,” Dr. Yu said. “But here’s the issue — if grades are supposed to reflect how much a student learned, then how does reducing it for late submission actually demonstrate learning? It doesn’t accomplish that goal at all.”


Regan Levitte, assistant director and writing specialist at the Claude J. Clark Learning Center, drew on her personal experiences as a student to illustrate her viewpoint on grades. When she was in graduate school and taking a course in critical theory in English, which wasn’t her area of expertise, she recalls receiving feedback from the chairperson of the department that was so harsh that it almost moved her to tears.


“Should receiving feedback from teachers really be something distressing for students?” Levitt said. “Should they really be emotionally damaged or scarred like that? I don’t think so.”


She cited a guiding principle of the Writing Center: to create better writers. If students are intimidated by feedback and deterred from participating because of it, improvement is impossible.


“If I had a nickel for each time a student came to me and said they were distressed by the grades and feedback they were getting from a particular teacher, I wouldn’t have student loans to pay off anymore,” Levitt said.


Dr. Maureen Squires, the department chair of the Master of Science for Teachers (M.S.T.) Graduate Program, focused on the responsibility of educators to explore the best and most effective ways to help their students grow.


“The ethical imperative is to develop critical reflective practitioners and generate interest to move from external to internal motivation,” she said. “Is that easy? No. But is it our responsibility? Absolutely.”


Dr. Heidi Schnackenberg, the department chair of the Master of Science in Education Graduate Program, challenged the audience to ask themselves if they really remember what grade they received on an English paper in 10th grade.


“At the end of the day, the grade we receive on any one assignment doesn’t represent anything,” she said.


Dr. Schnackenberg urged everyone to think of grades as markers, representing progress in a certain area. In the learning process, a bad marker can deter a student from making any further attempts at growth, which is fundamentally counterproductive.


Dr. Squire agreed, stating that students often see the grade by itself and do not pay attention the more specific and helpful feedback they receive alongside the score.


“They see an 82 and base their entire assessment of themselves off of that one number,” she said. “The more useful feedback is discarded, even though that’s the most important part.”


Senior Sohayla Erroui agreed wholeheartedly.


“I see so many students, myself included, who stress too much about the one particular percentage or score that we get on an assessment, instead of our overall performance and where we can improve,” Erroui said.


Dr. Neuhaus also emphasized the importance of subjective and detailed feedback as opposed to a concrete, numerical grade. 


“That makes it more like a conversation and less like you’re the sheriff in town,” she said.


One audience member resoundly agreed, citing his own educational experience at Empire State College, where grades were replaced by a more subjective, feedback-oriented system. Students would write a “learning contract” at the beginning of the semester outlining their goals for the course, and teachers would provide individualized feedback based on the contract. Dr. Yu commended such a system, emphasizing the importance of telling students how much progress they’re making towards their own particular goals.


Dr. Schnackenberg urged educators and students alike to discard the idea that grades represent intelligence. 


“It’s been deeply ingrained to us that getting all A’s means you’re smart, and getting lesser grades means you’re not,” she said. “But that’s completely off base. And we need to rethink the nature and purpose of grades if we’re ever going to make progress in the field of education.”


  1. Having taught at universities for 40 years and being an ethicist, I can say you make great points about the ethics of giving grades. Students need subjective feedback on how they are doing and suggestions to improve performance. They also need to be taught to develop critical thinking skills and ethics is one area typically ignored in university curricula or only paid lip service. Our society needs critical thinkers but also those who can make ethical decisions especially when pressures exist to do otherwise. These skills are developed through subjective learning techniques such as case studies, group projects, role-play experiences and so on. My only point of disagreement is I don’t understand why grades shouldn’t be given along with these other pedagogical teaching methodologies. We live in a society where performance on the job is rated and this conforms to the purpose of grading. We live in a competitive society and grades help students to understand they will be rated on their performance at work and working hard to achieve good grades can mirror the work ethic and motivation to achieve good grades. Let’s face it, if a student wants to get into a masters or PhD program, grades will be an important factor in the decision to admit or not. In my field, business and accounting, students with low grades are much less likely to be called for an interview than those with higher grades. To conclude, the purpose of grades is to help develop a work ethic that will help students to succeed in the real world. We shouldn’t ignore them but they can be buttressed by subjective evaluations and assessments of critical reasoning skills. It also helps the teacher grade objectively rather than subjectively, which could introduce bias in the grading system.

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