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“On paper, [the grading system] makes perfect sense,” writes VOX ATL teen editor Aidan Ventimiglia. “The thing is, the world can’t really be compressed into 100 numbers that easily.”

Illustration by Aidan Ventimiglia

The Problem With The Letter Grading System [OPINION]

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Many teens spend hours agonizing over their grades, doing and redoing assignments to raise their score. They constantly think about their GPA, but they rarely think about the grading system itself. Even though they experience the problems with it firsthand, they don’t stop to consider changing it. To most people nowadays, that’s the only way to grade. It’s how it’s always been done. 

That’s just not true, and it’s about time we acknowledged that. It’s certainly not just me. Anyone who ever had to go through this grading system has been slighted by it at some point, but no one is fixing it. When governments aren’t working, people go back and restructure them. Georgia has had 10 different constitutions! So why don’t we treat the grading system the same way?

When I don’t like the grade I have, I go out of my way to work for a better one. That usually requires me to go ask my teacher why I got the grade I did and then I’ll explain why I think it should be higher. If I have a good point, the teacher might just go in and raise my grade or offer extra credit, but sometimes they won’t do either. Sometimes my teacher won’t let me fix the grade, but I can’t argue if I know it was fair. However, there are those rare occasions when my teacher will give me an arbitrary score that I know I didn’t deserve, yet still refuse to fix it. Most of the time that happens the grade isn’t even that low or weighing my average down much. I just can’t stand the injustice. 

I know it’s not worth arguing over what would probably amount to five points anyways. I realize that it would be more work than it’s worth. I understand that it would just put me on my teacher’s bad side. Yet it still chafes at me every time I see that grade in the grade book. I can’t stand knowing my teacher got away with it. 

The grading system is designed to be an easily understandable way to judge people’s knowledge. On paper, it makes perfect sense. The thing is, the world can’t really be compressed into 100 numbers that easily. You can’t just shove all of a person’s brain into two digits. Think about E.T.’s famous lines “E.T. phone home.” Those words aren’t proper English, and any Language Arts teacher who saw that would probably give that poor little alien an F. 

However, the point of language is to communicate information. Even though “E.T. phone home” isn’t correct grammar, anyone can understand what he means. Most subjects aren’t so cut and dry with either a right or a wrong answer, so why are we grading like they are? Across the nation, people are finally starting to realize this. My school has implemented a written “performance final” in addition to multiple-choice finals to try and diversify what skills we are scored on, but it is still graded using that number system, so it doesn’t really fix the base problem. A few counties in Virginia have even gotten rid of letter grades entirely, as Kevin Sieff reports in the Washington Times. However, in schools that haven’t done this, some teachers start concentrating on the numbers alone, and crazy things start to happen. 

For example, if an essay was being entered into a competition, a Language Arts teacher might make the decision that the winners would get 100 points, and all the ones he thought were great but didn’t quite win should get 95 points. From a logical standpoint, that makes perfect sense. But when you look closer, the cracks become apparent. You might wonder how exactly the teacher picked the winners. Was it on the quality of their writing? Or was it on something entirely irrelevant to their skill and entirely subjective?

You might’ve guessed by now: this “example” actually happened to me. It was the Laws of Life essay writing competition: a statewide writing contest in which students choose a personal motto and write a personal narrative about what it means to them. Winners can get pretty sizable prizes, going from $50 for being the best in your grade within your school to the $1,000 grand prize for all of Georgia. The only rules are that your Law of Life must be expressly stated in the piece, and it has to be between 500 and 700 words.

I wrote my piece about a day in eighth grade when I heard some kids gossiping about one of my friends and decided to stand up to them. I thought it was pretty good, but I got a 95, so I went up and asked my teacher what it was about it that he didn’t like. He told me that the main difference was that my short story’s entire plot took course over a few hours, but all the kids who advanced to the next round of competition did so simply because their stories took place over several months. The difference that changed my grade had nothing to do with my writing and everything to do with the contest itself. 

Aren’t grades supposed to reflect your skill? If that is how the contest was judged I can’t argue, but how can my grade be judged on those same standards? But for five points, there was nothing I could do. And even then I wasn’t sure if the decision that longer timelines were better came from my Language Arts teacher or the Laws of Life organization itself. 

So I decided to do some research of my own. I went on to the Laws of Life website and found a brochure that included several of the winning essays of 2019. The first-place winner, Reagan Parrish, had a story about the day he saved an owl on his way to school. Second place was a conversation with a woman grieving her daughter, by Gracie Dooley. Christopher Thomas won third with a narrative about him finding out that his house burned down. Notice a common theme here? None of them took longer than a day.

So here I am with this grade that I clearly didn’t deserve, yet no way to fix it. 

The grading system is deeply flawed. This example may only have affected me, but it’s happening everywhere, to everyone. We need to start discussing new ways to do this, and stop acting like letter grades are the only way. The current grading system doesn’t take into account crucial details such as the student’s mental health or the biases of the grader. Nor does it convey important points like a student’s creativity or leadership skills. This system affects everyone, and it’s about time we thought about it a little more.


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comments (1)

  1. Charlotte Block

    I found the article very interesting; you made your points and then backed them up with examples from your own experiences.
    So as far as I’m concerned, I give you a 5+ !!
    Love, G