Why Does the U.S. Education Grading System Seem Broken? | Opinion

This originally appeared on Quora. Answered by Dave Consiglio.

Because it is broken.

For 8 years as a child, I attended a Montessori school. I never once received a report card, a graded assignment, or a mark of any kind to indicate my progress.

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Instead, I was assessed using individual interviews and simple in-class assessments. For example, when learning addition, students moved on to subtraction when they could complete a set of addition flash cards in a certain amount of time.

Each student was assessed individually and minimal pressure was placed on these assessments. If you had to complete the flashcards in 2 minutes, and it took you 2:05, you were congratulated for getting close and encouraged to practice. When you tried again the next time, you moved on or you didn't.

When I finally moved to public schools in the 6th grade, I loved tests. I loved them because, for me, they were fun and interesting and failing them never felt like failure…it felt like a challenge.

In public schools, I found out that test grades mattered, that you could usually only take them once, and that people got really upset about them. Also, you got a score that was a number or a letter, and that number or letter signified goodness in some way.

This seemed dumb to me. It still does.

What exactly does a B+ in chemistry mean? What 88% am I competent in? What 12% am I a failure in?

The reality is this: if we really wanted to assess students, we'd do it the Montessori way: one child at a time, one skill at a time, and with only a slight sense of urgency. Students who struggle in one area would be given ample time to rise as high as they can. If a student excelled in another area, they could master ever more challenging concepts.

This would produce a group of young people who know their strengths and weaknesses without being made to feel bad about them, and who could learn far more than the traditional system allows. But it would be very expensive.


We give grades because grades are easy and cheap. I tell mothers and fathers that their child is an A or a C or an F, even though they are none of those things. They are children, and those children are a beautiful kaleidoscope of strengths and weaknesses and interests and fears and potential. Trying to reduce a child to a letter is like trying to reduce a painting to one color, or a symphony to one note.

Furthermore, what we grade is incredibly arbitrary. We decided somewhere that chemistry was important but basketball was not. That may be a good decision, and maybe it's not. But it's lucky for me - I was good at the former and terrible at the latter. But for kids who are athletically gifted and academically challenged, there is nothing but shame and scorn and derision for 13 years, capped off with pieces of paper mailed home every quarter that say "your child is a failure."

Our system is broken.

If we had to do grading, I'd make the grading pass/fail, and I'd make the pass line 100%. You either know a thing or you do not. That would involve standards-based grading, which again would be very expensive and time consuming. However, it would give a far clearer picture of skill set and competencies than a report card would.

Last point: I (and all teachers in Michigan) am evaluated on a deep, lengthy rubric. The one my district uses (Charlotte Danielson) grades me over 6 domains, each of which is broken into more than a dozen different fields. All of these are combined to provide a nuanced and informative picture of who I am as a teacher.

Why don't we do this for students? It's expensive and time-consuming, that's why.

Your question gets a grade of J. What does J stand for? I have no idea.