There is a great deal of pedagogical literature concerning the harm done to students by the practice of ranking them with letter grades.1 The authors of these papers, self-styled ungraders, focus on the effects of letter grading on students’ mindsets. Ungraders generally agree that letter grades distract students away from true understanding because, as widely cited ungrader Alfie Kohn puts it, “too many [of them] have been led to believe the primary purpose of schooling is to get As.”2.
That students believe this is universally acknowledged, at least by teachers. But why they believe it, in particular why they believe it so tenaciously even though their teachers have been telling them the opposite since forever, is not so clear. Also, I’m not sure that students “have been led to believe” this by anything other than their own accurate observations, or even that the students are wrong about “the primary purpose of schooling.”
The ungrading community believes that, as Susan Blum puts it, “when we grade, we really convey very little information about what is being assessed”3 and their arguments are convincing. Just for instance, there are too few letter grade options to differentiate between the wide variety of student achievements, even in a single class. My institution only offers ten choices, which isn’t granular enough even to draw a conclusion from the bare fact that two students received the same grade in a given class.4