Grades as the Gatekeeper to Privilege in Schools

Despite the initial purpose of grades being an assessment of learning, schools often use grades as a sorting mechanism within the school’s social structure.


4 min read
Grades as the Gatekeeper to Privilege in Schools

What do students with low grades deserve? You may think this is a strange question, but we in schools make many decisions based on what we believe the answer to this question is. If you asked most educators if they felt it is right to penalize low achieving students, you would more than likely receive an adamant, “Of course not!”. But often, we do punish them.

This method not only leads to the sorting and segregation of students; it also conveys a message to students that they do not deserve what other children deserve because they are not learning at the same rate.

Arranging students by academic achievement is often employed. Despite the initial purpose of grades being an assessment of learning, schools often use grades as a sorting mechanism within the school’s social structure. Sorting is done by:

  • Rewarding students with A’s and B’s with participation in enjoyable activities such as field trips and assemblies.
  • Establishing high-status incentive groups that reward students with high GPAs (or even high test scores.) Schools visibly identify students with special badges, lanyards, or wrist bands. The special status allows them access to such things as homework passes, choice of clothing to wear, or even extra bathroom passes.
  • Removing students with failing grades (or low test scores) out of enjoyable electives such as band or art to receive intensive academic assistance.
  • Not allowing failing students to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, student clubs, or school dances.

All of the above has been done in schools by well-meaning educators and administrators. Typically, the more a school is struggling, the more frequently such methods are employed. They are accepted and often lauded by those who feel these are the only ways to “motivate” students to achieve. Even more pernicious is the fact that, more often than not, struggling schools are likely to be underfunded ones that service primarily children of color or/and children living in poverty.

Outside of the argument of whether or not such extrinsic methods lead to significant behavioral or cognitive change, one must also look at the ethics of punishing students for low grades. This method not only results in the sorting and segregation of students; it also conveys a message to students that they do not deserve what other children deserve because they are not learning at the same rate. But many factors are out of a child’s control. They may be in a class that is not appropriate for their abilities (either too easy or too difficult). They may not receive homework support at home. They may have an undiagnosed learning disability. They may have academic gaps due to excessive transiency. They may only be getting three hours of sleep a night because they are homeless and sleep on a neighbor’s sofa. They may have English as their second language and were taken out of support classes too early. You can see how easy it is. By sorting children via grades, we can inadvertently sort them into groups reflecting a child’s economic condition and societal status. Focusing on punitive measures to change academic performance does nothing to remedy the pertinent issues. If grades are an assessment of what a child knows and has learned, grades essentially communicate to the teacher and the school that something needs to change. The grade needs to trigger action on the adults’ part, not a punitive consequence for the student.

No child wants to fail. I’ll repeat it; no child wants to fail. If we desire all students to succeed academically, we need to do more than pass judgment.

But some may argue that without rewarding and punitive measures, students will not be motivated to work hard. But if this is the case, are we not using an academic measure to assess behavioral compliance? And if so, what then is the point of an academic grade? And how is it differentiated from a citizenship grade? Oddly enough, some students can get a D in citizenship and a B in academics. So, what is more important? Compliance or learning? (Oh, they’re causing a disruption in class and preventing other students from learning, you say? Maybe we should address the behavior with direct interventions rather than merely relying on a letter grade to change the behavior. Giving a student an “F” can even motivate some to continue the disruption.)

A better question may be then, does punishment lead to positive change? By using the stick rather than the carrot, do students get better grades? At best, some students may initially respond, but then we assume all students can change simply with effort. Are failing grades and low test scores merely a matter of a student’s lack of industry? No child wants to fail. I’ll repeat it; no child wants to fail. If we desire all students to succeed academically, we need to do more than pass judgment. We need to focus on how we can change our pedagogy and our schools’ environment to meet all students’ needs. Proclaiming failure is nothing more than a label if nothing significantly changes to prevent future deficiency. Connect the consequences of poor grades to direct actions that help students improve. Remediation and growth can occur without segregation and punishment. Take shame out of the equation by making school an enriching positive experience for all students, no matter what grades they receive. Maybe then we might create schools where all students define themselves as learners.

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