Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

Reading The Case Against Grades brought up a TON of emotions for me this week. Some of the emotions this pieced evoked from me were anger, frustration rage and even a bit of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed for my present self, but embarrassed for my younger self, the me 10-15 years ago who wasn’t among her high-achieving peers in the classroom. I went to school in a county, on a particular side of the county were high grade marks and straight A’s were an expectation of almost everyone. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t one of those students. I excelled in my elective classes like music/choir classes, home economics/teen living and sociology but could never seem to master’s subjects like physics, geometry and chemistry. It was embarrassing to receive my test scores and they sometimes be significantly lower than my peers.

In The Case Against Grades, Kohn mentions that several of the effects of grading are that grades tend to diminish what students are learning, grades create a preference for the easiest possible task and that grades tend to reduce the quality of students thinking. All of these statements resonate with me on a personal level. Within my discipline, Higher Education Administration, we reference Pedagogy of The Oppressed by Paulo Freire. In tis book, Freire mentions the baking model which American elementary, secondary and postsecondary education systems seems to adhere strictly to.  Because this system adheres to this restricting system of education, students are not allowed to think freely and make meaning of what they learn for themselves (e.g. Mindful Learning), but rather they are “learning” to regurgitate information for an exam. Grading restricts students and forces them to not necessarily meditate on what they’re learning but rather they can skim books and lessons for what they need to know. They are not told that it is okay to challenge the author, the professor(s)/teachers and each other on their thinking and thought process. Essentially, students are not taught to think at all. Grades are a way of inhibiting students learning. If students do not receive good grades, they are thought of as less than adequate and labeled as “problem” children when in fact, many of those labels could not be further from the truth.

I was never labeled a problem child, but I was told that college may not be in the cards for me. I was a good, well-mannered, well-behaved young girl with many big hopes and dreams. In high school, no one EVER thought I’d be the one to go to college, much less obtain a master’s and thinking about pursuing a doctorate. Grades do a huge disservice to our students because they label our students and put them in a box, typically a good, okay or bad student box. These boxes, these labels send the wrong message to our students. By not allowing them to practice mindful learning and engage in an academic learning space that not only encourages them to ask questions but REQUIRES it of them; think of the culture shift that will take place in the education system. I think it’s past time that we change the way that we evaluate our students learning. While many believe that this shift needs to start in the primary and secondary educational settings, I believe it starts in the post-secondary world. If we change the way we evaluate our undergraduate students, high schools will make the switch, then middle then elementary. It’s a chain reaction that ultimately starts on our level. I dare you as an educator, as an administrator to be a part of making that culture shift.

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7 Responses to Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

  1. Amy Hermundstad Nave says:

    This post was amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! And I am so excited to hear what you are planning on doing in grad school and after! I think you brought up a great point that making changes in post-secondary education which will lead to changes in the K-12 schools. I must admit that it can be easy for me to lose sight of this larger chain reaction, but I definitely want to be a part of that culture shift.

  2. Kadie Britt says:

    Preach, Ashley! I’m in complete agreement with all of your thoughts and suggestions for change. I hope that you will continue to share your story and use it as a motivator for change in our educational system. You should never be made to feel inferior in a classroom just because you learn differently than others. I’m so glad you’ve found so much success and I know you will continue to be successful in all you do!

  3. Matt Cheatham says:


    Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us! I definitely had a different experience but can see how your experience leads you to dislike the current system and can easily make others dislike the system based on what you have said. However, I want to pose the question of what do you think could be a different way of assessing a student’s success? I ask that question because to me the way to assess success for math or science may look differently than english, but I agree the way we grade and/or the emphasis on grades is currently making people value who they are based on a letter which needs to change.

  4. jschlittepi says:

    Thanks for the post Ashley! I have a really good friend who was advised not to go to MIT. Right now he’s doing a post doc somewhere ridiculously prestigious, so glad neither of you took that advice!

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