In the beginning, my plan was perfect. I was going to create a veritable Meisterwerk of studied intellectualism, a treatise whose scholarly virtuosity would dazzle the dons of Oxford. It was my every intention, in other words, to write an authoritative essay on the history of grading as an institutional practice.

I started, I swear. I offer the following interesting tidbits gleaned from my nobly-intentioned hours of honest-to-God research as proof of my good faith:

In (what was not yet) the United States, the practice of grading began at Yale in 1785. Its president, Ezra Stiles, wrote in his diary that his class consisted of “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores.” This essentially arbitrary division into four groups is probably the origin of the 4.0 grade scale still in use today. President Stiles’ grades were likely based on his students’ performances on public oral examinations—an old English rite that graduate students at some U.S. institutions still undergo. According to scholars Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt, these oral examinations “resembled a multi-day academic tournament,” with seeding and everything.

Owing to the influence of education reformer Horace Mann, who drew inspiration from the Prussian system, grades spread to American primary schools in the early 19th century. Mann and his disciples believed quantized grades were more democratic than the European tradition of formal titles. Our modern system of sorting younger students into stepwise “grades” proliferated alongside the practice of grading itself—that is, the recording of marks and calculation of averages. Before that, students of different ages and ability levels often learned together, especially in rural areas. Reformers like Mann believed that hierarchical rankings would motivate students. Mann dreamed of a uniform, national education experience—based in some notion of democratic citizenship and equality—though his dream would not be fully realized until after his death in 1859, when the industrial revolution would drive demand for primary education rather sharply.

But that’s when I remembered that my mother taught me it is wrong to lie. What I wanted to write was not a history of grades, a review of 19th-century documents and scholarly literature. What I wanted was to write was a fiery complaint about how horrible the practice of grading is. In the guise of historical research, I was doing exactly the thing historians warn us not to do: Passing easy moral judgment on the past from the relative comfort of the present. It would have been a way of dressing up a simple point in high-flown rhetoric, a preemptive defense against critique.

I don’t doubt Horace Mann had good intentions. Nor do I doubt that his ambitious project, whose principles undergird the current American school system, has been generally beneficial to our populace (“education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public,” Mann wrote in The Common School Journal in 1838). But like so many good intentions, Mann’s have paved the road to hell. And the practice of grading, in my opinion—of separating students into “better” and “worse” according to their performance on preordained tasks—has been the steamroller behind them.

Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the fact that many of the tasks we are asked to do in school are arbitrary and unrealistic, with the most egregious offender being, of course, the math curriculum. One example: When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, a stern Southern woman who wore floral-print dresses, began the year with a rapid-fire series of tests aimed at figuring out where we, the entering middle schoolers, stood on basic arithmetic. She asked us to take out pencils and began passing out sheets of paper, 100 blank spaces on one and 100 multiplication problems on the other. Number 1: 7 x 6 = ? Number 98: 145 x 13 = ? We would have thirty minutes, she announced, no calculators. I began sweating and started, amusingly enough, doing division in my head: 20 seconds per question. I guess some of them were supposed to be so trivial we could save time for the harder problems that would come later. My hand was shaking as I tried to conjure the answer to the first one (I never had managed to memorize my multiplication tables), but nothing came. I got a 6 out of 100.

I realize this probably sounds like a cherry-picked example, but I don’t think it’s unrepresentative of what the broader math curriculum is really like (it did, after all, really happen). Take away the single-minded focus on multiplication and loosen the time constraint a bit and you have every homework assignment from every math textbook in the U.S.—and, for that matter, you have the math portion of the SAT. Leaving aside the obvious complaint that there is no conceivable scenario—outside of the 90s video game Math Blaster!—where the ability to do three-digit multiplication problems under extreme time pressure without the aid of a calculator could possibly be useful, it’s totally unclear what such an assessment is even measuring. Maybe it’s something like “grace under pressure,” which is a strange thing to want from an 11-year-old. Or maybe it’s something like “intense passion for rote memorization and general ability to act like a human calculator,” which is a horrible thing to want from anyone. The point is, whatever weird cluster of cognitive and social traits this test was picking up, it had little to do with innate mathematical talent—or even, for that matter, with multiplication.

As Paul Lockhart, a mathematics PhD from Columbia turned elementary school teacher, wrote in his Lament: “Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, ‘we need higher standards.’ The schools say, ‘we need more money and equipment.’ Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, ‘math class is stupid and boring,’ and they are right.”

Pejores indeed.

Math may be the worst offender, but it’s hardly unique. It doesn’t take much insight to see that the English curriculum, with its emphasis on getting preteens to appreciate British poetry from 200 years ago, is similarly deranged. The same could be said of what passes for instruction in history in much of America, which might as well be a scientific experiment in adolescent nausea given the sheer amount of regurgitation it requires.

The saddest thing, however, about our assessment-happy, “data-driven” culture is that what gets lost in the hurried shuffle to figure out who is the best and brightest is, often, the subjects themselves. Mathematics can be a beautiful art form, a poem of shapes and numerals. And literature—the structured telling of stories, the arrangement of words into music—is something any child who has read Goodnight Moon can enjoy. To say nothing of history.

It is painful to me to make this next point—it should be obvious to anyone who gives it more than 15 minutes of thought—but not only is the system arbitrary, it’s racist and classist. This is utterly at odds with Mann’s—or any other—politically egalitarian vision. There’s tons of research on this, but to cite a few figures from a recent Department of Education study:

  • Black students comprise just 18% of those enrolled in public schools, yet they represent almost half of those disciplined severely.
  • About a quarter of schools with dense populations of black and Latino students do not offer math beyond Algebra II.
  • Compared to white and Asian students, black and Latino students are about three times more likely to attend schools where there are many uncertified teachers.

Then there’s this: An embedded assumption in every grade we give is that the assessment that produced it is meaningful and fair. That assumption, unfortunately, is very often false. Beyond disparate allocations of privilege (which are an enormous problem), grading assumes that the test is measuring something beyond “being good at taking the test.” Moreover, it takes for granted that the teacher’s instruction was helpful for all students and that the curriculum itself made sense. In practice, it’s nigh on impossible to know whether that’s true in every student’s case, especially not in a system that encompasses as many people as ours. But we treat grades as important and meaningful anyway.

Still not sold? All of this is still ignoring the incredibly non-public way in which our public school system is funded and organized. In many states, the public schools are funded through property taxes, which are apportioned—in many jurisdictions—county by county. Unsurprisingly, this means those who own expensive items of property tend to have better schools, which in turn leads to a whole complex system of parental gamesmanship. What’s more, if you’re rich enough to afford both your taxes and the exorbitant rates of tuition, you can just opt out and send your child to a highly-advantageous private school (like, for the record, the one I went to).

The conclusion is as obvious as it is painful: To call the system we have egalitarian, public, meritocratic, and meaningful is—sorry to say—a shallow farce. The reality, tough to admit, is that our system is anti-egalitarian, quasi-privatized, arbitrary, and often meaningless. Tougher still, we seem to prefer it this way. It’s fortunate for us that people are so wonderfully resilient.

Time, I suppose, to answer the rejoinder: What should we do instead?

We can start by no longer giving grades.

That this would take a massive overhaul and a very different political climate is obvious. That does not make it any less true. For me, at least, it is too frustrating to settle for half-measures—to meekly lobby for modestly reforming the existing program when the reality is that it should be scrapped. Real change happens through enough real people wanting upheaval—and being willing to sacrifice for it. That surely is the verdict of our history.

Further Reading: