Why grading systems are a flawed measure of intelligence

Flickr, Alberto G., Creative Commons

Since I’ve been in education, I have always found a distaste in grading systems. When I first had a piece of creative writing assessed, I realised that one person may find my work amazing, whilst another would find it terrible. Though I have continued to push myself through this constraining education system, I believe that the concept of grading and the effects of it should be considered more heavily. This issue has particularly come into importance to me during my time at the University of Waterloo, where I have had the privilege to work with a professor whose teaching philosophy disregards the traditional grading system in a way which ultimately benefits students.

The topic of education and grading has been linked with the conversation self-esteem and validation for an extended period of time. In 2017, the Office of National Statistics recorded that an average of 95 students per year commit suicide in the UK, whilst in India the rate of student suicide is a shocking one student per hour. Early last year it was reported that 18 students in India had committed suicide after failing their exams which were actually wrongly graded. Notably, this occurred largely in subjects like Mathematics, where results are easily quantifiable. In this case, we must consider the general effect of grading rather than the attempts to quantify immeasurable subjects. Nonetheless, these horrifying statistics are evidence that the pressure of education has a significant impact on the livelihoods of so many young people on a global level. How do numbers equate to one’s knowledge and how can we counter the weight that grading has on millions of students around the world? Because ultimately, lives are being lost due to the fear of failure and mental health problems are increasing in higher education.

Knowledge is something to be learned, and some learn quicker than others.

Education helps to establish the hierarchy in which we live. When I sat down in my first class in Canada, my professor made everyone aware that she refused to recognise any student’s privilege in their education, and that this class would be a completely different test of ‘knowledge’. In the arts, ‘knowledge’ or ‘intelligence’ are not easy to quantify, and in my opinion can never be quantified. In these subjects where there is not necessarily a yes or no answer, grading is largely influenced by an examiner’s personal preference for writing and style. The higher education grading system supersedes that of GCSE or A-Level, in which there is no guideline for how to write the perfect paragraph or how to best analyse a quote. Ditching this in higher education means that professors are likely to judge your style of writing and method of displaying knowledge in a more discriminatory manner defined by their own experiences of education. Most have gained Bachelors, Masters and Doctorates from highly esteemed institutions and value a voice from a certain demographic.

Students who may have experienced private education, for example, can have certain educational privileges that students from state schools may not. Students of white backgrounds are likely to be favoured over those of diaspora backgrounds, perhaps because they express themselves differently or use different words. Your writing becomes defined by what you have already read, therefore your efforts to write well may have been squandered because your favourite piece of literature isn’t Ulysses, since intelligence is measured by your interest in classic literature or certain philosophers, thinkers, or critics. Yet, your grades will determine your likelihood to get a good job and consequently your salary and ultimately your quality of life.

It can be understood that in subjects where there is a right or wrong answer, knowledge feels easier to quantify. However, the pressure in this industry stems from the inability of our society to validate failure. Almost everyone will have heard that Bill Gates was a dropout (albeit from Harvard) and that Steve Jobs built his career from a garage. But to what extent do we allow people attempting to enter the STEM industry to fail? Passion in the humanities sector is celebrated and encouraged, but in the neighbouring industry passion is arguably not enough. If you don’t have the answers right away, you’ve failed. I wouldn’t say grading is doomed in science and medicine; we need to trust our doctors will know what’s wrong with us. But, how can we allow one failed exam to lead to the suicide of a student? And what can we do to counter this? After all, we live in a social climate where some students are committing suicide over grades, but 50 people in the States (including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin) have attempted a college admissions scam that would allow their children to enter elite institutions by forging their entrance grades. The system is inherently flawed and able to be manipulated by a privileged few.

Education should not be something pressurising, or that makes us doubt ourselves. It should be a process of learning useful things which can help us to teach ourselves and others.

We need to emphasise that knowledge is something to be learned, and some learn quicker than others. Do we believe that mental capacity is fixed? The breadth of higher education does not necessarily serve to the potential of students in the time it takes us to learn. This reflects the fast-paced nature of our society and how we attempt to snatch talent as quickly as possible to feed our capitalist, hegemonic ways. And so we are made to believe that if we are not allowed to feed this system, we are not as valuable as others. Our results make us think of ourselves as either smart or not, worthy or not. Ultimately, this is why the system is manoeuvred and suited to white, male, upper and middle-class members of society. The system likes how they talk, how they think, and fosters their adherence to the system of measuring intelligence.

My professor at Waterloo, who led a module called ‘The Discourse of Dissent’, employed a form of grading which she thought was more beneficial to the active learner, and that was of self-grading. Each student would be able to give themselves a grade between 0 and 100, and the professor would reserve the right to either decrease or increase the grade accordingly. This grade however would need to be turned in with a use-value statement. This statement justifies what was learned in the production of a certain essay or presentation, and how this knowledge, research, or experience can lend to us in the future. Our grades were based on how that final work benefitted us. We hear the age-old complaints of how we are ever going to use what we learn in school in the future, which augments the trend that our education means little and it’s the end result that matters. Instead, the grading system is turned on its head by what we can prove to ourselves as opposed to what we can prove to someone above us.

Whilst I understand that this method cannot tackle all issues in which grading is linked to suicide rates or mental-health issues, I think it’s hard to deny that it would help reform at least one industry in society. If we can take value from our education, we are able to define our knowledge by what we need to know to be where we want to be. It can help separate us from the greater workings of the world and re-evaluate standards to a personal level. Education should not be something pressurising, or that makes us doubt ourselves. It should be a process of learning useful things which can help us to teach ourselves and others.

Featured image: Flickr, Alberto G., Creative Commons

About Gurpreet Raulia

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