The traditional letter grading system remains the standard method of evaluating students in academic institutions. However, this system receives notable criticism as an inefficient and misleading standard that still continues mainly because of its familiarity. The arguments against letter grades vary due to differing opinions on how student performance should be gauged. Thus, this article merely provides three common criticisms against the system rather than an exhaustive list.
First, letter grading easily leads to grade inflation. Grade inflation occurs when distribution of grades among a group of students primarily concentrates in the A to B range rather than following a natural curve. The letter grading system necessitates high grades in order for students to progress, so instructors tend to make high grades easier for everyone to obtain. Diluted course expectations result in students who are less interested in learning the material than they are in meeting the minimum requirements for decent grades.
According to EndGradeInflation.org, "Inflation causes upward compaction of grades conferring the appearance of excellence on ever increasing numbers of students. The appearance of excellence is accompanied by a decreased incentive to learn, leading to a decline in knowledge." The site specifically notes how lower-achieving schools display better grade averages than higher-achieving schools, thereby implying "that in low achieving schools with high grade point averages, expectations are extremely low--just the opposite of what research indicates should be done. Having low expectations begets low achievement."
Letter grades offer only a periodic and generalized evaluation of academic achievement. Students receive grades based on their ability to perform a large enough percentage of the material they are taught, which discourages them from growing proficient in all areas of study during each period. Systems that are not grade-based, such as a standards-based system, provoke students to improve their skills in any subject matter that they have failed to master and thereby make education more personal and less standardized.
In his article on standards-based reporting, Ryan Blackburn of "The Athens Banner-Herald" in Georgia, discusses how this alternative evaluation system judges student performance on particular tasks for each subject matter, thus giving "students, parents and teachers more information to help them focus on specific deficiencies--like vocabulary or fractions--instead of giving a vague assessment about how well the student is doing." He quotes local superintendent Jeffery Welch as saying that the letter grading system "masks the low points and high points. It masks what you don't know very well with what you do know very well."
Letter grades serve as little more than a ranking system to measure students against each other and against average performances. This problem pervades standardized testing and grade point averaging as well, and such a mentality reflects positively or poorly on school districts without addressing the more important issue of whether or not the students are learning. When schools treat students like statistics instead of as individuals with needs, the education process becomes a parody of itself.
Blackburn's article on standards-based reporting further quotes Superintendent Welch as saying that letter grade supporters are "people who want to lock learning into time frames and want to sort and rank kids" for the sake of competition between students. This academic Darwinism ensures that those students who struggle with the material will be abandoned by the system that supposedly exists to educate them equally.
Ultimately, letter grading promotes a counterproductive focus on obtaining the highest grades possible rather than truly learning the material. EndGradeInflation.org notes that students "must focus on higher and higher grades in order to maintain whatever level they find themselves on in respect to average...they must attempt to accumulate as many high grades as possible simply to stay ahead of the game."
As a result, students concern themselves with their rank rather than on learning the material and may seek alternate ways to obtain high grades. Since "grades do not discourage academic dishonesty," students will see cheating as a viable option.