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To grade or … ungrade? The case for and against letter grades

At a glance

  • Letter grades began to appear in education in the 1940s, and by 1971, 67% of primary and secondary schools were using them.
  • Ungrading approaches the student evaluation process differently, often through self-assessments and with a focus on progress, to create a more holistic approach to measuring knowledge.
  • Traditional grading offers such benefits as scalability, universal understanding and accountability.
  • University of Phoenix prepares teachers for tomorrow’s classrooms with a variety of degree offerings and continued education.

We’ve all been there. That moment when a single letter suddenly assumes the power to taunt you for your lack of understanding or berate you for your lack of effort.

Such is the power of a letter grade. Whether it’s a C on a paper or an F in a class, bad grades may be subjective, but they’re universally reviled — especially as they can impact GPAs, scholarships and admissions.

But what if letters lost their evaluative power? What if each class focused on learning and understanding the material rather than assigning a letter to how well you completed the process?

This, some might say, is what competency-based education (CBE) is all about. And in a way, they’re correct. But the “ungrading” movement is bigger than CBE, and as it reaches its contentious tentacles across the K–12 space and into higher education, it is forcing educators and students alike to ask, Why do we use letter grades? Are they really best?

 

To be sure, this is a conversation with two sides. For every person who dreads letter grades is someone else not only motivated by them but who takes pride in earning good ones.

Although ungrading has been around for some time, it’s popped back up in the national discourse after two years of pandemic-induced education and testing forced everyone to go online, modify testing requirements and get creative about how we learn.

All of which brings us here, where we’ll take a closer look at what ungrading is and what its implications are for education.

Letter grading as we know it

Despite their ubiquity, letter grades are a fairly recent phenomenon, according to the educator and ungrading advocate Jesse Stommel. As he notes on his website, the A–F grading system emerged at the end of the 19th century, with the 100-point scale gaining popularity in the early 1900s.

Stommel writes: “Letter grades were not widely used until the 1940s. Even by 1971, only 67% of primary and secondary schools in the U.S. were using letter grades.”

Letter grades, in other words, benefit from the air of authenticity that comes with an established convention, but they’re actually a relatively new approach to educational evaluation. 

“A grade is a way to describe a student’s academic ability, but it’s come to mean and carry so many other implications,” says Pamela Roggeman, EdD. 

Roggeman is the dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix (UOPX), and her years in the classroom, combined with her work in higher education, have revealed the imperfections inherent to conventional grading practices.

For example, Roggeman points to the way high school grades not only determine if and where you go to college but also what kinds of scholarships you’re eligible for and even whether you can join the military. 

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Letter grade inflation

With money and career inextricably linked to grades, no wonder they also impact self-concepts like identity and value.

“I feel like educators, especially K–12 educators, have pressure to inflate grades so that parents will be satisfied that their child is learning, and because it really does have high stakes,” Roggeman says.

Also known as grade inflation, adjusting a student’s grade for effort happens at the teacher’s discretion. 

“I do think grade inflation happens because of teachers like me wanting to help that whole child,” says Lisa Ghormley, associate dean of the College of Education at UOPX.

“I would look at the whole child [when I was teaching children]. What else did they do? How were they working?”

Some might argue that impulse to grade holistically speaks to the value of reevaluating traditional letter grades. Intuitively, it makes sense to assess a student not just in terms of percentages earned on homework and tests but also on what effort they’ve invested in a class, how they learn and what progress they’ve made.

Of course, ideal as that approach might be, it’s not always realistic given student-to-teacher ratios and administrative policies.

Ungrading, however, is doable — at least under the right circumstances.

What is ungrading?

Contrary to what the name might suggest, ungrading is not the same thing as “not grading.” But defining the term is rather like teaching itself: It can mean different things depending on who’s in the (class)room.

At its core, ungrading is essentially evaluating students based on student feedback, progress, participation and mastery.

Ungrading as a concept really began to emerge about the time of the Vietnam War, when a lot of established practices began to come under greater scrutiny.

“That was the beginning of our American education system saying there are more things that factor into a student’s performance than simply the grade the student earns on an assignment or test,” Roggeman says.

To be fair, ungrading could probably benefit from a name change. It has the kind of cache that automatically polarizes people. One of Roggeman’s phrases, “nontraditional evaluated systems,” perhaps better captures the essence of what ungrading is. Not only is ungrading still an evaluative process, it can also take many different forms, including letter grades.

What does ungrading look like?

The structure of ungrading can be frustratingly fluid.

For one teacher in higher education, the methodology might be “labor based,” meaning students who do the work automatically pass or, if the school operates on a letter-grade system, earn an A.

Alternatively, ungrading might mean removing the so-called “soft skills” of a class from the grading process, such as time management or participation. If a student turns in a paper late, for example, he wouldn’t lose points.

Or, it might mean eliminating the zero from the grading altogether. Roggeman, for example, stopped giving zeros toward the end of her teaching career because it “tanks the grade,” and it doesn’t accurately reflect a student’s aptitude for a subject. (If a student failed to turn in an assignment, Roggeman would instead dole out a 50%.)

Still others might take an approach similar to that of Ghormley’s son’s college accounting teacher, who let students repeat quizzes and homework until they got the grade they wanted. Tests remained graded as usual, but by allowing students to retake quizzes and update homework, the teacher sought to emphasize the learning part of the class.

“It’s more about the concept of learning accounting, and I think we’ve really lost that concept with grades,” Ghormley says.

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Advantages of ungrading

So, what does ungrading offer students? Here are some of the pros:

  • Ungrading rewards effort. Results matter, but so does the work leading up to results.
  • Ungrading discourages cheating. When you have to demonstrate your understanding and prove your work, there are fewer opportunities to deceive the instructor.
  • Ungrading relies on intrinsic motivation. Grades can be an effective external motivation for some students at some stages of their career. By shifting the focus to learning rather than earning a grade, the motivation becomes acquiring knowledge.
  • Ungrading can more accurately evaluate a student. Because nontraditional evaluation methods focus on the big picture (content mastery, effort, revision processes and learning), it can more accurately reflect a student’s academic performance as well as his or her strengths and weaknesses.
  • Ungrading offers flexibility. Ghormley once had a student who hated to read but who loved to figure out how things worked. So, she encouraged him to read instruction manuals. Ungrading would empower her to use this nontraditional educational approach to achieve her objective, which was to teach him to read.
  • Ungrading removes the stress of traditional letter grades. Grades and their hard-and-fast thresholds can be intimidating. But learning for learning’s sake defuses that stressor.
  • Ungrading can promote deeper thinking. Students are encouraged to think creatively and subjectively about subject matter, discuss concepts, revise their thinking and grow intellectually.

Disadvantages of ungrading

Sold on the idea of ungrading? Not so fast. Some of its cons are:

  • Ungrading can be more effective with smaller class sizes. While ideal, that’s not always realistic.
  • Ungrading isn’t standardized. As previously described, ungrading can look a lot of different ways, which opens the door to problems of subjectivity and unfairness.
  • Ungrading is tough to implement on a large scale. When teachers, parents and legislators can’t even agree on Common Core, just imagine what rolling out a completely different evaluation system would be like.
  • Ungrading can impact access to higher education. While ungrading can be ideal in higher education, when students are there because they choose to be, it can have devastating impacts in the K–12 space with regard to earning scholarships and gaining admission to college. Everybody knows what a letter grade means. Not everybody knows how to interpret a multi-paragraph evaluation. Basing admissions and scholarships on such evaluations can become too subjective to be fair.
  • Ungrading would require professional development. Educators have to learn how to teach, and they’d all have to learn how to ungrade.
  • Ungrading can scare people off. Getting buy-in from legislators, administrators, educators, parents and students on anything is tough, and even tougher when what you’re selling is nontraditional.

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The arguments for (and against) traditional letter grades

Sometimes there’s an advantage to sticking with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t. When it comes to traditional grading, this is how the pros and cons can stack up:

Pros Cons
Some students truly are motivated by letter grades. Cons Grades can cause stress.
Grades are currency for maintaining order in the classroom and encouraging engagement. Cons Grades can pigeonhole students as good or bad at developmentally inappropriate ages.
Grades identify high-performing students. Cons Grades lose their importance after high school. The real issue (unless you plan on earning a graduate degree!) is whether you graduate.
Grades facilitate accountability. Cons
Letter grades are easy to understand and scale across grade levels and institutions. Cons

The future of letter grading

So, where does this leave us? Both traditional and nontraditional evaluation systems are subject to evolution, and the conversation happening today may just be what leads to a new, more accurate and equitable method down the road.

The hope, however, is that research dictates the direction of education, from teaching methods to evaluation procedures.

“So many decisions in education are made by legislators whose only experience with education is what they had growing up,” Roggeman says. “They don’t have the research, the pedagogy behind what is truly best for the learner.”

Competency-based education: A happy medium?

In higher education at least, competency-based education holds a lot of appeal. “The competency-based model is really key to the future of education and what a lot of folks are wanting,” Roggeman says.

At UOPX, for example, CBE trains people for careers through project-based learning. When a student can demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept, he or she advances to the next curricular component. The process streamlines education, empowering students to really learn new skills, which at least theoretically enhances motivation.

CBE is also, at its core, a version of project-based learning. “You’re not going to write about it. You’re not going to read about it. You’re not going to reflect on it. You’re going to create it,” Roggeman explains. Whether “it” is a lesson plan or a business plan depends on the course, but the idea is the same: It’s learning by doing.

At the end of the day, Roggeman has this to say about evaluation methods: “Whichever method you choose, it should be research-based and proven to academically support learning.”

There’s not a lot to argue with there, no matter which side of the ungrading fence you fall on.