Why Grades Should Measure Individual Progress Instead of Comparing Students to Each Other

Todays’ content:

  1. Why Do Schools Have Grades? What they measure and why they are so important to us.
  2. When Grades Compare: Why is it so important to compare students using grades?
  3. Effects of Comparison on Your Mindset: The negative impact grades can have on self-confidence and perception of own abilities.
  4. External Factors vs. Talent: How much of performance is more linked to effort rather than talent?
  5. Two Solutions: Self-Comparison and Uneven Support: Stopping comparisons and helping some more than others.
  6. Further Reading


Why Do Schools Have Grades?

I thought quite some time about what grades are designed to do, but the answer is surprisingly ambiguous. Obviously, grades are supposed to measure something, but what exactly they measure is unclear.

  • Is it memorization skills? Sure.
  • Is it effort? I hope so.
  • It it the ability to follow instructions? Maybe.
  • Is it how much a teacher likes you? Hopefully not.

A short stream of consciousness:
I remember my teachers pushing me to work hard and take something out of class (to learn something). Is learning the same as memorization or something more deeper? If so, how do we measure it? And if grades measure hard work, shouldn’t a talented student be graded worst for the same effort?

You can now see how difficult it is to come up with a definition for what grades are measuring. Turns out we don’t have to know what grades measure in order to talk about them. We can talk about their effects on students and what their role in a larger context is.

Memes-and-gradesRemember the feeling of dread when you got a bad grade or the immense joy when you aced your exam? The fact that we can experience such intense emotions when it comes to grades shows how important they are to us personally. When I was a kid I never thought about why I had to get good grades or what they mean. I simply wanted them because everyone else seemed to value them so much. My friends wanted them and my parents and teachers wanted me to have them as well. It felt too good to be praised for good grades – and it felt too bad to be scolded for bad ones. What motivated me to get good grades wasn’t what they would allow me to do one day, but rather the praise and good feelings that came with them. At a more advanced age I learned about university applications and job opportunities. The general rule was and still is that good grades open doors – opportunities.


When Grades Compare

class-average-was-76-percent-got-a-80I must admit that grades motivated me because they showed that I could be better than others. And you know how it goes: If one is at the top, another has to be at the bottom. Many of my classmates felt discouraged by bad grades and started falling behind. But I’d argue that this isn’t because of grades, but rather how they are used. Grades are used as a tool for comparison. They are usually not presented on an individual level but as a distribution of all grades in a class. The degree of comparison varies. Some countries list the students’ names along side the grades. There are some countries (e.g. Finland) and school types (e.g. Waldorf) that refuse to compare grades for most of the school time, but these are rather the minority. Competition does not stop in school, but extends to national and international test such as the SAT, GRE or PISA. What has happened, in essence, is that students’ performance has been relativized to other students. This creates a student hierarchy in which the top will feel great and the bottom sometimes completely devastated and these feelings are not entirely based on internal factors such as effort, but the external und uncontrollable performance of other students as well.

This would not be all too bad if grades didn’t have such tremendous influence over our future lives. Two examples.
In Korea, a students’ score on the final high school examination pretty much determines which university they can attend. In Germany and other countries, a student can only be admitted to certain programs such as medicine or psychology if their grade point average lies above a certain threshold that is defined over the student with the lowest GPA that got accepted the previous year. School ranking not only opens doors for some, but also shuts them for others. The ranking is a product of two things: limited positions and the wish to select applicants more fairly and easily for those positions.

From an economic perspective selection starts if there is a mismatch between demand and supply. If 500 students apply to 30 spots, 470 students will be disappointed. It is not that they were bad applicants, but that others were ‘better’. Universities want to recruit students with the best grades because it predicts quite well the likelihood that they will successfully pull through their studies (Source). There are of course other criteria that the admissions office looks at, but when spots are limited the most fair way of deciding who should get them are grades.
The take home message: competition occurs when there is a higher demand than supply.

I see two problems with comparison. First, giving students access to limited spots in academia and on the job market based on grades is crazy if we don’t know what they measure. What does better mean? Second, comparison can have detrimental effects on students, which I want to zone in on now.


Effects Of Comparison On Your Mindset

grades_01An example from my school life: When I moved from Washington D.C. (USA) to Beijing (China) I was put into a much tougher school. I had to work quite hard to keep up with classes and still I got pretty bad grades. I may have thought things like “I am a loser” or “I am stupid”. When saying such things I was essentially defining my abilities and self-worth over how good I was relative to others. I may have studied all night long, shown tremendous effort and still got a worst grade than my friends. The tables turned when I moved to Germany and switched to a less demanding school. I was suddenly among the best! Keep in mind that my performance didn’t change, but only the environment to which I was comparing myself. I may have thought things like “I am smart” and “studying was totally worth it”. It is commonly known that university freshmen – often having been among the best at their school – now face a completely different point of comparison: the best students of other schools. The same vicious self-doubt cycle starts and can be extended to job life, family life and others. I personally switched from “I am a loser” to “I am smart” because I was fortunate to experience a different environment. Therefore, comparison is essentially nonsense and the effects can be very detrimental to a students’ beliefs in themselves.

I recently read Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’, which I’d like to bring in at this point. She is a psychologist at Stanford University and has spent decades researching how ones mindset can have dramatic influences on success in life. I’ll let her describe it in her own words:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” (Source)

Comparison can lead to a loss in self-confidence and a fixed mindset. I have experienced it first hand and I know that many other students suffer from it as well. I think it is one of the main reasons why some students don’t enjoy school at all and stop care to learn and be curious. This not only has detrimental effects on students, but also on society. I think we don’t want people that seek elite study programs and well paying jobs because it makes them feel good, but rather individuals that learn to improve themselves and act out of conviction.


External Factors vs. Talent

I certainly thought of myself as a loser when comparing myself to my friends who got better grades. And since effort didn’t change much of my situation I was led to believe that some people were simply more gifted than others. Research is starting to show that abilities are much less set in stone and more malleable than previously assumed. Students are not aware of disadvantages they might have experienced from early on, but which greatly influence their performance in school. A simple example is dyslexia (difficulty learning to read), which obviously undermines student performance in school.

Another external factor is money. “According to figures, 64 per cent of students from independent schools went on to these universities [Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and other members of the Russell Group] in 2010/11, compared with 24 per cent from state schools – a 40 percentage point gap.” (Source)

Wealthy parents can send their kids to private (i.e. independent) schools and these schools may have a good reputation, which increases chances of students to get accepted at good universities. But it might also just be that private school prepare their students better! Getting a worse score on the SAT when coming from a public school and going against mostly such well prepared and well funded elite students is hardly surprising.

vocabularyOther factors have to do with child rearing. Let’s suppose two first graders begin with school. One of them – Kid A – has parents with a professional background and the other one – Kid B – has parents on welfare. Studies have shown that the number of words an infant hears in its early years predicts its academic success as well as IQ. A study from 1995 has shown that professional parents talk more to their infants than parents on welfare, which means that Kid A who has professional parents will most likely be better in school (Source).

There are countless studies that show how external factors can have an effect on our abilities. Effort leads to improvement, no doubt about that. But all these external factors are not being considered when comparing kids to each other. Students have different backgrounds and therefore also different starting points.

Talent may very well be something that exists, but its effect is much smaller than we usually think. Geniuses have to work very hard for their achievements sometimes much harder than others. Dweck writes “Michael Jordan wasn’t a natural, either. He was the hardest-working athlete, perhaps in the history of sport” (Source). Beethoven centered his whole life around music, which was often the only source of joy in his life. The famous journalist Malcom Gladwell stresses in his book ‘Outliers’ how extraordinary performance has more due to do with hard work rather than talent (Source). Even Kenyan marathon runners are by some not thought to be superb performers due to some inborn abilities, but rather due to their cultural training in enduring incredible amounts of pain (Source).


Two Solutions

I want to propose two ways of improving the situation in schools. First, grades should not be used to compare students’ abilities, but rather individual progress. Second, we should recognize and combat disadvantages that students have relative to others.



We know now that grades – although thought of as being a fair way of measuring performance – actually aren’t fair at all.

confidentWe want students to advance, but we shouldn’t do it by creating a performance hierarchy that compares apples with pears. This creates irrational fear for apples to perform like pears and vice versa. Consequently, students’ self-confidence will suffer and they begin believing in a fixed mindset – the belief that abilities are inborn rather than trainable. Instead of comparing students to each other, we should compare them to themselves so that their motivation for learning about being better than their current selves. Emphasizing personal progress in schools maintains self-confidence and helps develop a growth mindset – the belief that abilities are trainable rather than inborn.

5510922The ‘Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum’ led by the headmaster Margret Rasfeld has shown that this can work. At this school, students don’t take an exam together, but each one does it on their own – whenever they feel ready. This flexibility adjusts to the learning pace of students rather than forcing them to work under time pressure. Furthermore, grades are not used for comparison, but rather to measure individual progress (Source). The students even outperformed other students from a comparable school in Hamburg. Although having started with lower performances the students outperformed the Hamburg kids in reading, grammar and natural science as well as equaled out in English and math (Source).

The school is actively trying to build a close community among teachers and students and remove sources of fear. Mrs. Rasfeld and her students want to create a school that is enjoyable for all.


Uneven Support

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 18.14.56If students perform differently due to their personal advantages (biological or environmental) but are treated equally in school, they suffer a disadvantage. A logical consequence would be to invest more time and money into more needy students so that everyone performs about equally. Extra tutoring classes for students with dyslexia or learning disabilities would be one example. Amanda Ripley describes in her book ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way” how the Finish education system does exactly that. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).” (Source).

This example shows very nicely how abilities can be developed with the right support (fostering growth mindset), but more importantly it shows it is possible to build structures that create more equal opportunities than we currently have.


Concluding Remarks

Although designed to be fair, grades are actually not as fair as we thought or still think. When considering that students can be vastly different from each other, comparison makes little sense. Yet, our education system has been built around these numbers although we don’t even know for sure what they measure. As a side-effect, comparison creates fear of failure, lack of self-confidence and a belief that abilities are more fixed than they are. The fixation on grades leads to the loss of curiosity for the subject matter.

The solution is to use grades, not to compare students to each other, but students to themselves. Teachers initially set out to teach their students and they will be able to do it much better if students can learn and improve themselves without the fear of failure. Individuals with  disadvantages should receive additional support so that we can come closer to the ideal of true equal opportunities.


Further Reading:

  1. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way – by Amanda Ripley
  2. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character – by Paul Tough
  3. Outliers – by Malcom Gladwell

  4. Learning in Finland – by David Rothenberg


2 thoughts on “Why Grades Should Measure Individual Progress Instead of Comparing Students to Each Other

  1. Pingback: Reaching Universal Primary Education Worldwide | The Education Blog

  2. Pingback: Equality is Not Enough – Why We Need Justice in Education. | The Education Blog

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