by Kevin Currie-Knight
I am a college professor. By and large, I love my job. I love being in the classroom interacting with students. I love the research process. Sometimes, I don’t even mind serving on university committees. But there is one part of my job that I dislike more and more each semester. It permeates every week of the academic year but is most visible and obnoxious at semester’s end: “the grade economy.”
Toward the end of just about every semester, at least a few students come to my office to talk with me about a grade they received that was lower than they were anticipating. They overlooked a due date, misunderstood a rubric item, or disagreed with my evaluation of their project. Sometimes, they make a compelling case, and I can change the grade. But other times, I can’t change the grade. Given the rules of the assignment, it is justified.
Sometimes, this conversation is a short one where the student ends the discussion with a defeated “okay, sorry to bother you.” Other times, they are more adamant. A few have visibly held back either tears (or anger) when trying to argue their point. In the end, I often sympathize with the student’s plight, but I have a job to do that requires grading in certain ways.
What I hate about this is not the students or the “haggling.” Within our grade-driven systems of schooling, students are doing exactly what the incentives nudge them to do. What I hate is what grades do to schooling and education, as well as what they do to me. As a historian and philosopher of education, I understand quite well that grades don’t do at all well what they advertise (measure and incentivize learning). But as a professor, I am bound by the system.
As I mentioned, grades are designed to do two things: (i) give students and others (the college, future employers) a measure of student learning, and (ii) incentivize student learning. The problem is that the evidence is pretty decisive that they do neither of these well.
To start, grades are a poor measure of student learning. In most institutions, grading is done differently by different teachers/professors, who use different criteria in their grading schemes. I think, for instance, about how I calculate certain project grades, where students gain points for such things as how well they argue their points and deal with counter-arguments (so far, so good) as well as whether they turned the project in on time and followed conventional grammar rules. These last two criteria may be justifiable, but their justification has little to do with student learning. (That a student turned in a paper two days late or made several grammatical mistakes doesn’t tell us a thing about whether the paper showed mastery of the material to be learned.) And this means that two students who get low grades may have gotten low grades for totally different reasons: one may have turned in a really good paper several days late, and the other may have turned in a weak paper on time. The letter grade (or percentage earned) often tells us little about student learning.
Also, we know from a wealth of data that grading often says as much about the instructor as it does about the student. According to a literature review discussing the reliability and objectivity of grading:
Factors that occasionally influence an instructor’s scoring of written work include the penmanship of the author, sex of the author, ethnicity of the author, level of experience of the instructor, order in which the papers are reviewed, and even the attractiveness of the author.
It turns out that grades do motivate some students, but when they do, it is often in a problematic way, at least, if quality learning is the goal. Here, I will invoke Goodhart’s (or Campbell’s) law, which goes something like this: to the extent that a measure becomes a target, it will lose its force as a measure. The way I explain this to my own students is with the following example: a potential employer wants to measure how collegial I am, so they bring me into their office and observe how I engage with others. In the name of transparency, they tell me that this exercise is a test of how agreeable I am, and even show me the rubric items they will use to measure my niceness (makes good eye contact, doesn’t interrupt others, etc.). In this case, it is quite clear that the rubric which should have been a measure of my collegiality will now become a target to shoot for (“I really want to interrupt; wait, I’m being observed, so I better not!”). And with that, the measure that is now a target loses its force as a legitimate measure.
We can think of grades the same way. Both the percentage and A-F making systems were introduced in US schools as a measure of student learning, “a unified and scalable mechanism for measurement and communication” for “the rapidly expanding American education system.”  Over time, however, these units that teachers could use to efficiently indicate student learning progress to students and parents became targets that students would shoot for.
[T]he importance of grades as a currency for moving through the educational system had partly superseded the pedagogical purpose they continued to serve. If learning sometimes had to occur along the way, so be it; but otherwise, students would do the least amount of work possible in order to attain the token of highest value. 
When grades-as-measures become grades-as-targets, it becomes more likely that students do their work primarily for the grade, where learning is at best a secondary benefit and at worst the route one grudgingly takes to earn the grade. (I am positive that most every teacher, professor, and student reading can call to mind their own examples that illustrate this point.)
Again, I do not blame students for behaving this way. A favorite phrase of mine to use when talking with colleagues about students and their relationship to grades is: “Don’t hate the players; hate the game.” Students who show up at professors’ offices to argue over grades, imploring us to bump that B to a B+ are playing an absolutely viable strategy in the school game, as dependent as it is on the grade economy. So are students who cheat, “bullshit” their way through papers, cram for tests, take courses with “easy graders,” and write the paper they know the professor will like rather than the one they really want to write. Don’t hate the players; hate the game.
And while I love my job dearly, I do hate the grade economy game. Partly, this is because, per the reasons given above, I think the grade economy is a bad “marketplace” within which to conduct the type of learning our education systems aspire to produce. Partly, my hatred it is because as bad as I think the grade economy is, it has become so locked into our education systems that were we to do away with it, these systems would cease functioning. (How to get students to do projects they’d rather not do and take classes they’d rather not take? How to “objectively” determine when students have satisfied prerequisites for subsequent courses?) Partly, my dislike of the grade economy is because, regardless of my attitudes toward grades, I am a college professor who must satisfy certain job requirements, one of those being to grade students in various ways. I also know that exchanging work for grades makes my job more manageable. If I do not attach grades to certain assignments, students will be more likely not to do them. And if I do not deduct points for turning projects in on time, it becomes near impossible for me to manage my workflow.
In a way, I feel like the capitalists Marx describes, who may not want to ruthlessly cut costs or treat workers poorly but must because of the incentives of the capitalist system. As one who dislikes the grade economy, I often sympathize with students who petition me for upticks in their grades. But another part of me – the part of me who holds a job that demands the use of grading systems – knows that I often cannot honor these requests and that doing so puts me at odds with the system that employs me.
I have found some ways to mitigate my participation in the grade economy, such as allowing students, on certain projects, to evaluate their own work and persuade me that the grade they’d like to receive is deserved. But these are ultimately half-measures. First, they feel furtive, as I am going against the grain. And when (some) colleagues catch wind of this idea, they often seem quite skeptical. (Just more proof of how much we academics seem to need the grade economy.) And even when I allow students to essentially assign themselves grades for certain projects, they still have things like due dates by which this must be done and after which their grade will be penalized. Nor can I do this for all projects, at least not the ones whose criteria are issued at the department level.
In the end, must I simply accept this as an area that commands me to do what my conscience wants to resist? It might be. As much as I dislike the grade economy, I understand that it is a foundational feature of our institutions of schooling. And everyone seems to understand – and few take issue with – this feature when they sign up to be parts of these institutions. Students who leave my office failing to persuade me to revise their grades may be disappointed with the outcome. But the grade economy which led to the outcome was part of the deal. Or so I tell myself.
 Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt (2014) Making the grade: a history of the A–F marking scheme, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46:2, 201-224, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2013.790480 (p. 208)
 Ibid., p. 216.