College admissions after the Supreme Court decision: Here’s one way to help more kids get in.

Now that the Supreme Court has ended race-conscious affirmative action, the American education system will be left scrambling for a countermaneuver—or several. The squabble over potential responses has already begun, with some advocating for a move to class-conscious admissions, while others insist that such schemes haven’t worked in the past and won’t magically work now. I think now’s the time to talk about one of the most glaringly racist aspects of our education system, one that heavily affects student success in achieving admission to selective colleges: traditional letter grading.

Conservatives reading this will no doubt jump to the conclusion that I’m a crazy socialist lunatic who thinks academic standards don’t matter. And they would be partially right: I am a crazy socialist lunatic, but I firmly believe that standards do matter. I am not one of those crusading lefty college professors who believes that basic math is racist or that hard work and punctuality are the hidden faces of 21st-century white supremacy. (Though I am no admirer of George W. Bush, I do think he was onto something when he suggested that some progressive education reforms are predicated on “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”) Billiards

College admissions after the Supreme Court decision: Here’s one way to help more kids get in.

No, I’m not opposed to traditional grading because of my bleeding liberal heart or because I’m a snowflake who was born in the everyone-gets-a-trophy ’90 s. I’m opposed to grading because it doesn’t work, and yes, because it is racist. Research has consistently shown that traditional grading is not objective, it largely fails to predict future success, and it tends to reflect racial bias. Given that grades are one of the most important factors in contemporary college admissions, rethinking the modern grading system in K–12 schools will be a crucial step in any attempt to retain diversity in a post–affirmative action world.

Although we think of grading as a time-honored element of education, the practice is actually a very recent development, only dating to the late 19th century. And it emerged at a particularly ugly moment of American history: as freed slaves increasingly took advantage of the American public school system, and “undesirable” European immigrants began to “flood” America, the native-born white elites who ran American’s educational apparatus became increasingly obsessed with rank-ordering as a way to gatekeep access to both employment and educational opportunities in this country. It is no coincidence that the birth of the modern letter grade system in the 1890s and the rise of standardized testing in the 1920s occurred at the exact peaks of the first and second waves of the eugenics movement, respectively.

While the eugenic origins of standardized testing have been much discussed, the relationship between race science, white supremacy, and the emergence of the letter grade system is less familiar. But the rhetorical and practical overlap between eugenics, education reform, and the birth of the modern grading system is enough to fill a book. One need only look to the work of Francis Galton—cousin of Charles Darwin and father of the eugenics movement—to see the extent to which a pathological obsession with letter grading was at the heart of race science from the beginning.

Galton speaks of “grading” human beings more than 75 times in his influential 1869 magnum opus Hereditary Genius. He also provides a handy graph, labeled “Classification of Men According to Their Natural Gifts,” which details how human beings might effectively be sorted using a system of letter grades. (Predictably, “negroes” scored grades no higher than D or C.). Later, so-called Fitter Family contests in the early 20th century would make the overlap between the new letter grade system and eugenics even more explicit. These “contests” assigned letter grades to individuals, and grade point averages to families, based on their perceived eugenic fitness.

Of course, an ugly history alone is not reason enough to jettison an idea or practice, but it does give us reason to examine it more closely. And traditional letter grading does not stand up to scrutiny. A recent overview of decades worth of research found that the motivation to get good grades and the motivation to learn are inversely related, that graded students show decreased interest in the subject matter on which they are assessed, that ungraded students demonstrate increased intrinsic motivation compared with graded students, and that grades disincentivize intellectual risk-taking and make students more likely to avoid difficult subject matter.

Studies also increasingly demonstrate that grades do not predict scholarly aptitude or the likelihood of future achievement—one of the chief justifications often invoked in defense of traditional letter grades. A recent UNC study of graduate school admissions among biomedical Ph.D. students found no correlation between GRE scores or undergraduate grades and graduate school success. In other words, undergraduate grades failed to predict who would or would not succeed in graduate school. “In contrast to widely held assumptions by admissions faculty and administrators about the predictive power of grades and general GRE test scores,” the authors wrote, “we found no correlation between these metrics and student publications or degree completion.” These findings mirrored a similar study at UCSF. Other research shows similarly that there is little positive correlation between GPA and future career performance or earnings. Oh, and grades aren’t objective. Even math grades.

So if grades don’t predict future success, aren’t objective, and don’t effectively motivate students, what do grades do well? Just what they were originally designed to do: racial and socioeconomic gatekeeping.

Not only does research show that grades don’t work the way we want them to, it also demonstrates that grading tends to reflect racial bias: Assignments produced by white students frequently receive higher grades than identical assignments turned in by Black students. Likewise, teachers have been shown to frequently maintain pro-white bias; the Black-white test score gap is greatest in American counties with the highest degrees of racial prejudice; and teachers tend to give white students higher grades unless they use rubrics with specific criteria.

And the consequences of this bias can be enormous. A single year of failing grades can have downstream ripple effects that last for years, changing the entire course of a student’s life: Once a high school student fails once, they are both much more likely to fail again and much less likely to graduate. When the high stakes of failing are married to traditional grading’s racial bias problem, it is not hard to see the role our American GPA fetish can play in stymying campus diversity—a problem that will become only more acute now that affirmative action is a thing of the past.

Fortunately, it is not just the case that studies show that traditional grading doesn’t work and is racist. There are plenty of encouraging signs that other, less punitive and more equitable modes of assessment—so-called methods of ungrading—do work. In the wake of COVID-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, “ungrading” gained traction as educators searched for new and more equitable ways to think about assessing students. Practices described as “ungrading” are heterogenous, ranging from literally abolishing grades to milder reforms like “specifications grading” or simply reducing the number of graded assignments in a course.

In fact, many colleges and universities are already putting variations of “ungrading” into place. For example, nearly every top medical school has adopted a pass-fail model for much of their curriculum. Likewise, MIT has adopted a pass-fail model for all first-year undergraduate students, and from all appearances, this has not diminished that institution’s ability to churn out top-tier scientists and field leaders. More recently, some colleges and universities have moved to getting rid of grades altogether. Of course, some scrooges will be pessimistic that students will be motivated to learn or meet academic standards in the absence of the carrot and stick that is traditional grading. And to these skeptics I would reiterate that grades fail to do this. The idea that grades motivate the average student is a myth that is not backed up by any significant body of research. Quite the opposite is the case.

Moving to a better system of assessment will require us to jettison these kinds of long-held assumptions about grading, and that begins by recognizing that letter grading is not and has not been the norm in human civilization. The entirety of the Scientific Revolution transpired in a world without grades, and yet somehow Galileo was still motivated to look through his telescope. And despite critics who insist that grades prepare students for the harsh realities of the “real world,” that’s bullshit too: Reviews in nearly every field and line of work that I am aware of—including in the field of education—are narrative, conversational, and predicated on dialogue rather than abject quantification.

This is not to be pie-in-the-sky or to pretend that moving beyond traditional grading will be a smooth transition. It is an open question as to how college admissions procedures could be modified to accommodate a world without GPAs, but I have plenty of faith that they can. Skeptics of “ungrading” made versions of the same argument when some elite colleges and universities stopped requiring standardized testing, and despite conservative panic about “declining standards,” institutions that have taken up this practice have enjoyed an increase in diversity with no appreciable decline in the academic success of their student bodies. (My own institution was one of the earliest to go test-optional in the 1980s, and a decadeslong study found no difference in academic performance or graduation rates between students who did and did not submit test scores). There have been and still are kinks to work out with test-optional admissions practices, but they clearly demonstrate that we can beneficially transform the criteria we use to admit students without burning the entire system to the ground.

While I appreciate the pragmatic objection that GPAs are deeply entrenched in both our educational system and the college admissions process and that this makes change difficult, I would counter by noting that a system that is demotivating, ineffective, and racist is not pragmatic either. This is not a question of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Traditional grading is very much broken, and we must figure out an alternative. Institutions do not have to explode grades tomorrow or find a one-size-fits-all solution that can be put into place immediately: They can simply start by giving their teachers and professors permission to try new grading schemes. I am fortunate to work at a college that accords faculty the freedom to experiment with alternate approaches to assessment, but not everyone is so lucky. The first step in a grading culture change must begin with a clear message to educators that it is OK to try new things.

At the very heart of the enlightenment ethos in the spirit of which America’s education system was founded is the idea that we are obliged—regardless of our preconceived notions, gods, or cherished ideals—to change our minds in response to new evidence. And the evidence is plain as day: We can do better than traditional letter grading. In a new landscape where diversity is under assault, we are morally obligated to do so.

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College admissions after the Supreme Court decision: Here’s one way to help more kids get in.

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