Abandon grades? Maybe the right reasons, but not the right time

Perhaps there is no doubt that the grading system is “inherently problematic” for most people in the modern society. However, from my personal experience, I think there are many problems although this assessment approach has many problems, it cannot be replaced right now. I disagree with Alfie Kohn’s statement that “Nor are grades a necessary part of schooling…we have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all”.
I can say that China is the most important country in the world to pay attention to the rating system, starting with the Imperial Examination System that appeared in the Tang Dynasty 1400 years ago. Since then, the selection of talents for the country through standardized tests has become the main purpose of education under Confucianism. However, the coin has two sides. On the one hand, the imperial examination system is considered to be rigid and lacking in creativity, which in turn leads to China’s scientific and economic development lags behind Europe in modern times; On the other hand, it promoted stability and social mobility. The poor, even the embarrassed, can change their destiny through hard study—the Confucius educational opinion of “instruction knows no class distinction” then became the mainstream value in China.
For modern China, traditional educational genes are still visible everywhere in the current education system. Some of the things that Chinese people are used to may be unimaginable for Westerners. For most primary and secondary schools, the student’s test rankings will be open to everyone; teachers will talk to parents if their children have poor grades; in the year before the college entrance exam, there will be an exam with six subjects almost every week…Scores become the most important thing for teachers, students and parents in education. Some standardized tests are not very useful, such as English. The English test of the college entrance examination and the graduate entrance examination are very rigid and almost useless for daily communication. In the three years of high school, students usually learn new knowledge in the first two years, and in the third year, they all review and keep doing exercises. This process is boring and painful for most people and is the toughest year in life. But for many people, especially those who are the bottom class or come from the rural areas, college entrance examination, one of the most important annual activities of the country, is the best way for them to change their destiny.
I am very grateful for this ranking system in China. I grew up in an agricultural city in a backward province in China. My parents didn’t have a college degree. My family didn’t have our own house until I graduated from elementary school. I need to work hard to get enough grades to enter the local junior school and high school with good education quality. I have also experienced more brutal competition, the college entrance examination. I clearly remember that I am the 475th among the more than 200,000 candidates in the province. This allowed me to enter a top ten university in China, which only recruits 30 students in our province. I keep my first place for four years in college, which gave me an opportunity to enter the best university in China to get my master’s degree. After that, I applied to come to the United States to study for a doctorate at Virginia Tech. I have no other specialties. Before I entered college, I rarely had free time to spend on sports and social activities or other personal interests such as music and painting. But is this all worth it? I think it is worth it. I changed my destiny and the fate of my family. I totally rely on my own efforts. Although this scoring system is not completely fair, I do benefit from it. If leadership, social skills, or specialties in sports or music are included in the assessment system, how do I compete with those with rich resources?
I admit that the grading system will definitely be reformed in the future. But any reform measures that do not consider social equity are ridiculous. Education can change not only the fate of the individuals but also a nation. Some education reform experiments are very good, but there are no conditions for promotion. Grading system reform is necessary, but the extreme idea that completely abandoning seems to me to be like Utopia and needs to be avoided.

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26 thoughts on “Abandon grades? Maybe the right reasons, but not the right time

  1. This has been a fascinating post to read, especially in that it demonstrates to me that I need to be listening to other perspectives on this topic. I’m not sure I’m one who believes that we need to entirely abandon grades, though I do believe there’s a better approach to evaluating students that could encourage creative critical thinking and innovation. What you speak to, though, is how a standardized system promoted your economic mobility. Certainly the approach to this issue is country-dependent and speaks to the benefit of creating a centralized system of education that promotes equal access to quality education for all students everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Leslie,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are right that we need to find a better approach. Maybe the United States is already to reform (I am not sure about this because I have heard that most of the lower class students are enrolled in public schools, and the children of elites are enrolled in higher quality private schools), but it is not realistic for China. The quality of education in metropolitan areas such as Beijing and Shanghai is top-notch in the world, but the basic education in rural areas is really poor quality and the lack of teachers is a universal problem. Beijing recently launched an education reform, which proposed that the college entrance examination scores only accounted for 60% of the total score, while 40% were based on “comprehensive quality”. This reform has been criticized by most people because it will further widen the gap between elites and vulnerable groups. The significance of the standardized test is that it provides a unique approach for vulnerable students to get access to the education with “creative and critical thinking”.

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  2. I always start off by admitting that grading has a bad face. It motivates people for the wrong reasons and promotes bad actions such as cheating … However, grading provides, at least to some extent, a measure of a person’s qualifications and the effort he is willing to put. Similar to your case i studied very hard during my undergraduate and is the sole reason why I ended up in a PhD program in the USA. If the grading system did not exist, i would assure you i would not have worked half as hard as i did. Because why put in all the effort if everyone is equal at the end? What kept me going was knowing that my hard work is differentiating me from other students and will in the future help me advance my life. Which it did.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree with you. Maybe the grading system is the least useful for people like Trump, although it doesn’t mean much to Bill Gates, he also relies on the system to enter Harvard. For those who study hard at the university, the grades are not the proof of their success, but the proof of their efforts.

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  3. It was really interesting to hear your perspective on national examinations in China because it is so different from my experience with national exams when teaching in Tanzania (as different as the countries themselves, probably, and they are worlds apart from one another in many ways). I can see how other countries’ national exams could with the right circumstances act the way China’s did for you, as a way to get equal footing with those who have started with privileges you didn’t have access to. However, I think it might be also be good to say a bit about the effects of national exams in TZ, as I believe they are essentially the opposite.
    The scores students receive on their exams determine whether they can stay in school and what career paths they can take after school, but only students with considerable privileges have a chance at receiving a decent score. There, poor students and kids from rural areas are severely disadvantaged, often not having teachers in some of the subjects they will be tested on. It is theoretically possible for a student who could afford the textbooks to study alone for the test, but even then, these books are in their second or third language, as is the test (offered in English only). Given these challenges, you need to be born in the right location, have a wealthy enough family, have a gift for language-learning or go to a private English-medium school (school is not taught in English until two years before the first English national exam), have the luck to have teachers in all of your subjects, and on top of all of that do the work of preparing for your exam. If you don’t have at least a few of these advantages, success on the exams is nearly impossible. In these ways, national exams in TZ are a ceiling put over many Tanzanians rather than a rope they can pull themselves onto a new socioeconomic level by as you’ve experienced them in China.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Your story is fully applicable to China 20 years ago. Moreover, the quality of urban and rural education in China is still very different. Your place of birth is also important, although it is not entirely related to economic factors. Because of the annoying hukou system, it is much harder for Beijing students to enter top universities than other provinces, and candidates from the Tibet Autonomous Region enjoy more privileges because of the political correctness of national harmony. I understand the situation in Tanzania. In my parents’ years, although English was a required subject, my father’s high school did not even have an English teacher! He often complains that this is why he did not go to college. Education is the hope of a nation, Chinese always say “while the prospects are bright, the road has twists and turns”, and I sincerely hope that Tanzania will have a glorious future!

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  4. Hi, Xie.
    We have simmilar experience under simmilar grading system. You are right. It may give people like you opportunities. We exprienced side effects. Elites who pursue high grades have often lacked ethical awareness, and there have been moral hazards, such as the pursuit of their own promotion and wealth, and the inability to understand the other people’s lives. Therefore, I think that a big improvement is needed for the Asian education system.

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    1. Hi Seungbee, thank you for your comment. I don’t think the grading system needs to be related to morality. I believe that the elite who really have the power and money don’t care about the grades, just like Donald Trump… In my undergraduate school, the fathers of the two students who have the lowest grades in my class were senior government officials. After graduation, one student went to Hong Kong for a master’s degree, and another found a good job with the help of his parents. For them, money and power are still the better “passport” than scores. But for people like us, grades definitely matter.

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  5. Hi Ruixiang,

    Thank you for your deep and reflective post about your experiences as a scholar in the Chinese education system. You describe a series of odds that were stacked high; I am moved by your statement that despite the burden and intense work required to be successful in that school system, it was all worth it. I hear you when you say yes to reform; no to abandoning assessment. I am looking forward to hearing how this debate plays out in class.

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  6. Thanks for this post! I really appreciated your point of view and I think often times we forget the implicit biases and potential inequality that could come from a purely subjective grading system and I think you did a great job of showing how grades can be a great equalizer. The standard is not all bad and I believe that even in the US, students can change their own fate by obtaining good SAT or ACT scores.

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    1. Thank you Ishi! Whether the “American Dream” is a liberal conspiracy or not, American education, especially higher education, is the most successful in the world. I don’t think SAT or ACT scores play a negative role in this story.

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  7. Thank you (and everyone else) for sharing your experience! It’s so interesting to learn about other educational systems.
    Your original post highlights the exact conundrum I feel about grading- an over-emphasis on testing can lead to school just focused on testing and not necessarily developing other skills. But how else can “we” objectively assess people? How can “we” present equal opportunities?

    If you didn’t have that institutional year of review during school time but still had tests, people that can afford it will pay to have their children have private tutors or go to better schools, which puts people that cannot afford (either with money or time) it at a disadvantage. Even in the US, SAT scores have been shown to be related to parental income bracket.

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    1. Hi Rinaley, thank you! I think the education situation in the developed regions of China is similar to that in the United States. The government proposes to reduce burdens and promote comprehensive quality education – public schools are required to reduce teaching time and homework, giving students more freedom. Ironically, parents have to look for expensive private tutors, but most poor children can only waste their time.

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  8. Thank you for bringing in your perspective on the need of assessment system. I am from India which, being the second most populated country, has the arduous task of attending to the diversity in economic and social backgrounds. It makes sense to have a standard test where all can compete and depending on the score, you should be able to change your fate. However, I should also tell here that if someone is hard working enough, they find a way. I will share examples of two people here, both CEOs of the two of the biggest companies in the US. First one is Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google. Coming from a very humble background, with the help of the standard system, he could go to one of the premier engineering institutes in India and we all know where he is now. Next is Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. He could not go to the best engineering institute (just considering rank wise). But with his hard work and dedication, he still made to the
    level of CEO of Microsoft. What I am trying to relay here is the institute you end is not the end of your career. It is just a start.
    As someone else informed the story of Tanzania, the preparation for such exams takes a toll on the life of people. Children have to give up their social and personal life completely in order to just get into such institutes. Parents have to pool their resources in order for their children to get coached. And even after that not all of the students entering can make it big. With he lack of personality development, some of the students are scared to even talk in public.
    In my belief, hence, both education system and assessment system need a reform. No doubt that the diversity and inclusion has to be kept in mind as without it, the system won’t really be reformed for good.

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    1. Thank you, Akshay! I emphasize that scores do not represent success, but provide opportunities for students to pursue better educational resources. Examples you mentioned are exciting, but I prefer to appreciate the stories that hundreds of thousands of engineers or white-collar workers change their fate with better education.

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  9. Thanks for writing such an interesting post Ruixiang. I think that you are right that we need to make smaller changes before doing away with the system for good, but I would argue that any sufficient system that would take the place of the current one would have to still support intelligent, hard-working people like you. Just because other disciplines, such as arts and social sciences, would be included would not, in a proper system, negate your abilities. Also, you say that now is not the time for reform, but if not now, when?

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    1. Thank you, Jackson! I firmly believe that education, especially basic education or compulsory education, is a public good. If the educational resources available to all classes of society are unequal, then the reform of qualitative assessment will exacerbate inequality. Under the grading system, at least the exam is based on “textbooks” or similar materials that are available to everyone. Qualitative assessment, however, has higher requirements for teachers’ teaching performance. If you are a good teacher, would you be willing to go to a high-paying city, or would you like to go to a small village with a low salary? When the teachers with talents and reform spirit are concentrated in the developed areas, what is the result? “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

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  10. I had the same experience as you on the path of education. However, I found some similar things in the US. Actually, the education in the US is grade even more and grade at every step/exam and even earlier. For example, a kid can go to the gifted program start in kindergarten, based on what? “Grade”!

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  11. Hi Ruixiang,
    Wow — what a wonderful post! I am so glad I read it! Your perspectives about your own experience in China were fascinating to read. I grew up in a rural, mountainous part of the American South and had similar experiences with education being encouraged. I have since surpassed both of my parents in education level and I too think of it as a way to change my destiny and the trajectory of my own family’s future. Your emphasis on the importance of grades also makes me think about how I can approach grading and critically examine my own practices with grading for international students in the classes I teach.

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    1. Thank you, Savannah! Scores are definitely more valuable for vulnerable groups. We also expect a more advanced education which can improve our social or communication skills. If the vulnerable groups can also benefit from the reform, then reform is feasible.

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  12. Thanks Ruixiang for sharing your experience in the China educational system. I totally understand your point about the very high level of competition for the entrance university exam, and how putting efforts can pay off in the long term. Also, we had the same experience for the entrance exam where students started preparing themselves more than a year advance for an exam that just took 4 hours! However, as you also pointed out, there are many opportunities to revise the grading and evaluation system to avoid putting so much pressure for students to succeed.

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  13. Hi Ruixiang,

    Thanks for your post and sharing your experience.

    I, too, agree that even in America we are not ready to throw away the grading system completely; however, we as educators can expand our consideration of assessment and maybe consider alternative assessments to exams that might encourage different learning styles and ways to integrate or apply learning.

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  14. Wonderful!
    I really like reading your blog and I just want to tell you Bravo for all the sacrifices, and effort you have put in your studies to be here today. I am really impressed. I think China is just doing the right thing in term of giving a chance to everybody. I do not know what the other who did do well become but the fact of not doing any discrimination for those hard exam is a good approach. Thanks

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  15. Hi Ruixiang, it has been great to learn about your experiences. I really enjoyed learning about the educational system in China. I think you made a great point by bringing up the Social equity issue of reform. In whichever sectors of the society we are trying to make reform, it is always important to be mindful about the social equity or justice issues. Experimental approaches towards reform can provide tremendous insights, however, I think there would not be any cookie-cutter solution to reform the grading system. It would be highly context dependent.

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