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A graphic depicting grades ranging from A+ to F, each written in red ink and circled.

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When I first started teaching, I took it for granted that my students and I agreed on what grades meant.

I didn’t think twice about the syllabus language my first-year writing program required of its instructors: “When grading, I evaluate the words on the page before me and don’t factor in external criteria like ‘improvement’ or ‘effort.’ The effort you put into an assignment will most certainly be evident in the paper you produce.”

That was more than fifteen years ago, and it would be an understatement to say that things are now much more complicated.

At a fundamental level, grading purports to measure achieved competency, both at a particular moment and over defined periods of time. In the process of measuring achievement, grades attempt to provide both internal feedback—ideally constructive input on how a student could continue to improve—along with a meaningful, external metric of a student’s comparative performance.

This longstanding paradigm seems to be crumbling beneath our feet. Grade inflation, a trend that began on college campuses decades ago, accelerated during the pandemic and increasingly affects high schools, too. Whether it’s the backlash from New York University students receiving low grades in organic chemistry, or concerns about the number of A’s given at Yale University, students are rejecting both parts of the grading consensus: They don’t like the notion that some students will be graded more favorably than others (the external grading function), and often seek affirmation for what they’ve already accomplished instead of how they compare to the instructor’s pre-determined benchmark (a grade’s internal, private function).

But while we might agree that attitudes around grading have changed, the reasons for this change are less clear.

The default diagnosis often faults the students themselves, crediting large-scale generational shifts for this impasse, borne of the everyone-gets-a-trophy mindset that sustained Gen Z through bubble-wrapped childhoods. In this version of events, adults created a generation of students rife with entitlement, lacking in resilience, and too afflicted by concerns around identity politics and mental health to engage in the level of rigor that education demands.

But I think it’s too easy to make students the sole scapegoats.

Instead, I credit two competing social impulses for this conflict, both of which I call “discourses” because of the way we continually refer to these ideals in our shared language and commitments.

The first is what we might call the “discourse of effort,” a perspective rooted deep in our national psyche through origin myths like the American Dream. This discourse inevitably suggests that effort is what matters most, and implies that an injustice has occurred when hoped-for goals fail to materialize. These inferences are woven throughout the middle-class parenting milieu, where we’re advised by educators and child psychologists to praise effort instead of outcomes (e.g. “You really worked to figure that out!”, instead of “You’re so smart!”).

The shortcomings of this perspective will be painfully familiar to anyone who is the parent of a high schooler who put in hours of studying for a test only to get a B-. “It’s so un-fair!!!” the child might exclaim, before pointing out that a certain classmate claims to have studied far less and earned a higher grade.

Accepting this discourse of effort at face value is probably easiest for people who already enjoy socioeconomic advantages, who have minimal reasons to expect or anticipate structural obstacles and maximum access to the coaches, tutors, and superior educational settings that help students achieve their full potential. The privileging of effort, coupled with the difficulty of adequately measuring it, can also reinforce an implicit sense of entitlement. Notably, grade inflation has historically increased more at four-year colleges than community colleges, and at whiter, wealthier high schools.

This brings us to the second social impulse, which we might call the “discourse of institutional equity,” which has become central to many of our institutions over the past decade, and which emphasizes the pervasive structural obstacles that limit the achievements of students from historically minoritized populations.

This paradigm undercuts many of the key tenets of the effort discourse, exposing a misalignment between effort and outcome for significant portions of the population. The language of diversity, equity and inclusion itself hinges on acknowledging the different kind of effort required for low-income students to acquire the same academic achievements as their better-resourced, often white peers.

Unlike the discourse of effort, which is primarily individual in its focus, this second impulse is communal in nature, emphasizing how individuals’ experiences and opportunities are shaped by their membership in larger sociodemographic categories: first-generation or limited-income students, underrepresented minority students, LGBTQIA+ students and so on. For students who locate a meaningful part of their identify in one of these groups or their intersections, grades can be a constant reminder of persistent structural barriers to access, particularly in introductory STEM courses.

In spite of their differences, both discourses ask faculty to consider factors outside of the classroom—students’ identities, their perceived efforts, the obstacles they have faced or are working to overcome—when assessing how fairly they’re evaluating students within it.

And, in perhaps the cruelest twist of irony, both discourses are frequently endorsed by the very same adults who are now in a position of evaluating students, even though these two paradigms often conflict with each other.

Should we be surprised that everyone is confused?

To be clear, I don’t think these social impulses themselves are the problem. We should encourage young people to acknowledge and work through individual setbacks, and we must recognize the structural problems of educational access and create institutional forms of advocacy and ally-ship to address them.

At the same time, recognizing that students’ parents and instructors also endorse these impulses could inspire more productive conversations about what grades are actually meant to achieve. To that end, some of the most promising recent innovations in grading are those that work within these discourses of effort and equity, rather than denying their pervasive influence.

For instance, mastery grading allows students to continue to submit work until they’ve achieved the grade they desire according to the standards the instructor has set. This may be particularly useful in STEM courses, where students can struggle at the beginning of the term but achieve proficiency through repeated practice. This recognizes that some students will need more time to achieve competency but still verifies that students have acquired a particular set of skills before progressing in a course sequence.

Similarly, contract grading or specifications grading harnesses individual student investment and effort, linking a grade to each student’s self-identified goals for engagement and growth throughout the course.

At their core, these techniques promise students the chance to iterate and grow, provided that they engage with feedback from their instructors—something that aligns with both the discourse of effort and the discourse of equity.

Their primary shortcoming—aside from the significant investment of time they require of faculty—is that a final grade may primarily reflect progress rather than a student’s competency at a particular time. These and other “ungrading” methods also lack the ability to differentiate one student’s final grade from another’s, since these student-directed forms of assessment can be measuring very different things from one student to the next.

Moving out of the grading impasse, then, may require a deeper rethinking of not just what grades represent, but how systems of education engage, measure, track and invest in actual learning—are we more interested in ranking and differentiating students, or in prioritizing learning in all of its different forms?

Reconciling the discourses of effort and equity could ultimately lead us to new ways of grading that transcend the first few letters of the alphabet.

Rebekah Peeples is associate dean for curriculum and assessment at Princeton University. The views expressed are her own.

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