Letter Imperfect: Why GPAs No Longer Make the Grade

Letter Imperfect: Why GPAs No Longer Make the Grade

“Now, I don’t claim to be an ‘A’ student/ But I’m tryin’ to be/ For maybe by being an ‘A’ student, baby/ I can win your love for me.”

So sang Sam Cooke in his 1960 hit “Wonderful World,” giving hope to lonely academics everywhere. But his words may not resonate so widely today, in a world where letter grades and grade point averages are beginning to lose prominence as the default method for measuring scholastic success. Increasingly, colleges across the nation are turning to more nuanced means of evaluating student performance to escape the confines of a traditional A-F grading scale and give students a more active role in their education.

Transcripts That Tell a Tale

A popular alternative to letter grades is the narrative evaluation. As the name suggests, this approach focuses on the story of students’ experience; professors provide individualized written assessments of learners’ performance in a particular course. These are often coupled with self-evaluations, wherein students provide their own perspective on their experience, to create a transcript that serves as a holistic picture of what students learned and how they can improve.

At Evergreen State College in Washington state, the narrative evaluation format appeals to students who aren’t necessarily driven by letter grades and test scores. “Letter grades always felt arbitrary to me, and I had a different kind of motivation for learning and studying — my own curiosity,” said Elizabeth Greeniaus, a former student of Evergreen who’s now a graduate student and undergraduate instructor at Rutgers University. “Now that I’m teaching college, I wish I had narrative evaluations as an option because the super pragmatic nature of letter grades gets in the way of learning.”

Notably, the personalized nature of the assessment format pushes students to develop fruitful working relationships with their professors rather than learning passively as a face in the crowd. “I had a professor write in my evaluation, ‘Elizabeth learned that life and learning aren’t separate things,'” said Greeniaus. “There’s something about the community that got built in those classrooms that meant a lot.”

Should Schools Eliminate Letter Grades and GPAs?

Proponents of narrative evaluations tout their potential to rectify the drawbacks of traditional letter grades, likely due to the perceived radical nature of the notion that schools would ever replace an institution as deeply entrenched as the GPA.

Some education experts consider grades to be a one-dimensional measure of ability, an attempt to pigeonhole learners into easily quantifiable tiers that don’t accurately reflect what they’ve learned or what they can do. Narrative evaluations, on the other hand, are layered descriptions of students’ learning experiences. They’re rich with useful information not only about what they’ve learned, but also about how they learn and how they can improve.

Professors say the pressure to earn good grades can lead to unhealthy competition among students, making them prone to anxiety and stress and even increasing their propensity to cheat. A student who earns a bad grade is likely to feel discouraged and even stigmatized. In contrast, written assessments provide no quantifiable basis for comparison and, ergo, create significantly less pressure on students to perform better than their peers. In a sense, students who receive narrative evaluations instead of grades compete only against themselves and their own expectations.

Additionally, experts say letter grades and GPAs can inhibit students’ curiosity for learning; students who receive grades may avoid taking difficult classes or exploring unfamiliar academic territory because they fear the detrimental effect a bad grade could have on their academic standing. Instead, these students focus on what they need to do to earn a certain grade. With narrative evaluations, however, students can learn for the sake of learning without worrying about studying to pass a test.

Finally, proponents of written assessments argue that traditional grading metrics are out of step with real-world needs for hard-to-measure skills. It’s difficult to slap a letter grade on inherently subjective qualities like leadership ability, creativity, and interpersonal skills, but those capabilities often play a crucial role in both academic and professional success. In contrast, descriptive evaluations can delve into students’ abilities in a more qualitative manner.

What Are the Drawbacks of Eliminating Letter Grades and GPAs?

One argument in favor of maintaining traditional grading metrics is the notion that quantitative comparison of students’ academic records — be it by prospective employers, scholarship providers, potential schools, etc. — is simply easier and more efficient than any qualitative method. A hiring manager or admissions board might not have time to read through pages of detailed written assessments, preferring instead to sort applicants through a quantitative measure like a GPA.

Additionally, one could argue that the often punitive nature of letter grades helps students stay motivated. A student who receives a bad grade, while they might feel discouraged, likely also feels compelled to improve their performance. This Pavlovian argument has deep roots in behavioral psychology, and the theory of stimulus-response has significant support across disciplines.

Perhaps the most interesting argument for letter grades and GPAs is the notion of “academic emptiness.” Essentially, the idea is that students are so conditioned to receive grades that without them, they feel lost and aimless. Seeing a grade on a transcript can be affirming for some students as a visual acknowledgment of their hard work neatly condensed into one letter.

Looking Forward

So will letter grades and GPAs eventually become a thing of the past? It’s hard to say, considering how slow higher education can be to adopt fundamental change. And that’s not to mention the logistical nightmare of switching student assessment methods on a large scale. For now, it’s safe to say that Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” is still a relevant message (and a great song).

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