7 Grades are Dehumanizing: Ungrading is No Simple Solution

Grades are not a good measure of learning, they inhibit intrinsic motivation, and they create a competitive environment between students and hostile relationships between students and teachers. We can’t entirely and immediately remove grades, because they are hard-coded into our educational systems, but teachers can (and should) furiously raise our collective eyebrows at grades. And we should do this work together with students.

For years when I started teaching, I’d say, “I don’t grade,” but that wasn’t exactly true. While the students I work with self-evaluate, analyzing their own learning, I still turn in grades at the end of a term – once bubbling in circles on a Scantron sheet, now filling out a series of increasingly (and needlessly) complicated online forms. From the start, that final moment of crude measurement felt out of sync with the rest of my teaching. It still does.

Why has so much of our educational system privileged that final moment of measurement?

I’m a bit unsettled by the word “ungrading,” even as I’ve helped frame the term, because it feels like a Zeitgeist, a fleeting moment in time in which the thinking about grades is shifting, away from crude quantification and toward an equally simplified notion that grades can just as easily disappear into the ether from which they came. However, grades have a history, and I’ve argued they’re a “technology.”

There is nothing ideologically neutral about grades, and there is nothing ideologically neutral about the idea that we can neat and tidily do away with grades. We can’t simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.

Most students were born into a system of crude quantification. I don’t say “born into” flippantly. I have a 6-year-old, and I’ve watched her growth quantified in discrete ways since the day she was born. She’s adopted, Black, and has two gay dads, so her “development” has always been a subject of peculiar discussion. She’s had wonderful doctors, who see and engage her as the full (and rowdy) human that she is, but she is also regularly reduced to a data point, plotted upon a chart pre-determined before she came into the world. Assumptions are made about her because she’s Black, because she’s adopted, because she’s a girl, because she has two dads. But the data already being collected about her has little to do with the full and lovely human being my daughter actually is in the world.

In a Time magazine article, “All Teachers Should Be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases,” Soraya Chemaly gathers and reflects upon data about how girls (and girls of color, in particular) encounter their education. In that piece, she cites a study showing black girls are twelve times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended. While Black children make up less than 20% of preschoolers, they make up more than half of out-of-school suspensions. Each time I read or share this data I find myself shocked, wondering at when and how a preschooler would or could find themselves suspended. My shock, though, is a point of privilege. I can’t fathom being suspended from preschool, because I showed up for preschool in a white, male, not-yet-recognizably queer body, and my disability is mostly invisible (or masked). My experience of school was different from the experience of my BIPOC classmates, different from the experience my daughter will have.

Every bit of who are students have been, and the material circumstances they face, influences how they do (and can) engage.

“Today’s college students are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history. More than one in four have a child, almost three in four are employed, and more than half receive Pell Grants but are left far short of the funds required to pay for college.” ~ Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel, “Teaching the Students We Have Not the Students We Wish We Had”

195,000 college students responded to the Hope Center’s 2020 #RealCollege Survey. Nearly 3 in 5 experienced basic needs insecurity. Just over one-third of students experienced moderate to severe depression. 

Students from marginalized groups are more likely to experience basic needs insecurity. 70% of Black students, 75% of Indigenous students, and 65% of LGBTQ students experienced basic needs insecurity. Female students were seven percentage points more likely than male students to experience basic needs insecurity. (Hope Center 2020 #RealCollege survey)

This is the world “ungrading” lives within, and it’s not a world where easy answers, or universalized best practices, are useful — or possible. A student in the class we’re “ungrading” might be the very same student who was suspended from preschool because she was a girl of color, or they might be dealing with food insecurity. This is why I’ve written with Sara Goldrick-Rab that we need to “teach the students we have, not the students we wish we had.”

Most of our assessment mechanisms in higher education don’t assess what our institutions say they value most. Glancing at even just a few college and university mission statements, I see none of the following:

  • We pit students and teachers against one another
  • We rank students in fiercely competitive ways.
  • We measure output with little concern for the learning process.
  • We demean student work by crudely quantifying it.
  • We start from a place of deep suspicion of students.
  • We assess in ways that reinforce bias against marginalized students.

And, yet, these are what far too many of our systems and technologies valorize.

I’ve written previously about the ways our technologies have attempted to “manage” the complexity of grades (and assessment). So much of edtech — learning management systems, remote proctoring, plagiarism detection software — does little more than surveil students, reducing them to codified bits, readable by an algorithm, or able to be parsed at a glance in a column of 75 other students. So few of these digital tools seem to deeply understand the work of teaching, which is necessarily about humans working together with other humans. Spreadsheets do little to help this work; they’re a distraction at best, an abuse at worst.

When our work moves online, as it did for so many of our institutions over the last several years, inequities and biases are exacerbated. We dehumanize students when we reduce them to squares in a videoconferencing platform (algorithmically arranged into a clear hierarchy) or when we use platforms (like the LMS) that resist experimentation, improvisation, and engagement. The relationship between students and teachers suffers when our systems and policies reinforce hierarchies, encode biases, and encourage policing.

Grades are anathema to the presumption of the humanity of students, support for their basic needs, and engaging them as full participants in their own education. Invigilated exams won’t ensure integrity. Plagiarism detection tech won’t unseat online paper mills. Incessant surveillance won’t help us listen better for the voices of students asking for help. All of our efforts would be better served by three simple words, “I trust you.”


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Undoing the Grade Copyright © 2023 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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