Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Fifteen: Progressive Versus Regressive Grading Systems in Schools


This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

This series is appropriate at this time in Toronto and in Ontario, Canada, because of the recent almost general strike that was initiated by the strike of 55,000 education workers that officially began on November 4, 2022 and that spread through strike support by other unions, parents and concerned citizens, immigrants and migrant workers (for detals see the previous post  The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism).

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) included in its demands an increase in staffing levels in schools for custodians, librarians educational assistants and so forth. This seems progressive–an attempt to encroach on the perceived inherent management right of hiring–and in some ways it is. The sanctity of the principle of management’s rights to determing staffing levels was questioned. However, this still is a purely quantitative question–how many workers are to be allocated to the given school system. There is no questioning of the adequate nature of the school system in its various aspects. The standard is still the present school system, and what OBSCU sought to vary was the staffing level of a presupposed fixed school system.

What is needed is a critique of the school system and not just quantitative changes. That was the purpose of writing this and other posts in this series.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The reference to Janet’s “intensive supervision” is to Janet Martell, superintendent of Lakeshore School Division at the time. Following a clinical supervision performed by Neil MacNeil, principal at the time of Ashern Central School (I will elaborate on this at a future date), Ms. Martell decided to place me on “intensive supervision,” which meant that I would be directly supervised by her.

Grading Systems and Equity in Schools

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
The attached article refers to the ritual practice of grading (marking) in schools.

Janet, during the conference that was to lead to my “intensive supervision,” indicated that she and I could have a debate about whether formative and summative assessment were contradictory later on during the conference (I had contended that they easily could be in my response to Neil’s exemplary assessment). I declined such a challenge—given the context. [Summative assessment is the typical grading system in school, with either letter grades or percentage grades. Formative assessment is feedback by the teacher to the student for the purpose of improving the work of the student.] 

The question that should be asked is: Would Janet have challenged me to such a debate outside that particular context? Would I have declined to debate her if the context had been different? The answers to those questions would be instructive about the nature of our society.

I prefaced the article with the following:

The following article, “An Amercian Ritual : Grading as a Cultural Function,” though dated, provides an overview of some of the equity issues surrounding grading. The author, N. Ray Hiner, points out that the grading system constitutes a constant experience of children and adolescents during their school years. It symbolizes, among other things, a reward system for students. Students become used to having their work quantified and, by implication, themselves quantified on a comparative basis.  Grades are the currency or money of the school system.

The distribution of rewards in American (and Canadian) society seems to be a function of two principles. On the one hand, individual achievement should be rewarded. On the other hand, there should be equality between individuals. Equal opportunity is seen by many as a compromise between the two principles.

The two principles, however, can easily clash, and different grading systems approach one or the other end of the two principles most closely. (A superintendent, Janet Martell, contended that formative assessment and summative assessment hardly need clash. This was in the context of the employer-employee relation, with her being a representative of the employer and I being an employee. Given the imbalance in power in such a relation, I did not think that a debate with the superintendent would achieve anything. However, if any principal or superintendent would care to enter an open debate with me (provided they do not represent an employer vis-à-vis me), I am open to engaging in such a debate. By the way, the superintendent evidently believes in outcome-based education and criterion-referenced assessment.)

The author argues that different grading systems are more or less egalitarian and more or less achievement-oriented. The least egalitarian but the most achievement oriented is, ironically, criterion-referenced grading systems (which the Manitoba Department of Education has adopted in the form of learning outcomes). The author does not elaborate to any great extent why it is the least egalitarian, but it can be surmised that students with more “cultural capital” at their disposal (based on family background and resources) will achieve more than those students with less cultural capital; there is no equal opportunity to counteract such inequality of cultural capital.

Slightly more egalitarian but still achievement-oriented is norm-referenced assessments, where individual students are assessed in relation to each other rather than to objective criteria. The author’s reason for claiming that it is more egalitarian than criterion-referenced assessment is that the bell-curve mechanism for assigning grades will ensure that those who achieve average performance will, on average, receive an average grade (or at least a pass of C).The majority will pass; in criterion-referenced assessment, there is no such guarantee.

A more egalitarian model of grading is based on effort and less on individual achievement. Those endowed with superior cultural capital or resources may rest on their laurels and so make less effort and, accordingly, receive a lower mark than someone who makes a greater effort even if achievement is wanting. There is a greater possibility for equality of opportunity based on effort in this model.

Blanket grading is even more egalitarian but much less dependent on individual achievement since all students receive the same grade. Minimum requirements are specified, but they are set so that everyone can achieve them. This form of grading is rare.

The most egalitarian grading system but least based on individual achievement is a no-grade system. The reasoning behind such a grading system includes the view that irrelevant distinctions among individuals arise that have no place in a democratic society. Furthermore, grading results in class distinctions, with an arrogant minority considering itself to be superior to those below them on the basis of grades (and future life opportunities). Grading also alienates a large part of the student population and leads to low self-esteem among many students. Finally, those who advocate a no-grading policy do not denigrate achievement. Achievement is its own reward and does not need an external reward system.

The no-grade policy, as far as I can determine, was instituted in the Dewey University Laboratory School from 1896 to 1904 in Chicago. Grading only came into consideration when college entrance examinations came into question:

The oldest members of this united group (who normally would have been classified as Group XII) were given special tutoring and review courses in preparation for their college board examinations, which were complicating the program. Had the group consisted solely of those who had followed the consecutively developing program of the school, and had it not been hampered by the demands of college entrance examinations, the various courses for the oldest children doubtless would have followed a far different and more logical plan, hints of which appear in the records” (K. Mayhew & A. Edwards, (1966).The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903. New York: Atherson Press. (Original work published in 1936, p. 237).

The author argues that a particular grading system will undoubtedly generate vigorous debate. After all, it is a cultural instrument.

Hiner was too hopeful. The shift to outcome-based education in Manitoba, for instance, does not seem to have generated much debate.

A particular grading system is indeed a cultural instrument and, indeed, any grading system is a cultural instrument.

Is not a grading system needed when there is a market for workers? If there were no grading system, how would students be restricted from entering university? How would employers be able to differentiate more easily different kinds of potential employees? If all who attended obtained a high-school diploma or a university degree, how would allocation of workers to different employers be effected?

A summative grading system seems to be tied to a market for workers. Without a market for workers, would there be a need for a summative grading system? If so, why?

There are many questions, but educational researchers rarely ask such questions. Most educational researchers are more concerned with asking questions that relate to the present school structure (or a variation within such a structure) rather than questioning the premises of such a structure and engaging in research related to questioning those premises.

Educational research needs to become more critical. Education, after all, is supposed to generate critical thinking.

What kind of grading system, if any, would be most equitable and just? Under what social conditions?


Grading systems form an essential oppressive aspect of the experiences of hundreds of millions of children throughout the world–and yet you would not know it when reading leftist literature, which often ignores such daily experiences. Janet Martell, the superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, where I worked, implicitly understood the importance of the grading system by attacking my characterization of summative assessment to be in contradition to formative assessment.

The left should take note, should it not, about what the representatives of employers considers to be important and what such represenatives conceive as a threat? Such observations would permit the left to focus on fault lines in the point of view of such representatives in order to attack them since it is a weak point in their defenses.

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