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The Positive Functions of Grades

Feldmesser, Robert A.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Memorandum
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Academic Achievement, College Students, Grades (Scholastic), Student Evaluation


The author argues in favor of giving A-F grades in college because they "have a first-order function in providing unique and useful information to the student and second-order functions in generating other kinds of evaluation and enhancing their effectiveness when they are made. First-order functions include providing information to the student about how well he is doing in a course overall, how well in one subject compared to another, and how well overall compared to other students. Second-order functions include motivating the teacher to make evaluations, giving the teacher a means of motivating learning, and reinforcing the feedback function of other evaluations. Some of the common objections to grades are then discussed and counter-argued. These objections include 1) that grades are "extrinsic" rather than "intrinsic" rewards, 2) that college grades don't correlate with success in later life, 3) that grades "foster competitive attitudes," and 4) that a low grade discourages a student from further study of the subject. Specific suggestions are also given on ways to reduce excessive anxiety about grades, namely allowing a student to weight his grades differentially, emphasizing that the grades are not a moral judgment, and limiting the use of student grades for anyone other than the student. Lack of validity of grades is proposed as the real basis for most objections to grades. The author proposes correcting this legitimate problem through appropriate training of college instructors in grading policies, practices, theories and techniques.

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