An “A” is Doubleplusgood: Grading in America

Can our accomplishments, intelligence, and work ethic be summed up by a single letter? Jordan Barber takes a look at the grading system in our country, discussing its necessity and inherent flaws.

For all the various arguments regarding the atypical American A through F grading system, it seems that, for most people, if their grades are good then the system is working; if they’re bad the system is unfounded. Indeed we–myself speaking as a student–have taken a compromised stance on the topic: It’s awfully insincere at times, but the grading system seems necessary.

And in a way, we’re right (though still dissatisfied with those alphabetic symbols of mediocrity). After all, some amount of meritocratic measurement is needed. Within the school system grades are useful for tracking a student’s basic abilities and measuring them against other students. Outside of the school system, a student’s GPA is typically a ticket to whatever institution will allow them. Like a train, a higher GPA is a first-class ticket to whichever school/career you care.

How do we measure hard work? There are students who pour themselves into their studies; and though we hate them for their single-minded ferocity, they deserve some credit. Sometimes grades reflect that. In George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, newspeak becomes the new language, characterized by its descriptive simplicity and its ability to remove “excess” meaning from a term. The intensifying addition “doubleplus” replaces words like “very” or “extremely.” “Doubleplusgood” means “extremely good” in a literal sense, but its meaning rings hollow because it attempts to measure something that is immeasurable. The grading system, in its attempt to measure academic ability, similarly strips itself of complex meaning. The result is that an A grade is doubleplusgood, which means nothing in itself.

The big problem is that grades are an amalgamation of things: a terrible generalizing sum of a person’s intelligence, diligence, and work. An A grade can mean any number of things: the student is very smart (but probably bullshitted most of the class), the student is very hard working (but probably a little dull), or anything in between. We’ve all seen that; the gross contrast between the natural learner who obtains the same results as the soulless shut-in addicted to As like heroin. It’s odd to group these people in the same category, much less consider the meaning of the ultimately obscure B grade, which stands for both utter defeat and semi-resplendent triumph.

Because of this confusion, we seek answers beyond the grades. We have a compulsive need to transcend grades in order to fully conceptualize a person’s academic élan. Grade transcendence is commonplace. Universities are looking to “go beyond” grades in order to find the ideal candidates. What have you done with your life that makes you worthwhile? What groups are you part of? What does learning mean to you? All of these questions sound like desperation to me. (I remember volunteering in high school solely for my college application.) Grades are confusing and inaccurate, so colleges look for better indicators, other “grades” that don’t exist in public, identifiable form. They’re adding extra (yet necessary) invisible marks of merit.

This strange abhorrence–yet addiction to–measured ability is flawed. By the necessity of these extra measures the whole grading system is flawed. We all seem to silently admit it. We know grades are poor measures, but when we receive those grades, a poor mark still stings. Despite universal acceptance of the grading system’s lack of accuracy, we still desperately cling to it.

Let’s try to understand this dynamic: we want measurement. We want something that can be universally applicable and fair to people who participate in its system. It must be simplistic; it cannot be a book-length biography. At the same time, it must be detailed and sincere enough for people to support it–we shouldn’t need to go around the system in order to make up for its deficiencies.

With that in mind, let’s think of some alternative grading systems in order to reconcile these disparate necessities.

The “Lots of Grades for Lots of Things” System
Why reduce performance into one measurement? Why not grade a person for every aspect of their life? I’m not just talking about grading things like writing skills, volunteer enthusiasm, or the number of honor society groups someone is in. I’m talking about everything. Does this person exercise? How hygienic are they? How many relationships have they been in? It’ll be like those racing videogames where each car had different statistics and qualities? Life is a race, after all. It’ll be a harsh system in which people cannot hide their bad sides. Maybe a cold-hearted method of separation is what’s necessary. After all, when we choose a character on Super Smash Brothers we don’t ask for a 500 word essay about themselves. We look at what they’ve got. And we don’t ever choose Pikachu because his moves are terrible.

The “Empathic” System
Toss out the stiff rigidities of alphabetic organization. Instead, let’s just sit down and talk about it. Tell me who you are and what you’re good at. What do you care about? It may sound like superfluous bullshit, but then again, universities have always tried to get beyond the straight-A facade. It’s hard to hide that when we have to about how we feel. Or if we have to make a collage about our favorite people and colors. It adds a human side to the whole system, and those who feel they’ve been wronged by the system can make up for it explaining themselves. It also separates the bullshitting, Ivy League success fanatics from the earnest learners who (perhaps) deserve a spot more.

The “Cruel Hierarchy” System
Grades wouldn’t exist per se, but there would be strict measurement–more so than with grades. Instead of a numeric or letter grade, which is relative depending upon instructor and institution, students would be judged in comparison to their peers. At the end of a class, the instructor would rank each student, “one” representing the best student in the class, with the last number being the worst. Here’s what it would do: It would be easier to sort out who’s better, because no one will have the same grade. It isn’t a very descriptive measurement, but it tells you how able a person is in comparison to others. It’s heartless, to be sure. I imagine that the frenzied work-freaks would win out, having succumbed to the enormous pressures such a competitive system would likely create. But grades are a measurement about who is better, so a system that would encourage extreme competition wouldn’t be bad, would it?

The “Guanxi” System
I borrow a very important Chinese term to explain this system. Guanxi is a Chinese term that denotes the informal give-and-take structure of Chinese business and politics. Fostering guanxi with others is like building connections. If I do a favor for you, then I’ve built some guanxi. In return, I should be able to expect something from you. The term is relevant here because it’s about a grading system where grades don’t exist, just networks of people who are willing to speak up for you. It’s about publicizing oneself–to instructors, coaches, business people, community leaders–so they can pull for you when the time comes. Doing well in school may have little relevance here, but then again, if you do poor in school, it’s likely that your instructors won’t help you. If all you want to do is play football, then maybe that doesn’t matter.

The “Pokémon” System
The Pokémon motto “I choose you!” is what this whole idea is about. You just sit there and do your work. People come and choose you. There is no application process. You’re selected for you aptitude (or whatever else a college wants to look for). Maybe all students are entered into some database that colleges can access. You might not get selected once you’ve graduated from high school. But that’s okay, because you continue on in life—working hard, rising in your career–until you’re noticed and selected. It might be unfair, fbut it also increases pressure for competition and the necessity to stand out over a longer period of time. People won’t just be joining honor societies until the end of high school–they’ll do it until they get into college.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.