The bell rings, marking an end to yet another math class. Shoving my calculator into into my backpack, I try to put the thought of numbers out of my mind. I don’t care whether they’re rational, natural, imaginary — numbers are dead to me.
Except, of course, that before my next math period I’ll be sure to receive half a dozen homework assignments and quizzes with big fat numbers assigned to the tops. I’ll have to face cereal boxes and milk cartons with numerals littering the sides and make numbered lists organizing my homework and neuroses. In short, as much as I don’t want it to be true, numbers are the spider web to my butterfly, and I can’t fly away.
Unfortunately, trends in how our society defines success suggest that this condition won’t be going away any time soon. From STAR tests to the SATs and our GPAs, numbers have an absurd amount of power, turning our flesh-and-blood qualities into a black-and-white representation that shouldn’t be relied on to show the whole picture.
Numbers, despite their omnipresence in society, are somewhat arbitrary. Take that elusive SAT 2400. If we used a binary counting system, like the one our computers run on, a perfect score would instead be 100101100000. Twenty-four hundred is just a social construct, albeit one that has preoccupied overachievers everywhere.
Of course, it’s a ridiculous construct. The idea that someone’s college readiness could be defined by a number is more absurd than the plotline of “Glee.” Take the essay section, which professes to measure a student’s writing skills on a scale from one to six. Unlike the rest of the sections, there are no right answers, just the very subjective opinion of readers who have the ability to destroy dreams with little more than a soul-sucking “demonstrates little mastery.”
The American education scholar Alfie Kohn, known in teaching circles for his criticism of grade-based learning, argues that the system negatively impacts students’ interest in their studies. In his 2011 Educational Leadership article “The Case Against Grades,” he claims that students learn to focus only on material which they believe they will be tested on. They also tend to “avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks,”according to Kohn, because they fear the potential impact on their grades, creating a generation of educational cowards who prefer quantitative rewards over the joy of learning.
Kohn’s discovery is common knowledge among high school students everywhere. Those highlighted sections in textbooks called “Expanding Horizons” or “Real-World Thinking” are code for “Skip me! Skip me!” because I know they won’t be on the test. As an experienced procrastinator, I can estimate they’ve saved me hours and hours of reading that I’ve happily channeled into other productive exercises like painting my toenails or impulse-buying on Amazon.
Schools that do away with grades altogether sometimes receive criticism for their alternative approach; in our society, nontraditional education can be synonymous with “hippie” and “Birkenstocks.” But a 2010 Inside Higher Ed article entitled “No Grading, More Learning” found that disincentivizing the grade system had profound results. The professor of the course, Cathy Davidson, noted that her students seemed less risk-averse. Additionally, the quantity and quality of their writing significantly improved.
The growing number of schools adopting a no-grade policy reflects its increasing viability in education. Such institutions include well-regarded Harvey Mudd College, which enforces a pass/fail system for freshmen, and Reed College. But despite the success stories, mentioning such reforms often results in raised eyebrows and skeptical snorts.
It’s perceived as the first step into a downward spiral: don’t grade, and evaluate students on their “caring” and “social awareness.” The next thing you know, we’re all high school dropouts spending our days at the park getting high and scaring the elementary school kids, all because some misguided administration thought it would be a good idea to give their students a little more freedom.
The conventional argument, that grades and test scores provide incentive and a source of comparison, is only true because we make it so. Take away grades, and students find intrinsic motivation for their work, gaining a greater sense of purpose. As for comparison, simply look at the inconsistency of grading just across an individual course. The variability of results makes accurate evaluation a lost cause.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for numbers every time I power up my computer or evaluate yet another integral for calculus. But allowing numbers to define us as students shackles us academically, rather than letting us fly butterfly-free.