What Are the Disadvantages of School Without Grades?

Grades give students an opportunity to receive clear feedback from teachers.
... Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images

For some students, the pressure to get good grades can be overwhelming, and the disappointment of a mediocre grade can be devastating. Some schools have attempted to address this problem by instituting pass/fail grading systems or even by eliminating grades. Home-schooling parents may also avoid assigning grades. While this approach can give students the freedom to focus on learning instead of grades, it also has significant disadvantages.

1 Objective Evaluation

When a school doesn't provide letter or number grades, it's more difficult for students to know where they stand. Without grades, students, teachers and parents may have less insight into a student's performance. When a student's grades in a particular subject are low or when she gets low grades on one aspect of a class -- such as homework or tests -- the formal feedback can provide insight into areas in which a student needs to improve. When students don't receive grades, they may not know how they can improve their study skills and work habits. Parents whose students attend schools without grades may not have much insight into their students' performance and are instead stuck relying on subjective measures and generalized feedback.

2 Monitoring Progress

It's much more challenging to evaluate a student's progress in a class without grades. A student who goes from a "C" one semester to a "D" the next may be having trouble at home, difficulty mastering the material or problems with organization. This subtle slip in performance, however, may be less visible when a student doesn't receive grades. Without a grading system, interventions might be based on more subjective criteria, such as a student's perceived interest in a class, and these subjective criteria often require much more involvement by teachers and parents. In schools that have many students, this kind of involvement might not be possible.

3 Transferability

Students who don't receive grades sometimes have difficulty transferring to a new school or getting into college. A high school that doesn't assign grades, for example, might relieve students of stress, but can make it challenging for a student moving to another school. Most colleges require students to provide information on their GPAs, and when students can't provide this information, they might not be able to get into some colleges, particularly highly competitive ones.

4 Incentives to Work

Although grades can be stressful, they also provide students with an incentive to work hard. A student who gets an "A" in a class knows that her approach is paying off, while a student who gets a "D" has objective evidence that she needs to improve. Students who are graded solely on a pass/fail basis might have less incentive to excel in a class, and students who are graded based solely on completion might muddle through a class without mastering the material.

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.