Gradecraft is something I’ve always known about, and done as well, but I didn’t ever have a name for it. And about a week ago, the name popped into my head (maybe inspired by the word statecraft), and I suddenly felt like I could write a post about it.

So what is gradecraft? No, it’s not a Minecraft mod, and while it is “a learning management system dedicated to supporting the gameful classroom,” that’s not what I’m talking about.

When I say gradecraft, I mean the skill or act a student employs in managing or manipulating their grades. I’m guessing it’s increased since schools started posting grades online continuously, rather than only sending them out as report cards a few times a year.

Although cheating would fall under that definition, that’s not really what I’m getting at, and it’s rather a crude form of gradecraft. The form that I’m more interested in, and that I’m really referring to when I say gradecraft (have I said “gradecraft” enough yet?) is the skill a student employs when they consider that they have a 68 in Algebra and a 72 in English, and they can either study for an English test which will count for fifty points of a hundred points (those hundred points weighed at thirty percent of their grade) or finish the algebra homework which will count for sixty points of a thousand (weighed at fifty percent of the grade.) Also taking into consideration the future opportunities to raise grades in each classes, as well as odd quirks of each teacher’s grading system (dropping the lowest scored test, allowing two re-dos per semester, extra credit, whatever.)

This act of gradecraft—deciding when bombing a test or not doing homework is the right choice—has funny results on the other end. Teachers seem to take a student not turning in an assignment as a personal slight, which is a somewhat egocentric view—as if the student does not exist outside that teacher’s own class. The teacher sees it as a lack of caring, whereas  the student sees it as a calculated loss. It’s not personal, it’s economics.

This is clearly not an ideal form of Paideia. Students shouldn’t be worried about grades, they should be worried about mastering a concept, or improving a skill. But grades are the most important factor in education, especially high school. GPA determines the ability to apply for certain scholarships, and to get into certain colleges. And grades are made more relevant because parents are able to see them, and it’s the only glimpse that parents get into how their kid is doing in school. So there’s social pressure to hit these arbitrary marks as well, and less pressure to do things parents can’t see (like participate in class or get tutoring help during lunch.) It’s also a lot easier for a teenager to grasp a specific number on a finite scale than an abstract concept like “fluency” or “mastery.”

The reason this emphasis on grades is bad is because it allows scenarios like the following to happen: A student will place more importance on doing busywork for a subject in which they’re already proficient than on actually learning a subject they know nothing about, if that unknown subject’s teacher is an easy grader.

This is a problem inherent in education. Of course there needs to be some standard that colleges and employers can reference to understand the level of skill of a student, but this places undue importance on grades. Rather than being an indicator of progress toward a goal, grades become the goal itself.

This is why I always got bad grades in English classes (by bad I mean ‘B’s, but that seems bad when you consider that I’m a writer.) I always was comfortable in my mastery of the course, and I didn’t care about pursuing arbitrary grades to prove it. I never engaged in much gradecraft, except in cases where I was pressed for time, and had to choose which assignment would give me the biggest bang for my buck.

I should say, I’ve mostly been talking about high school this whole time, because I find that gradecraft is much less prominent in college. The reason is, you can’t engage in gradecraft if your professor doesn’t put up grades. And, at least at the University of Iowa, professors aren’t required to post grades. Maybe this is completely different at other places, but this is the way it is here. And I think that’s a good thing. Teachers should keep track of grades so they can talk to anyone who’s failing, or so that any student willing to make the effort (not many of them) of visiting a teacher and asking for their grades can see them, but otherwise leave students in the dark. Students can get some idea of how they’re doing based on the assignments that are handed back, and their own intuition. That’s how things are in the real world anyway—no official body is going to tell someone they’re a C- barber, or that they’re an A+ farmer. People just have to figure out their strength and ability on their own, and make decisions from there.

While I have some pride in myself and my cohort for being able to engage in gradecraft, and manipulate a complicated, often broken, sometimes antagonistic system, it’s really a reductive activity. It may be useful for classes that a student has absolutely no interest in ever learning or mastering, but when it’s practiced in every class in a student’s schedule, that’s a problem. Because at that point schools aren’t training students to be scientists, historians, business owners, or doctors, they’re training them to be students—with a masters in gradecraft (and a concentration in test-taking.)

One thought on “Gradecraft

  1. I (strategically) went from a high school where an A- or less was called failure to a college where, while we did technically have letter grades, that was only for the benefit of students who needed to transfer or have a transcript ready for grad school. You had to request your grades in order to see them, and I think there was even a fee to do so. Instead, we received written evaluations of our progress in a given class from the professor, made possible by a low student to teacher ratio and class sizes of about 15-20 for seminars and 20-60 (if the teacher scored the biggest hall) for lectures. The only kind of gradecraft I could use was making sure my attendance record and my completion rates for assignments were flawless.

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