Commentary: Should Students' Grade Be Public?

B O S T O N, Nov. 30, 2001 -- Should students be able to grade each other's papers and announce those grades aloud in class?

That question is now before the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in a case brought by Kris Falvo of Tulsa, Okla., who says public grading made her son vulnerable to teasing by his classmates.

While the case has legal implications, it also raises some important issues for child development experts about the possible negative effects of public grading practices. We asked one leading expert for his point of view.

Grades are a blessing and a curse. Most students still rest their self-esteem on the grades they get no matter what parents or teachers say about how important it is "doing your best" or "trying your hardest." I am not in favor of publicly posting grades for a number of reasons:

If we are really trying to teach kids to learn, to work hard, and to understand the material, grades may not reflect what the student knows or his/her capabilities. This may be because of the way a teacher grades (e.g., some refuse to give A's; some grade on a curve; some make certain tests impossible and let kids know they may throw out the worst grade). It also may be that some kids are just not good test takers. Some have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder. Some have very high anxiety in testing situations.

Sometimes a child has been out of class for a while or fallen behind, and drops in his or her grades. The underlying reason, e.g., an illness, problems at home, emotional problems, may be hard enough. The public announcement of grades may only compound a problem.

Kids may use the public announcement as a means of scapegoating, teasing and other forms of bullying. It is not right to give them this kind of ammunition in the learning environment. Getting a poor grade is demoralizing to many kids. Being picked on for it only makes matters worse.

Some kids are overly perfectionistic and driven. These type-A personalities drive themselves nuts over anything lower than an A. Public announcement only increases their internal sense of pressure.

If we publicly announce grades, should we not publicly announce other achievements and failures of kids? No one would question public announcement of sports victories, or awards for community service, science projects or other achievements. But then why not announce who got detention for particular violations of the rules? We often "grade" behavior in school with comments about attitude, motivation or breaking rules. So, why not announce who got detention and for what reasons, who was tardy, who cut classes, who was taken into police custody, etc.? Once we start down that path, few would agree it is a useful exercise. Most would agree these matters are highly confidential.

Do we really want to make school more competitive? The public announcing of grades only increases pressure on kids and fuels academic competition. Many kids are already highly competitive. This is part of being in a social milieu in school, and also a function of personality. We should not foster more of this. There are many ways to increase incentives for academic achievement and healthy competition, such as prizes for the best work in a subject among other rewards.

Many kids already talk about grades, and ask each other: "What did you get on the science exam?" or "How did you do on that math quiz?" After tests and papers many kids are already buzzing about who did well and who did not. In this way, if a child wishes to disclose how he or she did, fine. If not, it should be kept private.

The practice of kids grading other kids is similar in many respects. It is not fair to let kids give other kids grades, as if they had the knowledge or authority of teachers. They may use this or abuse this in ways that may be hurtful to other kids. However, if teachers want supervised critiques of writing samples, math problems or other academic work, and if it is done in a sensitive fashion, in which the students are learning how to give and take constructive criticism, that is another story. This practice, however, is highly supervised, and should only be done by teachers who have a lot of experience.

Dr. Gene Beresin is director for child and adolescent psychiatry training at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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