Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.

5 Responses to Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

  1. Greg Forster says:

    You’re right that tests, grades, etc. are essential to the meritocratic mobility we want. Getting rid of grades is nuts.

    On the other hand, just as you can’t have a single test because every test has its flaws – and is susceptible to political manipulation if it becomes the single test – I think our society is not well served by having only one ladder (go to college and get straight As) by which meritocratic mobility can occur. The ladder has to some extent been colonized by those who climbed up it in previous generations, making it hard for new generations to get up.

    George Will did a good job with this recently:

    Apologies for the mixed metaphor of a ladder being colonized.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    One mistake anti-test people make is thinking that the major standardized tests are testing the students. That really isn’t true, except for those tests which work as admissions tests: ISEE, SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.

    At the grade school and middle school level, what they are really testing are the *schools*, and they are one of the few ways that a parent can check their child’s true educational attainment. A straight-A student might not actually be learning much if the curriculum is not demanding. A teacher might rave over a student and give the parents warm feelings about their star kid, but that doesn’t mean that the teacher or the school is accurately portraying the student’s learning. Testing is usually the only way that parents can learn whether the information they are receiving from the school is actually accurate, or B.S.

  3. pdexiii says:

    I’ll take it a pernicious step further: Some elite schools try to move away from AP tests as a measure of academic rigor and excellence. Why? Could it be because so many Black and Brown students-thank you, Jaime Escalante-and of course those dastardly Asians are scoring 4’s and 5’s on the AP Calculus test, so what was once an elite privilege is now competitive, and challenging your perceived exclusivity?

    • Greg Forster says:

      This is the kind of thing I mean when I say the meritocratic ladder has been colonized by those who climbed up it.

      • pdexiii says:

        And speaking of ladders, my parents would always say the folks you had to worry about were the ones just above you scared you’re gonna take their ‘spot’, and the ones just below you mad you passed them.

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