Recently, I responded to a student who had a question about his grade. He indicated a hesitation to remain in my class because he runs the risk of making a B, to which I rapidly unleashed a bombardment of disagreement about his philosophy about education. The point I made was my own personal belief that grades are not important.

Why do I even spend my time thinking about such questions? To me, this issue is personal. I never excelled at taking tests. I have met a lot of people in the same boat, and typically there are obvious reasons for their failures. They disproportionately apply time to screwing off, and they don’t apply themselves to learning the material.

First, those scenarios serve as reinforcement that our current system is flawed. Students know that passing a test (and achieving that score) is not a matter of application and learning but rather a matter of mastering a set of questions that will appear on a test. They are unnerved when their golden academic discipline (learned over a lifetime of succeeding in the same manner) fails them. The kids think passing a test means they learned something.

Second, other students struggle to prepare for exams in a different way. Personally, I spent all my time fascinated with course material, reading and studying the information, absorbing it like a sponge. When it was time to take the test, I knew the principles, but I didn’t practice enough to make specific calculations fast enough, and time would often elapse before I finished.

What evidence did I have to counter the notion that I’m just stupid? On homework and projects, I would score 95 percent to 100 percent every time. But on tests? I would average around 70 percent.

‘Grade inflation should worry the world’

So, what is the problem?

It is important to have a set of testable hypotheses regarding the acquisition of course content in students (e.g. students who have acquired full understanding of the concepts should achieve a 100 percent in a question-based review). But for students themselves, grades should only matter insofar as requisite pass-or-fail criteria. What should be important to students is not passing tests but acquiring information and knowledge.

This is where the American education system continues to make its major mistake. High schools and universities encourage students to take a deep interest in their grades, even though grades are absolutely irrelevant to course content. The growing trend of inaccurately assessed students being released to the work force by grade inflation should worry the world. For the most part, universities have failed to respond to incapable students who are also their customers.

A post on Iowa State University’s website titled, “Understanding what employers look for in engineers” highlights this fallacy.

“Good grades are important,” the post says. “They indicate that you have the ability to learn and have mastered certain skills.”

Think critically for a moment about that statement. How does a number indicate a person’s ability to learn? How does it show that one has mastered certain skills? Grades certainly indicate a person’s ability to learn skills necessary to pass tests, but they say nothing about students’ true ability in the assessed skill set let alone anything about their mastery of the skill. Still, this prevailing belief system has been repeated so often that almost nobody questions it anymore. We have been indoctrinated, plain and simple.

So now the (objective) question to answer is: How do we test students’ competency without the students knowing they are being tested? A secondary, less important (subjective and temporary) question is: How do we deal with the resistance of the current generation that is used to a grade-based system and the habit of spending the semester acutely aware of their scores?

Grades do not build bridges

The obvious conclusion of this discussion should be that we abolish the traditional grading system. But we still need a measurable and accurate way to gauge the performance of students so that we can make the hard decision to mark students as deficient when necessary.

Why is this important? My particular area of study is aerospace and mechanical engineering. I have worked in the industry and worked alongside the “successes” of our school systems. I have seen engineers who have never handled a screwdriver, who design parts with impossible geometry and who can’t make sensible calculations about the physics of their parts under application because the projects do not strictly match the problems they practiced for school exams.

Most of those engineers are swept to the side in their final resting place of employment, where they spend careers modeling washers. Some make it past the filter. These engineers design bridges, landing gear on airplanes, braking systems and a whole host of other terrifyingly important products that will be found in your and your family’s everyday lives.

Welcome to insomnia: The knowledge that a few hundred-thousand more of these engineers will trickle into industry each year should be concerning.

Perhaps it should concern us enough to reform the way students view grades as opposed to true education.