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On Your Mark

Brass Tacks

By Robert H. Neuman

Final course grades, like death, taxes, and the draft, are accepted as inescapable facts of life. Their utility is, however, sometimes questioned, with little result. Since the Time approaches rapidly, the issue of abolishing final grades deserves its annual airing.

The burden of the argument lies upon those who would retain the present system; a need must first be demonstrated for final grades. There appears, to the debunkers, to be no purpose for awarding end-term grades like gold stars for effort. What does the mark indicate? There is little evidence that it denotes more than the amount of time a student is willing to spend on his courses, and since he already knows how conscientiously he worked, there is no need to tell him.

The anti-abolitionists respond by arguing that the grade is necessary for the student to know how well he has absorbed the course, and how much he has gotten out of it. Countering, the abolitionists maintain that grades for exams and papers may remain to indicate the degree of absorption, and the student himself knows how much he has benefited from a course without being told.

Seemingly, the most potent argument for retaining final grades is their usefulness to graduate schools and prospective employers, who want to know how hard their future student or employee worked in college. On the other hand, those who would change the system propose that aptitude and substantive exams be perfected and used for these purposes, since some reliance is already placed on them. It is doubtful, however, whether such methods can adequately perform the informative, and usually reliable, service that grades provide employers and graduate schools.

But the abolitionists hold other cards. Students may, they contend, tend to take easier or less demanding courses with the grade squarely in mind. More serious and apparent, however, is the eleventh-hour anxiety and general mark-consciousness that pervade the academic testing ground. Education then becomes a process of accumulating gold stars rather than broadening personal experience and understanding.

The defenders of the system counter by claiming that education is a discipline, and that men must be forced to keep their dull noses to the grindstone. They claim that students would spend their time in less noble pursuits were they not stricken with report-carditis. This argument, although partly true, inverts the concept of education.

Formal education is a matter of personal willingness and interest, and cannot be forced medicinally down the reluctant gullet. Students pay for the privilege of sitting in at lectures, being tested, having their reading prescribed, and getting a planned and balanced course of study. All of this could continue nicely, say the reformers, without a final course grade added on. It is not the University's responsibility to force men to take their academic affairs seriously.

The issue would seem, therefore, to incline to the abolitionists' favor, were it not for the problem of supplying employers and graduate schools with indications of the student's college efforts. This is a considerable factor. But if tests can be developed to perform this function satisfactorily, then grades would become useless as well as meaningless. With this possibility in mind, the consequences of the established system should receive serious constructive efforts at evaluation and reconsideration.

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