First a confession.
I am a grade grubber.
I remember with perfect clarity the moment in third grade when I jumped several places to the top of the reading group in which, I swear, each child was ranked. I succeeded that day by articulating a deep truth: In some words ou and ow have the same pronunciation.
I remember my high school Latin teacher calling me a "millimeter bandit" when I complained about a grade that was slightly less than I deserved. And I remember my guilty joy when a friend got a B in history and slipped below my grade-point average.
When my grades turned mediocre in college, I was relieved. It was easier to focus on important things, like hanging around the campus newspaper and seeing if the managing editor would go out with me.
Those of us who have survived high school grade envy share mixed feelings about A's and F's. We hope we have outgrown our need for artificial, extrinsic assessments and rewards. But we weigh every adjective on our annual job reviews and look for hints that our spouses still love us.
Then our children reach high school and we are 16 years old again. We fret over the failure rate in Chemistry 102. We furtively search book bags late at night for returned term papers. We trade rumors at soccer team picnics about the curve on the latest geometry test.
Many educators abhor such behavior. Alfie Kohn, a Belmont, Mass., author who deftly articulates this view, argues in his new book, The Schools Our Children Deserve, that "students in a school that uses no letters or numbers to rate them will be more likely to think deeply, love learning and tackle more challenging tasks." There is some evidence to back him up, although the experiment has not been done often, given the popular view that only the terminally insane send in college applications with no grades on the transcript.
When I read Kohn, I find myself hoping for a better, gradeless world. Then, after a few hours in a real school, I tend to return to the belief that his vision, like communism, is designed for a different species.
Grades, so the prevailing theory goes, provide information and motivation, the latter being the more precious commodity. Without a desire to learn, there is not much more to be done but seat the child in a corner, make her comfortable and wait for her to grow up.
It is difficult to motivate, however, when grading practices are as predictable and rational as a California earthquake. Some teachers are chided by principals for giving too many A's, but the harshest words are inflicted on those who are deemed overly generous with F's. "What is your failure rate?" one Fairfax County administrator asked a teacher applicant. "Will you be low maintenance for me?"
Some teachers try to motivate with high grades, some with low. None of this helps much. What if we freed teachers of the most coercive aspects of this chore? A new split-level assessment system may be evolving that opens the way for more thoughtful grades, or perhaps no grades at all.
Standardized tests are becoming the master evaluators, whether we like them or not. The AP, IB and SAT II examinations, administered at national and international levels, cover nearly every 11th- and 12th-grade subject. New statewide tests such as the Stanford 9 in California and the District, or the Standards of Learning in Virginia, are designed to assess primary and secondary schools. Many educators think these examinations could be better. They say multiple-choice questions, less important in IB and AP, often assess through trickery rather than reason. But the tests impose a helpful standard that a weak or disheartened classroom teacher cannot corrupt and a parent can understand.
When high school students are faced with a state or national test over which even their teacher has no control, rivalries often evaporate. The class unites to slay the big, mean, three-hour-long dragon. The teacher's grades become both less intimidating and more likely to be accepted as useful information about what must be done to improve.
As long as accountability and rigor are assured by testing the student against a known standard, why not experiment with portfolios (samples of work that substitute for grades) or rubrics (detailed descriptions of what earns an A or an F, often written by the students themselves)? More credit could be given for effort, a vital consideration to many good teachers. "If they do all the work I assign, pay attention, and ask for help when they don't understand, they cannot get a grade lower than a C," said Kenneth Bernstein, who teaches ninth-grade social studies in Prince George's County.
I am not immune to surprises. I never thought the Soviet Union would go away. The return of the VW Beetle was a shock. Maybe we can create a school system without grades, with teachers whispering occasional warnings or compliments, and students drawn to their books and laboratories by curiosity and wonderment -- rather than the terrors of failure and the empty triumphs of nerds like me.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is email@example.com.