The potential harm in publicly posting grades

There’s a ritual that everyone goes through when grades are posted in the classroom. Step 1, check your grade. Step 2, check the top grade. Step 3, ask around to find out who the top grade is. Even with supposedly anonymous student ID numbers, three steps (two steps, really) are all that’s needed to crack the wall of academic privacy. In fact, If you’re really desperate, you can even search up IDs on the district’s webpage (I have friends with way too much free time). Our classroom confidentiality is not as airtight as we might imagine it to be. But more importantly, this entire operation raises the question: should teachers post grades in public? As it turns out, they shouldn’t.

First of all, there’s the legal standpoint. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) — which as a public high school we are legally obliged to follow–student academic records are considered completely confidential. Posting grades using student ID codes is technically legal, as long as teachers “use a code known only to the teacher and the student.” Strictly speaking then, teachers have the right to post grades in the classroom as long as the students’ privacies are maintained.

But jurisprudence aside, posting grades publicly is simply not a good idea. Accessibility is not an issue–if students wish to check their grades, they can log on to Parent Portal anytime they wish. But more importantly, it does little to improve the academic performances of the students themselves; after all, the students with the highest grades don’t need to improve them.

It is, however, tempting to believe that students who are doing poorly might be motivated to raise their grade because they see their comparatively poor grades. However, the same objectives can be achieved simply by posting the class average: posting all the scores of every student often leads to resentment toward the more successful students or defeatism toward the class as a whole.

Moreover, posting grades fosters an unhealthy atmosphere of competition. Admittedly, competition motivates students to work harder, but posting grades emphasizes the grade we see on our transcript as opposed to actually learning the material. Yes, grades are important, but there is no need to further inflate its importance in the classroom. Public rankings encourages having a good grade over learning the material.

Teaching sans-grade posting means that students work harder to improve their grade, regardless of how everyone else is doing. However, grade posting makes it so that students view grading as a zero sum game: in improving their grade, they’re improving their standing, and in doing so someone else drops below them. All of these effects of grade postings create an environment more about “how can I improve my standing in the class” than “how can I improve my grade in this class.”

Of course, posting grades has its merits. If nothing else, workplaces, unlike classrooms, are not protected by FERPA-like legislation, and it’s definitely possible for our workplace “grades” to become public. So while it’s true that many students may be insecure about their academic performances and thus do not wish to publicize their grades, at least this system features a semi-secure attempt to preserve privacy with ID numbers. The fact remains that the real world does not provide such a mechanism for privacy. If that’s how it is, then perhaps it is better that we begin such a system in high school.

At the end of the day, teachers have the right to publish our grades in the classroom, but they shouldn’t. It doesn’t provide the benefits some think it does, not to mention it fosters unhealthy atmospheres and attitudes.

By Maxwell Zhu, Staff writer


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