Why Grades Don’t Matter in Elementary School

Let me tell you a secret:

I’m a teacher who HATES giving final grades.

I can see the smirks already. Yeah, right, she hates giving grades…

Hear me out, though. 

What do grades measure?

Grades measure knowledge on a particular topic, on a particular day. Now typically, content has been taught on that topic over a period of time.

Ultimately, grades tell a teacher how much of the taught content can be regurgitated on a given day.

What if a child has a bad day? Or didn’t eat breakfast? Or had a family emergency? Now, put yourself in that child’s shoes. It wouldn’t be fair for your whole job to be based on one poor conversation with your boss or one typo on a report created on the way to the end goal. No, you are judged based on how well you deliver the end product.

Children’s “final” grades are based on cumulative work, an average of all grades in a subject during a two month period.

What this means is that if a child bombed on a quiz at the beginning of the quarter or had a few poor grades along the way, their ending grade could be lower. Even if they show mastery of the material in the end.

Is that fair: to penalize a child for LEARNING the material? To give a lower grade because of a few missteps in the process of learning new stuff?


Just what are kids learning?

Think back to your elementary school days. What do you remember?

I remember playing a LOT of Oregon Trail, doing group projects and dissecting a cow heart. Hey, I grew up in a farm town!

Do you remember your grades or how your teachers made you feel? I can think of a thousand little life lessons in kindness, personal responsibility and perseverance. But I can’t tell you what I learned in third grade math.

The content taught in elementary school is mostly for background building and learning how to be a good school citizen. It’s about teaching students to take responsibility and try their best every day.

Why, then, are we all so focused on whether a child is being crammed full of content?

If I had my way, content would be minimal: math that builds on itself and teaches logical thinking in real world situations; history and civics lessons that frame it like a story, and filled with plenty of interactive assignments; science would be similar, focusing more on learning HOW to do science with experiments.

So…why all the fuss?

I couldn’t tell you. But I do think it’s ridiculous.

What cumulative grades, either letter or 0-100 number grades, teach students is that the process of learning doesn’t matter. And that their worth is determined by how much they already know, instead of how much they grow along the way.

I would argue that the process of learning is the whole point of school!

And if that IS the point of going to school, to acquire skills to learn new materials and build knowledge, why do we need cumulative grades?


Cumulative grades only show me the sum total, not the end result.

Personally, I like to see my child learn and succeed. I like to know that she shows mastery of new content. But I’m more concerned that she is kind to others, uses her words instead of her fists and figures out how to problem solve without my help all of the time.

If she does well and earns “good grades,” fine. That’s great. But it is more vital to be a good human being who enjoys learning.

But until “the powers that be” tell me otherwise, I’m still required to grade your children. Just know that I HATE doing it, and so do thousands of other teachers.

What do you think about grades in elementary school? What are your goals for your children in school?


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2 thoughts on “Why Grades Don’t Matter in Elementary School

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