10 Ungrading – A Systematic Change is Coming

Noah Caan

MARCH 2021

For anyone who is reading this, they will not remember the life before the “letter grading” in the academic institutions. From the moment we enter the school life, our are assessed in various ways and are given a “letter” grade based on our performance. This grading gets embedded into our heads as we are required to continuously look for A’s in order to get into a good higher education institution, or a certain educational program, or even a particular job role. The has always been a long debate on why the grades should be abolished completely and the recent Covid-19 pandemic has only brought the topic of “ungrading” in the main spotlight.

A Brief History of Grading:

The first ever grading system was used in Yale back in 1785, however, the current grading system did not get established until 1897 by Mount Holyoke College (Durm, 1993). The widespread use of the letter grades started in 1940s but even in 1971 only 67% of the schools in the USA used letter grades (Lee, 2020). Grades are a relatively recent phenomenon in the academic world, which has its origins rooted back to the 16th century (Gray, 2008).

In the recent years, there have been plenty of debate whether or not to grade students. This debate isn’t surprising because majority of the educational history was carried on without the needs for any formal grading system. The recent pandemic has only accelerated the need to abolish grades altogether as they are adding a lot of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues among students. Although there are many challenges before a complete elimination of grades can be implemented on a global scale, but the changes have to start now and they have to start from within.

This paper will focus on the following three areas: 1) Covid-19 and its impact on grading, 2) Why “Ungrading” should be implemented even beyond the pandemic, and 3) How employers are already shaping up their working environment where newly graduated students’ are hired based on their skills/knowledge rather than their grades.

1.     Covid-19 and its Impact on Grading:

The academic system is designed so that students get into good colleges or universities based on their grades, they get scholarships based on their performances, and also they can only stay within the college or university if their GPA is over a certain minimum. This puts immense pressure on students to constantly focus on their grades.

This issue has been exposed further in the wake of the global pandemic. Students are, more than ever, facing many different challenges during Covid. Some of these challenges include mental health issues, anxiety, depression, lack of financial support, access to technology etc. In a survey of over 7,000 college and university students, in the USA, it highlighted that approximately 38% of the students will not have enough funds to last through the term, 56% of the freshmen cannot afford tuition anymore (Leonhardt, 2020). Many of these students also expressed that it is hard for them to keep up with their academic performance while deadline with financial difficulties. One student even discussed how they are having difficulties maintaining their GPA and credit requirements in order to successfully meet the scholarship requirements (Leonhardt, 2020).

To help out the students during such uncertain times, many universities, colleges, and schools have made significant changes to the grading policies so that the students can stop worrying about the grades. These changes include changing the letter grade to an alternative method. Some of these methods include: issuing a pass/fail, issuing grades at the beginning of the term and then using “pass” for those students who ends up completing the course, giving students A or A- for passing the course, or issuing satisfactory/no grade (Svrluga, 2020). In order to be more flexible, some colleges and universities have empowered the students to have an input in what type of changes should be implemented. Harvard University, which initially had an Emergency Satisfactory (SEM) and Emergency Unsatisfactory (UEM) grading implemented right after the pandemic, had done a poll in March asking students for the type of grading they wanted among the three options provided and they opted to go for an “Optional Pass/Fail” and has plans to continue this grading scheme for a foreseeable future (Radsken, 2020; White, 2020). The changes goes to show that the ungrading plan is working and this is why the grading scheme is likely to stay the same in the near future.

2.       Ungrading – Why its a Long-term Solution:

Although the grade changes (mentioned above) are welcomed, but they are being implemented for the time being and the original grading scheme might be brought back when times change. The topic of ungrading needs to be seriously considered for a long-term.

When we examine the curriculum set-up in academia (including primary and secondary schools), the way the courses are taught and the assessments are implemented, one would realize that there is hardly any flexibility built into the courses for students to succeed. It’s a one size fits all solution that the experts believe works for everyone. One of the students in the “Straight-A vs Flunking Students” video highlights this issue beautifully when he says that everyone learns different and the schools put them all through the same way of testing assuming that everyone would learn best the same way and he also called it being “one sided” (Jubilee, 2019).

Standardized testing and strict policies around developing and implementing assessments does not allow students to shine and showcase their strengths in different ways because of the lack of flexibility.

Standardized testing has long been used as one of the main benchmarks by many higher education institutions in developed and developing nations for accepting or rejecting students in certain programs. The pandemic has increased the income inequalities (more on this later) and as the classes have now shifted online, the gap has shown that students from low-income families do not have enough money to own a proper computer, adequate internet access, proper study areas etc. (Webster, 2020). Such students are normally the ones who fail standardized tests because they do not have the resources to compete with the students who come from high- income families. Standardized tests, such as SATs, actually hinder student success as not every student is able to perform well on tests. In fact, studies show that students who don’t take these tests but have good grades, are good at writing essays, and have higher ranks in classes, perform as equally as the students who submit standardized tests results (Webster, 2020). According to Oxfam International, the world’s poorest will take over 10 years to rocket from the pandemic (Euronews, 2020). So, one can only imagine the impact this will have on the students from the poor and underdeveloped areas even within the developed nations. Although some top colleges and universities in the USA are abandoning the use of standardized tests by 2025, there are still those who refuse to abolish it (Webster, 2020).

Similarly, we can also take a look at United Kingdom’s A-Level and GCSE Exam results from last year as a prime example what problems standardized testing can cause. Due to Covid-19, last year the UK government had decided to go with teacher’s grades for their students, known as Centre Assessed Grades (CAGS), in which the teacher had to answer a 2 question survey: 1) what grade would the student receive if they were to sit in the exam?, and 2) where would they rank in the class (grade band)? (TDLR News, 2020). In addition to this, a mathematical algorithm was designed to fix the inflated or biased grades based on the previous 3 years’ performance of the school’s students. The algorithm cause 40% of the student grades to be downgraded and only 2.2% of the students had their grades upgraded (TDLR News, 2020). To add more drama to the situation, the algorithm only increased the grades of those students who went to private schools and all the downgrades happened for those students who attended public schools in underdeveloped areas. In addition to this, the final grade for those students who belonged to poorer neighbourhoods, had their grades solely based on the algorithm. Since this change caused a lot of controversy, the UK government decided to abandon the algorithm and based the students’ grades on what their teachers has inputted. The teacher’s grades are also being implemented this year.

Implementing teachers grades will not solve the issue of inflated or biased grades. The problem of biased grades is not solely present in UK’s A-level and GCSE exams. Many teachers and professors develop biases on regular bases and at times these biases might be present without the teachers knowing, but they do end up giving inflated grades to the students who did not deserve them. The inflated grades issue is highlighted in the research done by a former professor, Stewart Royce Dodger, at Duke University which found that the GPA for a Harvard student was a C+ back in 1950s and in 2013 the grade had increased to an A- and in 2014, the most common grade was an A and the story was the same at other Ivey league schools (The Economist, 2014). The stated reason was that if students are marked hard, then the future students will avoid the hard marking professor’s class. Therefore, in order to attract more future students to their classes, professors have started giving higher grades leading to a higher average. By taking on the “ungrading” approach, academic institutions can completely eliminate biased, inflated, or controversial grades.

3.       Workplaces Are Helping the Shift to “Ungrade”:

Few years ago, if you went for your first job interview at a big firm, they would most likely look at your academic performance as one of the main factors in determining whether or not you are the right fit for the role. However, as mentioned above, the grades have been inflated over the years. In fact, research shows that 43% of all grads, on average, had an increase of 28 and 12 percentage points in their grade since 1960 and 1988 respectively (Kamat, 2019). Therefore, grades alone cannot be considered as a main factor in hiring talented students anymore.

In addition to Covid-19, there is also a Fourth Industrial Revolution taking place where the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation will be the key driving forces of the future workforce. Therefore, it is imperative that the current students focus more on developing skills, which will make them unique prospect for future jobs, rather than simply focusing on the grades. A powerful example of AI is clearly visible in the content found currently on the internet.

According to a research by Gartner, AI will product 30% of the content on the internet by 2022 (McKnight, 2021). Skills such as complex problem-solving skills, judgement, creativity, and social intelligence are all vital for students’ success in the near future (McKnight, 2021). All of these skills can be taught in the academic institutions without the need for any grades.

Furthermore, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) also published a report in 2018 highlighting that the future of occupations will be clustered into six categories: Solvers, Providers, Facilitators, Technicians, Crafters, and Doers; and all of these clusters are groups together based on their required skills (Royal Bank of Canada, 2018). The core skills required were technical, management, basic, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and analytical skills (Royal Bank of Canada, 2018). It is important to note that none of these clusters are based on the level of education that is required to access the future jobs within a particular cluster. Which means that the future students would be able to take their skillset from one profession into another by simply upgrading their skills. RBC highlighted 35 foundational workplace skills and they also provided an example that someone in a Facilitator cluster switching from a dental assistant to a graphic designer only requires 4 skills to be upgraded (Royal Bank of Canada, 2018). RBC also highlighted that the current education system in Canada is inadequate to help new students to develop the necessary skills and have recommended that the institutions look past the degrees and certificates (Royal Bank of Canada, 2018).

The RBC report, along with the World Economic Forum’s research, is essential in understanding how imperative it is to start making the changes within the education system to focus on developing skills. All of these skills can be developed through hands on practical work experiences or analyzing cases/scenarios. The best part in implementing such assessments in the education institutions is that none of these would require any sort of grading, instead the focus would be on providing feedback and ensuring that students are heading in the right direction.

These research have shown that employers are already moving their focus away from the students’ grades and they will be focused more on their skillset in the future.


The fact that this paper is being written about “ungrading” shows that the gears have started to shift towards ungrading. Although, the systematic changes in the academics have a long way to go, but things have moved rapidly in the last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the changes coming in employment due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there will more support for ungrading in the near future as almost all jobs would require students to focus on the necessary skills because AI and automation would be taking over an extensive chunk of the workforce.


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Ungrading – A Systematic Change is Coming Copyright © 2021 by Noah Caan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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