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Measurement and Desert: Why Grades Cannot Be Deserved


One of probably the most ubiquitous and uncontroversial concepts regarding desert—each in atypical discourse and within the philosophical literature on desert—is the concept that college students can, and typically do, deserve some grade or different. And moreover (usually), their grade is deserved on the premise of their efficiency within the class, broadly talking. A scholar that performs properly on their exams, completes all of their assignments, is energetic at school dialogue, and so on., deserves a greater grade than a scholar who performs poorly within the class, for instance. Or so the thought goes.

Now, one can think about varied moral arguments in opposition to this concept. Perhaps, for example, college students don’t deserve grades as a result of the follow of grading, itself, is dangerous, or as a result of they battle with the correct goals of a superb academic system. But the case I need to make right here is that, whether or not or not these moral arguments succeed or not, there’s a extra fundamental, metaphysical drawback with the concept that college students deserve grades. And so, what I need to argue is that grades can’t be deserved, no matter whether or not the follow of grading, finally, is justifiable. (And so, if the argument is sweet, then when a scholar insists that they deserve a greater grade, academics have a really obnoxious, however correct, response accessible to them: “I’m sorry but that’s impossible.” At this level, the coed can merely reply that they ought to get a greater grade, by which case, I’ve nothing to supply.)

The fundamental drawback stems from what I name the “Measurement Constraint” on desert, which is, roughly, the concept that a factor can’t be each what’s deserved, and a measure of how a lot one deserves it:

Measurement Constraint: If M is a measurement of a desert foundation B, M can’t be

deserved on the premise of B.

I’ll argue for the Measurement Constraint shortly, however for now, let me merely clarify and illustrate the concept. A “desert basis” is a few truth about, or property of, somebody that explains why they deserve one thing. So, for example, if Walter (my cat) deserves a deal with for being such a superb boy, his being such a superb boy is the desert foundation for his deserving the deal with. What the measurement constraint entails is that if I had some machine which might measure simply how good a boy Walter is—let’s say the machine reads “100% good boy”—then Walter couldn’t deserve the studying of “100% good boy” on the premise of his being such a superb boy. He deserves the deal with, however not the studying. 

Or think about one other context the place we measure in an effort to decide what one deserves. Suppose you’re competing in a dash, and you end the race in 10.5 seconds, which finally ends up being the quickest time. In that case, we are going to say that you simply deserve the highest prize. The Measurement Constraint doesn’t battle with this concept. But the query shouldn’t be whether or not you deserve the prize, however whether or not you deserve that the clock learn “10.5” on the premise of the velocity of your run. Intuitively, this appears unusual to me. You would possibly fail to get what you deserve if the clock is inaccurate, and the occasion managers may need skilled obligations to attempt to measure your time precisely, however none of this might present that you simply deserve that the clock learn “10.5 seconds.”

Intuitions apart, the Measurement Constraint entails that you don’t deserve that the clock present your time on the premise of your run—it measures the velocity of your run, which is the premise on which you would possibly deserve a prize. Now, the purpose right here is that the analog to grades shouldn’t be the prize, however the clock. After all, grades are, primarily, measures of efficiency (the place “performance” will be understood as broadly as one likes, to incorporate no matter we would need to measure with a grade). But grades are taken to be deserved on the premise of scholar efficiency, which is exactly what they’re a measure of. Plug this into the Measurement Constraint, and we get the outcome that grades can’t be deserved on the premise of scholar efficiency, as a result of they’re a measure of scholar efficiency.

So far, I’ve simply been illustrating the Measurement Constraint. Let me now really give an argument for it. There are two essential observations the argument requires. First, desert bases have an explanatory and evidentiary perform. If somebody asks, “Why should I think that Walter deserves the treat?” I’ll instantly reply by interesting to the desert foundation: “Because he’s such a good boy!” The desert foundation each explains, and is our greatest proof that somebody deserves one thing. Next, we have to think about the evidentiary position of measurement in circumstances the place we’re measuring a desert foundation. In the context of a dash, for instance, we use a clock as a result of it’s our greatest proof regarding the velocity with which somebody’s dash. Similarly, we measure a scholar’s efficiency with a grade as a result of as soon as we grade, that’s our greatest proof for the standard of the coed’s efficiency (whether or not it’s on one thing like an examination, or a complete course). 

Now, suppose, for reductio, {that a} scholar deserves an A in a course. She deserves this, after all, on the premise of her glorious efficiency within the class. But how do we all know that her efficiency was so glorious? We look to her course grade—in any case, that’s our measurement of the standard of her efficiency within the class. But then, provided that her glorious efficiency is our greatest proof that she deserves an A, and her grades are our greatest proof that her efficiency is great, we arrive at the concept that our greatest proof for pondering that the coed deserves an A is that she acquired an A. But this doesn’t seem to be a superb justification in any respect. The incontrovertible fact that the coed will get an A would solely be good proof that she deserves an A, it might appear, if we already assume that she acquired what she deserves. But we will’t make that assumption right here, as a result of we are attempting to determine if she acquired what she deserves. Thus, we’ve got a contradiction: the truth that a scholar acquired an A each is and shouldn’t be good proof for pondering that she deserves an A. I suggest, then, that we should always reject the concept that grades are deserved, and settle for the measurement constraint, which we will get by generalizing from the above argument.

Supposing this argument is right, and college students can’t deserve grades, two questions stay: First, if college students can’t deserve grades, then why is it so pure to suppose that they’ll? Second, does it matter if college students can’t deserve grades?

As to the primary query, I feel the reason is just that, given the stakes which might be concerned with grades, grades can fairly naturally really feel like a reward or a punishment, that are paradigm objects of desert. When a instructor provides a scholar a foul grade, they’re, fairly often a minimum of, fairly actually harming a scholar each within the lengthy and quick time period, whereas a superb grade is a profit to a scholar within the quick and long run. Even worse, the goodness or badness of the grade (and thus the magnitude of the obvious reward or punishment) is proportional to the goodness or badness of the standard of the coed’s efficiency. This type of proportionality is a function that we frequently see in different contexts the place a reward or punishment is regarded as deserved, as with felony punishment, or the desert of earnings. It’s fairly pure, then, that getting a foul grade ought to really feel like a punishment, and getting a superb grade ought to really feel like a reward.

Now, if college students can’t deserve grades, does this matter for the follow of grading, itself? Strictly, no. All that follows is that we should always chorus from saying {that a} scholar deserves some grade or different. It can (and plausibly is) nonetheless the case that college students should be given grades which precisely replicate their efficiency.

On the opposite hand—and right here I’m speculating—I’d prefer to hope that eradicating desert-talk from the context of grading would subtly encourage a extra sane and wholesome view of grades. Being deserving of one thing is, after all, an ethical property, and thus, it’s pure to suppose that deserving some grade or different is a mirrored image of some deep a part of one’s character. And so it could be that desert-talk within the context of grading contributes to a scholar’s internalizing that they’re good or unhealthy or distinctive or poor at some topic space (or in school usually), the place these judgments are supposed to replicate some static side of their mental or ethical character. I take it with no consideration that these sorts of judgments are typically unhealthy, each for individuals who get good grades, however particularly for individuals who don’t. But actually, grades aren’t rewards or punishments, however are merely measures of efficiency, the place one’s efficiency will be affected by any variety of variables, most of which aren’t mounted information about one’s character or mental skills.



Headshot of Toby and his cat Wally


Toby Napoletano

Toby Napoletano is a lecturer on the University of California, Merced. His specialization was initially within the philosophy of linguistics/language, however he now largely works on points surrounding desert, meritocracy, and human rights.

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