Grades have always been bound up with what Eli Meyerhoff calls the “modernist, colonial, capitalist, statist, white-supremacist, heteropatriarchal norms” of education.  Historical accounts of grading in US higher education generally begin in 1785 when Yale President Ezra Stiles sorted students into four categories: optimi, second optimi, inferiores, and pejores.  Before this, colonial colleges had focused on ranking students without assigning specific labels to groups of students. Education studies scholars have noted that, at least until this point, students’ grades were based not only on examinations but also on “moral ranking of Grace”  or “some mixture of familial status and personal behavior, be it accuracy of recitation, piety in ecclesiastical observation, or some sort of general misconduct.”  Anyone who has given or received a participation grade knows, students’ ‘character’ or more accurately, their ability to conform to racialized, gendered, classed and neurotypical standards of behavior still shapes grades today.
Letter grades first appeared at Mount Holyoke in 1897. Both the A-F and 0-4.0 scales originate here.  The move to quantification promised a way of comparing students’ performances across disciplines and institutions. Grades allowed instructors to “demonstrate that schools, like businesses and the military, were sorting people through precise measurement.” 
As U.S. political economy (and higher education, specifically) differentiated and specialized during the first half of the twentieth century, K-16 instructors, inspired by Taylorist and eugenicist thinking, embraced grades as tools for “gauging student ability [and] producing seemingly objective sets of academic records.”  Progressive education scholars have argued that this shift could be used to assign students life paths in the diversifying economy.
For scholars studying how and why human beings are arranged in hierarchical schema, surely the call to sort students into grades (the way the USDA does with meats) should ring some alarm bells. The very act of sorting shapes the terms of classroom learning, and in doing so shows students how institutions reflect, and indeed hone the hierarchical schema used to assign humans their social destinies. Perhaps, then, studying grading, as well as crafting alternatives to traditional evaluation, can be a way for students to not only analyze existing power structures but to actively design and practice alternative relations.  But doing so requires an ongoing engagement with several myths that sustain a desire for grading to continue.
Three Grading Myths
1) We believe grades measure merit or effort in our subjects
It is tempting to say that the historical move from ranking to grading was a democratizing or progressive one that rewarded achievement rather than pedigree or deportment. Yet the scholarship of teaching and learning finds evidence of racial and gender bias in grading across a variety of fields. Students looking for a re-grade, for leniency in grading, or even for an extension aren’t merely defending the quality of their work, but of their work ethic, their integrity, and morality (as measured by academic output).  “Grade grubbing,” as Bryce Peake has evocatively written, “is soul grubbing.”  Grades ultimately function as a proxy for character, and both are determined by a student’s aptitude for compliance,not merit or effort.
2) We believe grades measure achievement or effort in our subjects
We might think that we are using grades to get students to genuinely engage the materials we discuss with them or to help them evolve past problematic common senses. But grades don’t teach students to learn; they teach students how to get good grades.  Grades promise a universal scale of mastery that allows instructors and employers to meaningfully compare students’ mastery of disparate materials. In fact, grades measure how well students have learned to get good grades. A “B+” in ninth-grade English might not reflect the same amount of fluency or the same number of work-hours as a “B+” in junior year Physical Biochemistry, but it shows that you were equally good at getting good grades in both classes.
3) We (want to) believe in rigor
The act of grading positions instructors as gatekeepers, training educators to think of knowledge as property. Grading encourages teachers to focus on achievement (clearing a bar) rather than learning. And no matter how transparent and specific rubrics wish to be, they can’t make students take intellectual risks. In fact, they are more useful to discourage that kinds of play and risk, sometimes seen as questioning a teacher’s authority, and even a discipline’s. This is the price our disciplines pay when we buy into the illusion of rigor.
When I began teaching Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies as a graduate student, it was important to me that students understood that these were robust arenas of inquiry, not ‘an easy A.’ I bought into the promise of grading as a way of enforcing rigor. I’ve spent a great deal of time developing detailed rubrics that clearly spell out grading criteria and foreground the work required to produce excellent interdisciplinary scholarship. But detailed rubrics, like grading more generally, disincentivize taking intellectual risks, trying out new ideas, or engaging unfamiliar perspectives, stymying the core intellectual projects of the interdisciplines. 
Scholars who want to help students see how institutional and systemic biases shape the academy should be discussing with students how grades shape their subjectivity in the academy, and invite them to create new mechanisms of self-, peer-, and collective evaluation based on the ethics of care and accountability we study.  This requires more than simply adding a peer review component to a long-term project. It means asking students come up with rubrics, define the criteria that are meaningful in evaluating our studies, and ultimately, it means ceding control of the classroom to a collective. 
 Eli Meyerhoff. Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
 Mary Lovett Smallwood, An Historical Study of Examinations and Grading Systems in Early American Universities: A Critical Study of the Original Records of Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and Michigan from their Founding to 1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.
 Bryce Peake, “The Protestant Grade, and the Spirit of Students,” The Political Ear, Dec. 22, 2016. https://medium.com/the-political-ear/the-protestant-grade-and-the-spirit-of-students-caba8829ed36
 Charles Tocci, “An Imminent Machine: Reconsidering grades, historical and present” Educational Philosophy and Theory 42 No. 7 (2010): 762-778.
 Smallwood, An Historical Study of Examinations and Grading.
 Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt, “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme,” Curriculum Studies 46 No. 2 (2014): 1-24.
 The Human Restoration Project has an annotated research database on the teaching & learning research behind un-grading that can function as an excellent starting point for students and instructors wanting to learn how grades affect learning and mastery. The Human Restoration Project’s Ungrading Handbook and the new anthology, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) Ed. Susan Blum provide detailed examples of alternatives to grades. The Blum anthology has a related online (Zoom and Twitter) book club organized by David Buck.
 For a review of relevant social scientific literature on ‘racial bias in grading,’ see David M. Quinn, “Experimental Evidence on Teachers’ Racial Bias in Student Evaluation: The Role of Grading Scales” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 42 No. 3 (2020): 375-392.
 Peake, “The Protestant Grade,”
 Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades,” Educational Leadership 69 No. 3 (2011): 28-33. See also: Alfie Kohn. Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999 and the papers gathered by Timothy D. Baird and David J. Kniola at PinkTime.org https://www.pinktime.org/the-science
 See for instance, C. Pulfrey, C. Buch, & F. Butera, Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology 103 (2011) 683-700.
 The online community of Teachers Going Gradeless and their affiliate podcast, Beyond the Curriculum provide a supportive environment for exchanging ideas
Blum, Susan D. (Ed.) Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and what to do instead). Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Gutierrez y Muhs, Gabriela et al. (Eds.) Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2012.
Human Restoration Project. Ungrading Handbook, online 2020. https://uploads-ssl.webflow.com/5f40017f992ea6eb537818d1/5f90609c2262bf2d72b21d10_HRP-UngradingHandbook2020_V1.2_Fillable.pdf
Kohn, Alfie “The Case Against Grades,” Educational Leadership 69 No. 3 (2011): 28-33.
Kohn, Alfie. Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Meyer, Max “The Grading of Students” Science 28 No. 712 (1908): 243-250.
Meyerhoff, Eli. Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.
Peake, Bryce “The Protestant Grade, and the Spirit of Students,” The Political Ear, Dec. 22, 2016. https://medium.com/the-political-ear/the-protestant-grade-and-the-spirit-of-students-caba8829ed36
Pulfrey, C. Buch, & F. Butera, Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology 103 (2011) 683-700.
Quinn, David M. “Experimental Evidence on Teachers’ Racial Bias in Student Evaluation: The Role of Grading Scales” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 42 No. 3 (2020): 375-392.
Schneider, Jack and Ethan Hutt “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme,” Curriculum Studies 46 No. 2 (2014): 1-24.
Smallwood, Mary Lovett. An Historical Study of Examinations and Grading Systems in Early American Universities: A Critical Study of the Original Records of Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and Michigan from their Founding to 1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.
Stommel, Jesse and Sean Michael Morris. An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy, 2018. https://urgencyofteachers.com/
Tocci, Charles“An Imminent Machine: Reconsidering grades, historical and present” Educational Philosophy and Theory 42 No. 7 (2010): 762-778.