One try, that's all you get. One try to show how far you've come, how much you've learned, how competent you are. Does this sound right? It depends on the context. In the context of a liberal arts college, I believe it makes little -- if any -- sense. Yet, this is how the majority of colleges approach grading. When a student receives a "B" on some assignment, he or she will be inclined to put it behind them and move onward, forgoing that knowledge which the college would have liked to deliver. This lack of potential gain is what economists call a dead weight loss. Suppose a student receives an eighty-percent on an assignment. Presumably, this means that twenty-percent of what the student delivered was incorrect, or in some way failed to meet the criteria. Should the student learn the material at a later date, perhaps in context provided by another class discussion, he or she will not be "compensated" per se; the grade which was earmarked for the student's understanding at the time of assessment will no longer be an accurate representation of the academic achievement. A grade should not be so piece-meal in that it reflects how well a student demonstrated understanding the first time. Michael Phelps does not win a gold medal based on how quickly he learned the butterfly stroke; he wins the medal based on his final performance.
Gregory Mankiw, former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Affairs, and current professor at Harvard University, authored a textbook: Principles of Economics. In this book, Mankiw argues that there are ten fundamental principles of economics, one of which states quite simply that people respond to incentives. Consideration of this principle is what I propose Allegheny uses to guide adoption of a more effective grading system. I propose that students have the option to complete multiple "retakes" of any sort of assessment or academic paper, each time for a successively higher grade. This likely sounds ridiculous -- barbaric, even; but again I ask you to consider the effect in the aggregate: After it took the student multiple tries, and the student finally received an "A" on some assignment, evidently the student learned all which was asked.
Highly reputable colleges, such as Hampshire College of Amherst Massachusetts and Sarah-Lawrence College, have embraced their own modern idea of schooling and completely omitted grades from their infrastructure, providing routine written progress reports for enrolled students. David Wagner, associate director of admissions at Hampshire, remarked that "the purpose of education should be to give quality feedback which students can learn from and make improvements based on; grades do not achieve this." Of course, Mr. Wagner was speaking in context of how most schools administer grades.
I, however, do not propose the removal of grades. I call upon the faculty of this college to reconsider what a grade is actually a representative of, and how to minimize the dead weight loss, based on the principles I have previously outlined. Allegheny College has a rich and lengthy history of tradition, but it also has a history of innovation. I believe this coincides nicely with the “promoting student’s intellectual development” portion of the official college mission.