post to a sociology list...in reference to this article.
That said, I do think that we owe it to our students (especially those taking soc courses) to explain to them how arbitrary a "grading system" is. I mean, why do have a 100 point scale (generally)? Where did that come from? I don't know, but I do know that it was not a command from on high and it does not represent any particular human property that can be measured with any precision (learning, knowledge, information, etc.). We forget that a 100 point scale does not mimic anything in nature; in other words, nature doesn't care about our grading scales, letter grades, IQ tests or any of the other stuff we have created over the last few millennia. Nature produces human beings which are subject to "learning" but there is no "grade" for that learning in nature other than the ability of the human being to survive. It seems that we have forgotten that grades are human creations; we have reified them so much so that we really believe that they are accurate measures of something related to humans, something that has discernable, material properties. They do not.
If you stop and think about it, how do we know that our students have learned anything? We "know" because they are able to respond a certain way (by answering questions, "correctly," i.e., presumably differently than that would have absent our "teaching"). In other words, it is a behavioral indication. We presume (without any empirical evidence) that this behavioral indicator is representative of some kind of immaterial property of the brain/human called intelligence, learning, knowledge, etc. These things are not amenable to empirical investigation as they have no material properties; like many of our colleagues in other behavioral/social sciences, however, we are pretty much convinced that they DO exist. This is our error.
I understand that we have an expectation of students getting an "education" (whatever that is and however that manifests behaviorally), but I think many students are savvy enough to know that there is a particular, material object that is going to provide them with tangible benefits that may far outweigh whatever it is that they learned in school and that is, of course, the diploma...a piece of paper that we have reified as yet another object that supposedly is evidence of something called an "education." Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I do think that we have an obligation to discuss these things (including "grading systems") with our students, however.