Lighten Up About My Grades

What else should change about school as we know it?  This is Post #3 in my series on what students would change about school, if they could.

Today’s post is from Katy George, who believes that we need to change our attitude toward grades.

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I am currently a senior in college majoring in journalism and Spanish, though I’ll be taking a fifth year to finish my studies. I have had a fairly unconventional educational life, with private schooling until I graduated high school followed by two terms of community college and then two years of university at a large public school, and I’m now studying abroad in Spain for the year. My younger sister, who is 13, goes to the same small, independent, vaguely religiousish private school I went to and is trying to decide whether to switch for high school, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the educational system in the US recently.

My high school is top-notch in my state. They grade HARD, with less than 45 students graduating with a 4.0 GPA (meaning an A average) in the school’s 150+ year history. I always thought this was a good thing, until it came time for me to apply to college. The year I graduated from high school (2008) saw the most seniors looking to head to college in the history of the United States, and competition for decent universities was the fiercest it’s ever been. While GPA isn’t everything when applying to college, it certainly means a good deal. So even though I scored a 2100/2400 on my SATs, had won national awards for my writing throughout high school, was a varsity athlete, had acted in every play but two during my high school career, edited the literary arts magazine, volunteered extensively, and had excellent recommendations from my teachers, my mediocre GPA caused me to be weeded out of the admissions pools from the start. I literally did not get into college PERIOD that year. Whereas my friends who went to public schools, who often had far fewer extracurriculars, got into the schools I was rejected from because it was easier to earn As at their schools, plus with weighted grades (A+ counting as higher than a 4.0, meaning better than perfect) they could make up for any Bs or even Cs on their transcripts.

Fast forward three years. I am a nationally recognized student journalist. I speak fluent Spanish, write for 2 award-winning magazines at my home university plus a bilingual magazine here in Spain, am a successful member of the equestrian team, and maintain a 3.7 GPA at a top-15 journalism program. I’ve held down a prestigious job at my university for a year and been offered a promotion when I get back from study abroad. And my friends from the public schools with the 4.0 high school GPAs? Many of them struggled dismally the first two years. A few have dropped out completely.

I’m not trying to say I’m any better than them. A good number of them have done very well in school – better than I have, at times. What I am trying to say is that our grade point averages were in no way predictors of our future success – they were reflections of the very different expectations at our high schools. Many secondary schools (and, to be fair, universities) reward the bare minimum of effort with the highest grades. Mine didn’t – if you wanted an A, you had to be as close to perfection as humanly possible. We put in the same effort, but were given different evaluations.

Grade inflation is everywhere in the US, and more importantly, grades are seen as the end-all, be-all of school. This completely misses the point of education – which is, of course, to LEARN. I want grades to start actually reflecting the amount of work put in, but I also want grades to be less important in the world. As I watch my sister (who, like I was at that age, is very precocious but not necessarily a good STUDENT in the traditional sense) decide between our local public school, which is famous for churning out graduates with high GPAs and very little actual knowledge, and my old private school, I worry a lot about the consequences. And at the same time, I’m thinking about graduate school – another application process that puts a ton of emphasis on grades. I’m a more competitive applicant this time, but only because I’ve obsessed so much over my GPA in college – at times to the detriment of my actual education.

So to make a long story short, the educational system needs to CALM DOWN about grades. If people put less emphasis on 4.0 GPAs, grade inflation would be much less of a problem, and students could focus on actually learning the material and taking challenging, interesting classes.

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What do you think of Katy’s perspective?  Do you agree that we need to put less emphasis on grades?  Leave a comment!

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Tomorrow’s post: MaplesAndMerriment  thinks students need help to understand WHY they’re in school.

Yesterday’s post: Aewl thinks college should be reserved for those who can pay for it.

Monday’s post: Emily thinks school is too easy.

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Are you a student?  What do you think should change about school?  Go to this post to leave your thoughts, or write me a message.

Image by Clinton Cardozo

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10 responses

  1. Having worked in evaluation for a number of years, I so understand! I think you have summed it all up here:

    “Many secondary schools (and, to be fair, universities) reward the bare minimum of effort with the highest grades. Mine didn’t – if you wanted an A, you had to be as close to perfection as humanly possible. We put in the same effort, but were given different evaluations.”

    No matter where you study or how supposedly prestigious the school is, alot of marking isn’t fair. I wish I had a solution to that, but I unfortunately don’t. The last school I taught at – one of the TOP High Schools in QC, with a reputation as being ‘THE’ school to attend, played with marks, passed kids through who couldn’t write so well, etc. I was outraged and ultimately, this experience made me realize I just couldn’t teach in such a system. Many schools are like this, especially in QC where the slogan at the Dep’t of Education is.: “Réussite pour tous” (everyone succeeds). I wonder what a high school diploma means these days – now before you get your underwear in a knot- some kids study hard, do everything they are asked, read, do their homework, etc and they hopefully LEARNED something. Others do the bare minimum, don’t read or care, and yet both groups get their diploma.

    I think this post goes far beyond marks and their so-called importance, it goes to what skills you have learned, and how to use them in higher education or in the work force.

  2. I don’t see a solution to grades, especially in light of the push for Advanced Placement classes and NCLB, which overemphasizes standardized testing. I’ve heard stories of kids who take four and five AP classes, only to have to take remediation classes in college because they failed to learn much (most of their AP education was information in/information out for tests). Recently I’ve heard that high schools are revamping the AP curriculum to learn deeper, not more. I hope that’s true. But the push for grades starts early — it was there when I taught first grade (yes!) and at sixth (what college will he/she be able to go to?) and now at 8th. We must talk to our kids every day about the power of learning over the lure of grades. My own daughter, 13, has started talking about taking AP classes because she’s worried about college; yet when I look at all that she’s interested in (dirt-biking, journalism, theater . . . ) combined with strong grades (all A’s and B’s), I have to imagine that there will be a perfect school for her, even if her GPA isn’t through the roof. It just might take more effort to find it. So I agree with Katy about grades. Let’s lighten up and focus on the learning.

  3. This is a good point! Here we have to fight for good grades too but we in the end get our As… but this is due to hardwork and almost no extra-curricular activities which is so sad! Our rector keeps on telling us that to get to US universities grades are the key + extra curricular. But that’s too hard. For adolescents, still growing and being victims of all types of moods it’s hard to have straight As and do extra activities!

  4. I agree. My best friend in high school is now at the University of North Carolina. He was the top scholar twice in a row at my high school. I was the opposite. I did the bare minimum that was required to earn a high school diploma. I didn’t apply for college, but I still got my diploma, and so did he. I love what you said about GPAs:

    “… our grade point averages were in no way predictors of our future success – they were reflections of the very different expectations at our high schools.”

    My friend is doing great in the world of traditional education, and I’m doing great in the world of self-education. I am starting my own business, giving Theology lessons at the local university, teaching and evaluating courses on ACT preparation, as well as working for an Internet marketing firm. My friend is doing his pre-med program, he is the manager of the football team, and he has a well-paying job on campus.

    My point is your point – GPAs don’t predict the future of our success. I’m successful, and he’s successful, and our GPAs were on opposite sides of the grading spectrum.

    • Exactly! I was a little worried people would take my post the wrong way – that all public school kids with high GPAs would struggle in a university setting. But what you’ve said is exactly what I meant. There are so many more factors other than previous grades that determine whether you’ll sink or swim in college!

  5. I am totally with her on this point. At the school at teach at, we have the prestigous IB (International Baccelaureate) Program. The students that are part of the regular public school Education often have very “inflated” grades. The IB students work their butts off and may have lower GPA’s, but are definitely more college ready and have a better Education. The focus needs to be on learning. I would do away with grades completely if I ran the world, but students are so ingrained to focus on grades as a “reward” for their work, that it may never happen.

  6. Hm. No, I don’t think I agree. The educational system will calm down about grades when the general PUBLIC calms down about grades. It’s about your priorities: to succeed in life, you will almost certainly need both learning AND credentials (which, for students, usually come as grades) but the balance between them is something that each individual has the opportunity to decide for him/herself.

    If the consequence of a lower GPA is that a student doesn’t get into a particular university… well… a university that ranks applicants solely by numbers might not be a good fit for that sort of student.

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