Academics have always been my drug of choice. When I was in first grade, I received the Scholarship Award at the end of the year. Ever since I’ve been chasing that dopamine hit of the A (or increasingly ubiquitous A+). And I think that’s a damn shame.
Grades do have some positives. Just like capitalism, they at least theoretically award hard work and those who demonstrate clear understanding. They provide an easy-to-understand, quantitative measure of our academic prowess. When coupled with thoughtful comments, they actually work fairly well. But their drawbacks are numerous. For one thing, “good” students pursue top marks with a monomaniacal fervor that would make Captain Ahab proud. I almost never field questions from a student who scored in the 70s, but God forbid you give that academic overachiever a 97, and they will fight tooth-and-nail for a 98.
When I was in school, you didn’t really know your term average until grades were published at the end of the semester. We got letter grades at Dexter and St. Mark’s, and presumably teachers had some discretion as to what letter to assign. Not so today, at least at my school. We have a learning management software called JupiterEd that allows students to track their grades in real time. My students have become day traders but instead of checking the market, they are obsessed with tracking the minute-to-minute fluctuations of their grades. When my daughter “failed” her first Arabic test (she got a C), the whole family knew about it instantly, thanks to that loophole that allows Mac users to text from their computers. #Stupid was her take on her performance.
And this brings us to the crux of the issue. Students base their entire self worth on their GPA, a number that looms so large in childhood and yet has never, as I remind my students, made it into a eulogy or onto a gravestone. While grades, in particular attaching misbehavior to the loss of points, are just about the only leverage for re-direction that we teachers have, this comes at a major cost to students’ mental health.
But there is another, more subtle, but just as insidious, way that grades sap students of reaching their potential. For a student who has always done well, the prospect of getting a bad grade is such an abject horror that many resort to moral shortcuts like cheating when faced with difficult material. Their self-conception of being a good student is so important to maintain that they are afraid to explore new things or to ever be a beginner. Grades are the breeding ground of fixed mindsets that cripple students and prevent them from taking risks.
Taylor Mali, a teacher cum slam poet, says in his fantastic “What Teachers Make” poem that “I can make a C+ feel like a congressional medal of honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face. How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.” And maybe in the hands of a more adept teacher, grades can actually improve learning outcomes.
All I can say is that, for me, grades have held me back. The need to do well academically prevented me from pursuing passions that would have served me well in the long term. I felt like a failure when I got a B- my freshman year at Harvard in Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare class, after sailing through high school with straight As. I avoided science and math classes in college, sure they would hurt my academic average. I went to a computer science class during “shopping week” and left the room once I heard the warnings about its difficulty, one of the biggest regrets of my college career.
College admissions is at least in part to blame for our grade- and achievement-obsessed culture. The next time a student asks, “Will this extracurricular look good on my college application,” I might finally blow a gasket. Students also fundamentally misunderstand the role of grades in college admissions. Grades or board scores might open the door to the top 20 schools, but they alone will NEVER push you through it.
If I were being graded on this set of essays, I probably would have never begun. Or at least I would have been petrified and taken three times as long perfecting them. And that would have been a damn shame.