the tyranny of grades (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on february 7, 2020

Every day, millions of students across the world go to school, sit through classes, and frantically study for tests, hoping to retain knowledge just long enough to pass the next exam before it slips through the sieve into the abyss of the forgotten.

Most students only remember the information they learn until the class is over and then forget it, relieved to be through with the ordeal.

But what of those who remember? (I will admit that they a small minority.) What of those who work hard through every class to remember everything, not only until the next test but to remember their lessons until they might need them in real life. What recognition do they receive, what reward for their hard work?

Their reward is simply this: Every bit of their hard work done over weeks, months, and even years is reduced, in the end, to a single number.

A single number.

To a student, the end goal is a single number, a magical number that allegedly can help you buy your way to success. At the sight of the number, colleges accept you, you are awarded scholarships, and success is handed to you on a silver platter.

But, for the vast majority, others take a look at the number and leave you behind, never looking back. No one considers anything else; the number is too low for them even to consider accepting you.

Is this fair? For those with lower scores, it certainly seems unfair. But even for those with high grades, should we reduce all of their hard work to a single number?

A number means nothing in itself. For example, here is a letter from one of my favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth:

"4738 1919,

667 394017 5841 62589
85371 14 39588 7190434 203
27689 57131 481206.

5864 98053,
62179875073" - Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Does that mean anything to you? The only possible way that could have any meaning is if you apply outside meaning. Numbers have no significance in themself.

So is it fair to reduce years of work to a number? It may be easier, but it certainly isn't more representative of the quality of the student's work. The number doesn't mean anything in itself. The student could be naturally smart and is just lazy, have overworked to get results, or even just gotten lucky.

Most of a grade (and sometimes all of it) is usually calculated from quiz and test scores. Is this fair? Surely our proficiency in a subject is not best-represented by the results of a series of late-night study sessions? Should weeks of work be reduced down to a half-hour test? Surely not.

Not only are grades unfair, they often impose burdens on the student that bias the results even more. Some students perform well under the pressure of a timed test, but some don't. Doesn't this unbalance the grading scale? In some professions, coolness under pressure is essential, but in many others, it is totally irrelevant.

Students also receive outside pressure to perform well, causing them to overwork themselves and under-perform as a result. Some of this pressure comes from teachers and parents, who are often understood to imply that a student is a failure if he or she cannot maintain a high standard of excellence in grades.

Still more pressure comes from students, arising out of the abominable practice known as Grade Comparing. Only a very few students actually enjoy grade comparing, those who usually come out on top, and even they don't enjoy it when they turn out to be lower. As far as I can tell, most students only continue to grade-compare in the hope that one day, it will be their turn to make fun of the others. Comparing grades is an unhealthy relationship that hurts everyone involved.

This pressure from Grade Comparing also usually negatively impacts a student's grades, as the student begins to worry more about what others will think of them than on actually learning the content. Grade Comparing also demoralizes students when they are not as high as others, causing a loss of motivation to perform well and driving grades even lower. You end up in a vicious circle, always spiraling downward.

But all of this is just talk. You've heard it all before. What, you might ask, do I want you to do? Surely I'm not just preaching empty air. Am I advocating a Montesquieu-style revolution?

To those of you already erecting a guillotine, I apologize for raising your hopes. There is no revolution. (Unless you come to the tennis court tonight. I apologize for the inconvenient venue, but we needed the support of the History nerds.)

While some blame does lie with society, those who impose this system upon us, we have the power to fix the problem.

First, we must learn not to place too much value in our grades. Getting a bad grade on a quiz is not the end of the world. You will recover. A freak C, D, or even F will not kill your future career. Relax a bit. It's much easier to do well when you're not worrying.

Now, those of you who know me probably think I don't understand. You're probably saying, "You always get A's, so what do you know about getting a disappointing grade?"

You'd be surprised to learn that getting a low grade used to be one of my biggest fears. I often feel pressured to do better than I do, even though I do well. Part of this is from my peers, part from my family, part from myself.

The important thing, however, is that I don't allow my concern for my scores to affect my attitude toward learning. That's my second point. Don't let the judgment of others scare you. Don't learn to make others happy; learn for its own sake.

Learning, and not the number they assign you at the end, should be your goal. Don't make a grade your objective. Have fun learning, and good grades will follow. The learning process isn't a means to an end, but an end in itself. Knowledge is the goal of education, the result for which students ideally should strive. Don't make it of secondary priority.

Finally, don't compare grades with your fellow students. However satisfied it may make you feel in the short term, while you're on top, it's never worth it in the end. It puts unnecessary pressure on you and tears down the other person.

I've had many classmates who enjoy comparing grades. More and more, however, I've noticed that most of the initiative usually comes from one person. That person almost always comes out on top in the comparison and has little to fear, but is very ungracious on the rare occasions at which he or she gets a lower grade.

Once, someone like that tried to compare grades with me. I will never forget that moment. I had heard him comparing to other people and gloating whenever he heard a lower score than his. I subconsciously noted (and not, I admit, without a tinge of satisfaction) that his grade was lower than mine. Soon, growing arrogant in his success, he asked me what grade I got.

He's never bothered me again.

My point in telling this story is not to be that person who initiates comparison. No matter who you are and what grades you get, there will come a day when you, too, meet your match. Every Napoleon has his Waterloo. And on that day, you will feel so much humiliation that you'll start comparing with more people to try to assure yourself that you're the best and will end up stuck in a never-ending cycle. Seriously, don't be that person. I was wise enough not to flaunt my score myself, for I knew that there would come a day when I would be humiliated. The glory is not worth the cost.

If there's one thing you take out of this post, it's not to place your worth in what others think about you. It may be true that the system is unfair. However, we can't change it if we play into its hands, submitting to all of the pitfalls and traps offered. We must be examples to others, torch-bearers of this new way that is unaffected by the judgments of others and non-dependent on approval. Learn to learn, not to hate. As Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

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