By Michelle Yang
Or so people claim. Teachers, parents, fellow students—they’ve all said it to you at some point, maybe patting you sympathetically on the back, offering some encouraging words. But while no student will deny the validity of the statement, no student will really accept it. How can we?
Numbers are the scales by which we define ourselves: our successes, our failures, our progress, our lapses. Only these numbers, converted into single letters, grace our grade reports every quarter, and when transcripts roll around, only the numbers remain. How we do on a test affects how we do for the quarter, how we do for the quarter affects how we do for the year, how we do for the year affects our GPA and our recommendation to honors or AP, which inevitably brings up the “college talk,” and so on and so forth until by some miracle, the number scribbled in red at the top of the page becomes synonymous to whether we succeed or fail in life. Okay, makes sense.
That’s not to say there is no mercy in the system. Homework grades, essay revisions, participation grades, and projects are just a few of the various assignments created to boost averages and account for effort. The system is not solely at fault; students’ hysteria also contributes. In addition, grades are not evil incarnate and do serve as an easy way to judge different students on a quantitative and standardized scale, as well as motivate the ones who may lapse under laxer conditions. However, the immutable fact is that 1) South students care far too much about grades, 2) such grades hardly provide the full picture of individuals, and 3) grades cause too much unwarranted stress for the learning that they stifle.
Sure, you can theoretically not care. It’s just sometimes, statements like “in twenty years, you won’t remember the grades you got in high school” or “there’s so much more to life than just your grades” feel equivalent to telling the poor to just not care about money because there are much better things to enjoy in life. There’s also the invariable pressure not to fall behind, especially when parents get involved, and the stigma that you’re branded with if you do. Students quickly learn that if jumping through flame-covered hoops is the way to an A, then that’s how they’ll do it—as evidenced by the perpetuation of cheating scandals. Just playing the game, one could say.
There’s hardly a need to go into all the ways numerical grades have failed in providing an accurate depiction of a student. Any student only needs to think of an experience he or she has had to come up with an example. Like maybe that time you studied for hours but received a mediocre grade? Or maybe just one too many careless errors? Just had a bad day? Weren’t thinking straight? Yep, we’ve all been there.
And then there’s the stress. Constant, unrelenting pressure may not be a hyperbole for some. An overemphasis on grades ruins learning. Tests represent a ubiquitous, looming pressure, a standard bar that everyone must leap over regardless of where they currently stand. Time spent on possibly more worthwhile subjects—learning a new language, studying how to code, researching extraterrestrial life forms, reading an intellectually stimulating book, maybe even reading The Southerner—is diverted to cramming enough facts for that test the next day. Curiosity is a superfluous detail. Interest is unnecessary. Taking risks is, well, a risk that students avoid taking like the plague.
But is there any other viable alternative? Perhaps. An example close to home would be the Village school.
Students at Village are graded by a credit board, made up of both students and teachers, which decides whether a student receives full, partial, or no credit for a class. The credit board meets twice a year and serves as an open forum where, with the student in question’s report projected on the board, the student can explain him or herself. Afterwards, the student leaves the room so that the credit board committee can discuss freely to decide what the student deserved, which is determined by homework, attendance, tests, and participation. The student’s peers can also offer their perspective, providing another dimension teachers may have missed in judging the said student.
In essence, the grading system at Village presents a highly individualized system allowing all levels of students to reach their maximum potential. “We are not compared to a set standard of what an A is or a B is, or what determines if someone earned full credit because everyone is different,” said Jacqueline Hong, a current junior at Village school. “We’re all an extremely tight-knit group here, and it’s so easy to develop a personal relationship with a teacher that way, since we have the same teachers every year,” said Hong. In addition, she added, students also have advisors to help them prepare for such meetings. During the meeting, students are also given feedback on how to improve.
However, while the system at Village seems idyllic, it may be too impractical to be applied to the large population at South. An abundance of well trained, cognizant, and involved teachers is necessary to make the system work, as well as a considerable population of students who believe in it and parents who will support it.
Less radical options of alternative grading systems might include having effort grades to balance out performance grades, or having retests on tests where students get drastically different grades than what they usually receive, or perhaps even some sort of personal reflection for every class to give the teacher additional insight. As every student is different, so is every subject; different subjects would need to be approached in different ways.
Of course, changing the system, no simple task in itself, isn’t the only prerequisite. A societal shift would need to be necessary too. But all that requires a national movement.
In the end, it seems we have arrived full circle. While there seems to be no foreseeable or considerable changes waiting in the future, at least some slim hope still exists. I have no advice to give except to keep persevering on, despite it all, because one day, twenty years later, you might forget all the grades you ever received during your high school career.