At South, in Great Neck, and in an alarmingly increasing number of schools, we as students are faced with an expectation of academic excellence. Going to college has become a requisite in today’s world, and we are pressured to spend our high school years pursuing impressive grades to earn entrance to “good colleges,” which has become a status symbol. This progressively intensifying emphasis on college and the importance of the application process can often lead many students to reduce high school to grades. We often ask our teachers if an assignment “counts.” How many points is it? For quarter one or quarter two? Everything is a grade, and each grade—not necessarily learning—“counts.” We can often become obsessed with averages, regardless of whether or not we know the subject matter.
In short, school has gone from being a place where we learn to being a place where we perform.
An increasing number of us are seeking instruction outside of the classroom, often in summer preparatory schools where we study to get ahead of our peers in an effort to “perform better” on assessments when school commences again. In a 2010 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation’s number of 16 to 24 year olds enrolled in summer school had risen to 34.9 percent, 25 percent higher than the proportion in 1985. When the emphasis seems to be increasingly placed on the grade earned at the end and not on the learning process by which we get there, we need to make the effort to be aware of this phenomenon and consciously work around it.
As students, we have all heard idealistic advice over and over again. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not about the numbers. High school whizzes by so fast; you have to stop and smell the roses. Yet the numerical grades we are assigned in school have become an increasingly intrusive presence in our academic lives, seeming to trump even the most fundamental reason for school: to learn. It’s not that we don’t understand the advice—it just feels impossible to take it. It feels impossible to focus on learning when the academic culture in which we live expects from all of us, simply, perfection. In every assignment, quiz, test, there is a stifling pressure to get at least near-perfect scores—because that seems to be what everyone else is striving for. At South alone, this expectation, which has changed our mentality toward education, is in part why 40% of our senior class last year graduated with cumulative averages of 90 or above. A preoccupation with numbers may compromise our otherwise unaffected drive to challenge ourselves or try something new, regardless of grades.
For the sake of both our education and our sanity, we must change our perspective of academic achievement to one in which learning is always the primary focus. Often, it feels like our classes revolve around testing. Our schedule is even centered around testing days. However, tests can be more than just a number or a stress-inducing evaluation. If we re-center our focus on learning, tests can be a way to reinforce the learning we have done in class.
Beyond the benefits of studying in preparation, test-taking can actually promote learning, for it requires us to retrieve stored memories and make inferences, something we do less when reading our textbooks, listening to teachers, completing homework, and simply reviewing our notes. Tests aren’t the most accurate forms of assessment. Focusing on our mistakes—the points we lose and how they affect our averages—is unhealthy and unproductive; instead, we should view test outcomes as an indication of how much we know and the progress we have been making. It should be less about how your grade looks on paper and more about what you do with it. Looking at old tests and other work from time to time can help us understand the often incredible progress we have made.
For other assignments, which are often only nominally different from tests and quizzes, we can also prioritize learning. Homework shouldn’t be something we just have to get through every night to please our teachers when they check it. Homework is an opportunity to test our understanding of and reinforce what we do in class. In a similar vein, do work for yourself. Write an English essay or a social studies DBQ to really further your thoughts and your analysis, not to write something that you think will appeal most to your teacher. Of course, it would be unrealistic to apply this mentality to everything, but we owe it to ourselves to keep our own enrichment in mind.
The pressure and expectation to do well will always be there, but it is imperative to step back from and confront this unhealthy culture that clouds our learning mindsets and hobbles our intellectual vitality. Valuing knowledge will not only alleviate pressure and stress but also amplify our learning and its rewards.