Recently I shared with the Lower School what an ESNU on a report card means and, within that conversation, I mentioned that we view a student as much more than a letter grade on a page. This article highlights some of that same mindset that I would like to share with you, particularly as we wind down the 1st quarter in the next few weeks.

The author of the article, Tim Elmore, points out that the percentage of high school seniors graduating with an A average has grown almost 10 percentage points in the past two decades to where it is now almost half of all students. Tim then asks, “Are we living in Lake Wobegon…where all the children are above average?” (Note – if you are not familiar with Lake Wobegon, it is a fictional town created by national radio personality Garrison Keillor).

The author then highlights 5 ways (bolded below) that this grade increase is a problem. I have added some additional reflections (in italics) on each of these areas below.

1) Student grades will mean less than in the past.

As grades rise across the board, the stress of having these grades will increase, resulting in even more students seeing higher grades. The more students end up with higher grades, the less those grades will matter. So we become stuck in a vicious cycle of increasing our stress in an effort to obtain something that continues to mean less.

2) Students will question the honesty of adults.

Students will eventually realize what was earned and what was not – when this happens, their trust and credibility in adults will decrease. It is often not trust in specific individuals that is lost but instead this mistrust is placed upon authority and institutions. Students learn to not trust future adults in their lives, such as their boss, and can develop a victim mindset where everyone else is wrong.

3) Students will experience a rude awakening in their early careers.

The grade curve and participation trophies go away in the workplace where results matter. While a student may work hard and have excellent character, eventually, for most jobs, results and performance matter. For a student who comes to expect high marks regardless of their level of work, the start of a job can be a severe wake-up call and hopefully one that does not come too late. While we want our graduates to be known for their work ethic and character, those elements alone are not enough for many jobs of the 21st century.

4) Students don’t get to experience authentic excellence.

Students can quickly figure out what it takes to get the grade they perceive that they need and when they reach that level many of them stop working. As students learn what is the minimum they can do and get-by, they do not learn how to experience deep satisfaction from doing their personal best and persevering. This causes students to miss out on continued learning as they settle for an artificial end result – they believe the destination, not the journey, is the only thing that matters. A quick clarification that there are many students who do not fall into this category because they are stuck in the vicious loop discussed in point 1 – they are so stressed about getting A’s on everything that they do not know when enough-is-enough and continue to work so hard that they also miss out on excellence that is authentic.

5) Students’ grit will decrease which could paralyze them.

Students can lose their self-confidence when an impartial result does not match what they have been told all their life. Standardized tests and future bosses do not give credit for results that are not there and students, who learned how to get high marks with minimal effort (or who put forth extravagant effort at the expense of other things) do not know how to respond when faced with reality. These students are often the ones who, when they failed a test, had parents who emailed the teacher asking for an extension or re-take because the student (forgot/was busy/had a game/etc.) or blamed everything else – these students do not learn the consequences attached to their actions, have missed out on seeing the value of hard work paying off, and therefore do not know how to respond when faced with results they are not used to receiving. Speaking personally, one of the grades I was most proud of in high school was from AP Biology – I struggled to understand science and worked much harder in that class than any other course in high school. Although it was my lowest grade of any course I took in high school or college, I was proud of the effort I put in to truly earning that grade.

 

As I reflected on the five areas identified in the article, I was surprised to realize how much each area overlaps. A student who does not learn to value authentic excellence is also likely to not develop grit, which will make them more likely to have a rude awakening early in their careers and then doubt the honesty of what adults tell them about their performance. As a community of faith and learning, we need to value learning more than grades. While many times we do want the grade to be as high as possible, that grade does not tell the story of the student’s strengths or growth throughout their learning journey in that course or assignment. God has blessed each student with unique gifts and talents.  But an unhealthy emphasis on a letter grade partially denies recognition of their gifts.

 

Matthew Breazeale
Lower School Head
Trinity Academy