What Are Grades For?
Well, it’s fairly obvious—to measure academic performance, incentivize improvement, and award excellence.
What Are Grades Like Right Now?
The grading approach to education has resulted in an absurd system of gaining points through a maze of last-minute memorization, skillful guesswork, and a slight amount of in-depth understanding of the curriculum. Most students realize that a satisfactory grade does not necessarily mean mastery of the subject, but it can get your foot in the door to a good college education. The college target is all-important, and whether your good grades actually mean that you learned anything—much apart from the typical student habits of staying up late to cram, or pressuring your teacher to inflate grades—is increasingly irrelevant. Due to the structure of the grading system, students realize the absurdity of studying and working hard for a grade and can be quickly drawn to give up on growing and developing themselves in the classroom.
When Did This Issue Become Obvious?
During the era of virtual learning, grade inflation ran rampant to repair grade struggles due to learning gaps and internet connectivity problems students were facing as they transitioned online. Beyond the students struggling to navigate online learning, many students could use this grade boost—like pass/fail quarters—to their advantage and put in minimal effort to receive grades. I remember not submitting the final project for my elective at the end of ninth grade because I could pass the class without doing it. Without the stress of grades, there stood no serious incentive for students to put effort into their classes.
How Can We Work To Fix This Problem?
If only there was a way to change students' perception of what they are learning, get them to explore the curriculum, and push them to take intellectual risks! The current grading system takes away those opportunities in most classes. An updated grading system would be less about getting points and focus more on understanding and applying the curriculum in each class, providing a more holistic approach. With this change, students would learn better, become better students, have less stress, enjoy their education, and develop the ability to take challenges head-on without being afraid to fail.
What Is The Student Mindset?
Harriton uses a standard point-based grading system that is long outdated, almost 250 years old! Each assignment is weighed out by points that average to a total grade. With higher access to cheating and grade inflation, students can put in little effort and cheat more frequently to achieve high points on each assignment.
Since our curriculum is built around producing students in bulk, it pushes students to worry about how they can extract the best grade out of each class with the least effort. The grading system causes students to think about how they can work efficiently and rationally since the grading system benefits the fastest and most efficient thinkers. While efficient and rational thinking is not necessarily a wrong mindset for students to develop, it leaves out critical parts of growth and education. Many students miss their chance to explore what they are learning, take intellectual risks and enhance their skills because they are afflicted by stress and anxiety—less due to the challenging intellectual risks and more due to fear of grade shifting. With grade anxiety, students—these newly developed efficient and rational thinkers—are so focused on grades that they struggle to find purpose in what they are learning. In each of my classes, there is always a student questioning, “how is what we are learning helpful and beneficial for our future?”.
Harriton High School’s grading system needs to be updated. While this works as a cheap and efficient way to produce a generation of workforce, most students leave their classes without any information they learned and feel lost. Only a percentage of students are passionate about what they are learning, and the rest feel pressured into taking challenging classes that they will never be rewarded for in any way other than the grade they receive on their transcript.
Where Are Good Changes Starting To Appear?
For the last few years, the physics department has been working to reduce students’ stress and has been developing and improving its grading system. Rather than focusing on students' point performance, they focus on students' development by reviewing their understanding and ability to apply the curriculum. The grades given each semester reflect a student’s performance and remove grade anxiety from the classroom. Their new grade system opens up new pathways for students so they can focus on exploring and enjoying what they are learning. Most of all, students can fail and not face consequences, since the grade does not reflect their few mistakes and allows students to learn and grow.
I never realized the importance of having a grade-free environment in the classroom until I went to a physics class in 11th grade. My school’s physics department continues to develop a grading system without points that focus on application and understanding. It was the first class I enjoyed, and I went out of my way to do extra practice because I wanted to learn.
At the beginning of the year, I constantly questioned my teacher about how grading would work out. As the stress of each assessment faded, I could focus on exploring how physics applies to the real world and how the world functions, which made the class more exciting and rewarding. I retained most of the curriculum even though there were never any points. Meanwhile, in my English class, I found myself more worried about grammar and accuracy than exploring creativity in my essays. In that class, I only read and wrote, rarely interacting with the teacher or collaborating with other students. The course felt heartless.
What Is The Long-Term Value of High School Education?
With a grading system that allows students to fail and learn from mistakes without serious grade impact and stress, students can develop their interests, become more self-sufficient, and enjoy their education. This transition could benefit the student in the long run, and if we push its growth and development, it may continue to give students a greater opportunity to prosper and take advantage of their education. By learning critical skills like applying knowledge projects or demonstrating it in discussion in conversation, students can take what they learn to college and their careers with pride. Education is the foundation of a student's life, and by creating a more beneficial learning experience, students may return the favor by building a better future for our community and the world.
My next article will go more in-depth about the physics department's new grading system, exploring the benefits of switching the grading system. In a future article, I will go into more depth about how college can affect a student’s relationship with their high school education, how cheating has become easier, and how the college board develops its curriculum while prioritizing profits.