The toxicity of school grades


 On paper, grades might seem like the perfect way to give students feedback, but there are some imperfections in the system and reasons why grades may not be as effective as historically believed. 

 The letter F has long been associated with failure, whereas the letter A scrawled atop an assignment carries a message of approval and celebration.

 The team at THNK School of Creative Leadership — an Amsterdam-based organization focused on developing  “creative leaders capable of delivering innovative solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.” 

 Sophomore Morgan Read said that at her first high school orientation day, “Someone was like ‘you have to pay attention to your grades as soon as you start high school, even if you get a B, that can lower your GPA for the rest of high school.”

 It was difficult hearing that on the first day, Read said. “They need to get rid of that stigma.”

Grades have way too much of an effect on students’ lives. “Students are having legit panic attacks, feeling anxiety and depression from getting bad grades,” she said.

 Not only are students hard on themselves, but the pressure to perform well from teachers and parents can add to that stress. Read said, “It’s very discouraging and it feels awful having everyone lash out on you because you’re not understanding the topic.” 

Participants at THNK are blogging that grades can cause children to develop a fear of failure, which consequently causes them to pick the easier route, instead of the challenging one. “Will this make them educated individuals? I think we want students to be naïve, to dream big, to take risks and to engage in divergent thinking,” wrote a THNK member.

 The THNK team took a look at how grades impact students’ future lives, stating on their website, “Our society is even structurally dependent on grading performance. Just look at how the best jobs go to the students with the best grades at the best universities, who in turn accept students with the best grades at the best high schools.” 

 Read said she feels this idea in her own experience. “We hear that we have to get good grades to have a good future, yet we don’t use any of those grades, or any of what those grades stand for, in our future whatsoever.” 

 In reality, many business owners and hiring representatives have said that grades and GPAs have no weight when it comes to hiring someone. 

 n an interview with the Washington Post, Laszlo Bock, Ex-Senior Vice President of People Operations of Google said “GPA scores are worthless as a criteria for hiring, they do not predict anything.”

 This being said, feedback is an important part of education. It lets students know what they did wrong in order to improve. THNK suggested that personal feedback would be more effective than direct grades, and I agree. 

Grades reinforce the idea that “I’m not good at this, I should just give up.” Personal feedback could instead say, “Your current approach isn’t working, try a different way.” 

 “When I have bad grades it’s actually very discouraging for me,” Read said. Instead of being motivated to do better, she stops and ‘ghosts’ the problem.  

 The team at THNK ends their thoughts by saying that their school is done with grades. “They have lost their original purpose, imply failure, and undermine personal relationships.” Their alternative to grades has been personal feedback by the students, teachers, coaches and peers. 

 Sophomore Bashira Griffin-Bay said she agrees the grading system could be improved. “If grades were more of progress checking rather than if you’re failing the class or passing, I think it would be better on students’ mental health.” 

 Read said something similar, “We should use them [grades] as progress, not define it as someone’s status as a student.” She said she believes grades shouldn’t play such an important role in a person’s life. 

 Chemistry teacher, Aaron Bailey explained that the way his class works is slightly different than usual.  “In chemistry I release answer keys before the homework is due so that students can check their own work and ask better questions in class when something doesn’t click,” Bailey said. 

 e also mentioned how he gives out short quizzes that encourage students to understand what they’re learning before moving on. “If they struggle to correct their mistakes, force them to bounce some ideas off a teacher before they can earn the right to try again.” 

 ailey said that overall, grading has switched to a way where students can get opportunities to get credit for mastering a topic that was initially difficult for them. He said “I want to teach students that a moment of failure is not the end of your story.  It is an opportunity to prove that you can do difficult things.” 

From a teacher perspective, Bailey said that the grading system doesn’t have to be toxic. It helps students identify what they’re good at. “It communicates to a college, employer, or next high school teacher what level of competency they can expect on a set of skills,” Bailey said. “Nobody wants to be put in a position where failure is the expected outcome, and being evaluated helps us discover where we fit.” 

 rades aside, many students don’t know the reason for class ranks. “I genuinely don’t know why rankings exist if I’m being honest. I have no idea why. I think they are very negative and toxic,” Read said.

 Read mentioned that students might strive to better their placement, but that “It’s still a very toxic way to reinforce that.”

 Griffin-Bay echoed that thought. “I really don’t think they’re necessary, I don’t think there are any benefits or any purpose to class ranks.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Alfie Kohn, author of 14 books about education, parenting and children said that, “When students are rated with letter or number grades, research shows they’re apt to think in a shallower fashion, as compared with students who aren’t graded at all.”

 Kohn is a big supporter of abolishing class rank. He argues the fact that class rankings have no real benefit at all. “Class rank has much less significance to college admissions officers than a range of other factors, and the proportion of colleges that view it as an important consideration has been dropping steadily,” stated Kohn. 

Indeed, college admission officers have said that there has been a decrease in the number of applicants that come from schools that rank their students. 

 “Ranking makes the high school experience unnecessarily stressful while simultaneously destroying the sense of community and any potential for peer support that can help students get through those years intact,” said Kohn. 

 Of course getting rid of grades and class rank wouldn’t happen overnight. Kohn suggests that schools could get rid of class rankings first, and then move on to getting rid of grades for only freshman, and so forth. 

 Kohn says that getting rid of class rankings would be the first step to restoring some sort of sanity back to schools. “Ideally it should be followed by moving away from grades altogether, which some schools have already proved is not only possible but enormously beneficial.”

 however, Bailey said not to let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough, or don’t belong somewhere. “Your road may be more challenging than someone else’s but your final accomplishments will be all the more heroic for the struggle it took to get there.”