Grade-based Education System: Is it as motivating as we’d like to believe?

grades“You’re an Alpha and I’m an Epsilon,” he said in a defeated tone, “it’s that simple.”

“Why would you say that?” I replied confused as to why he’d reference the Brave New World caste system at a time like this.

“The reason is because it’s true; I’m always sub-par to you. I always get B’s and C’s even when I try, why is that?” he replied with aggravation in his tone.

I thought about this question for long after the incident itself has occurred.  What seemed like a normal day in my French 3 class has turned into a festered pot of jealousy that was dividing a good friend and I.  This jealousy was fueled by competition that I couldn’t help but wonder if education was to blame for.  I tend to be a strong academic student and he tends to have a bit more of a struggle.  He’s extroverted and outspoken.  I’m quiet and often too shy at times.  What could I say to him?  I didn’t know why he got B’s and below while I obtained A’s on most school assignments.

“Is intelligence a natural-born gift?  I mean, I try to surround myself with smart people and I think that it may help but it never does,” he asked in a concerned voice.  I remained silent—after all I was the one who “didn’t understand” what it was like to struggle in school.  “You’re so lucky, you have a high GPA and can get into any college you want when you’re older, you don’t worry like I do” he said very assured by his comment.  However, what he didn’t understand was that I faced the same worries; the “validation” of an A didn’t secure how I felt about my own work ability much less my intellectual competency.  I replied after some though in the most honest yet respectful way I knew how, “I don’t think it’s either or, I think intelligence is something we all have but it comes in a spectrum like everything else around us. Yet it doesn’t mean one can’t work to improve what they don’t like about how they perform, it’s one’s job to work towards improvement”.

The topic soon switched to Geometry, a class we both have together.  We spoke about our teacher, my friend viewed the teacher as unfair — to make matters worse, I’d grown to appreciate the teacher, that is, when I began to excel in his class.  I, again, was confronted with the idea that perhaps I was not only impact by a letter grade but my perceptions were as well.  However, the question still remains, why?  Some theorize that grades act as motivators, possibly due to the (hopefully) low anxiety increase surrounding getting good grades or maybe due to the natural ambition of the student.

Some theorize grades are a poor system to use because they are limiting and stop creativity.  How you ask?  Let’s say that a student is under-performing, they become slightly discouraged then they end up failing a final exam for the quarter.  The next quarter rolls around, what happens?  The student fails the class due to the fact they have given up — why? I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it’s because they are lazy, perhaps they feel defeated.  Perhaps they lack the “natural” motivation of their “scholarly” competition, yet why should one have to be made to feel this way in school?

Why should any student feel bad about their intelligence because of school?  Isn’t the goal of a school to raise confident, clear-minded individuals who can continue to strengthen the next generations that follow them?  However, are grades wrong?  I mean, one’s work must be quantified someway in comparison to others right, otherwise how would anyone know where they stood in terms of comprehension — right?  I’m afraid that I cannot make this call for you — it’s a decision that you must make for yourself.  Yet one thing is clear, a unified re-evaluation of the grading system in school is more than called for.

–Kendall, Northgate, Teen Blogger


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