Grades and Performance in a Pandemic

By NIKHIL DONEPUDI ‘21

Grades and grading are deeply ingrained in the educational system. Not only do students chase perfect scores and 4.0s, but teachers and school administrations also actively perpetuate this grade-centric system and its resulting fallout. It was no small decision, then, when several highly respected colleges and schools decided at the beginning of the remote-learning effort to evaluate students by a simple pass/fail measure. Although it is true that these measures help students prioritize their mental wellbeing, it is important to note that this modification to traditional grading is just that: a modification. 

Pass/fail is only one way to trim down the current grading system to accommodate for the immense pandemic stress while ensuring that schools and colleges could continue to judge students based on their grades. Although our school didn’t choose that direction, teachers did accommodate for pandemic stress by reducing the curriculum and allowing for “flexibility in due dates” in a time filled with existential threats and unreasonably dreadful news. 

The result of these measures, combined with potential “grade inflation,” is reflected in the fact that over 15 percent of students made the High Honor Roll in the fourth marking period of the 2019-20 academic year, compared to the 4 percent in the first marking period of the same academic year. But this statistic distracts us from the more fundamental and influential reason for students’ academic anxieties: grades themselves.

Grades are reflective of performance on a topic, a narrow and reductive representation of multifaceted students in a subject or academics in general. The unique and often unfair circumstances that negatively impact many marginalized students are not reflected in a simple alphabet. Whether a letter-grade or a number-score, the purpose of grading is to gauge students’ current positions—only when students and teachers are aware of where they stand can they judge where they need to improve.

However, since mastery is not prioritized in this current system, one- or two-time assessments are favored for the sake of simplicity, and, as a result, students are inadvertently incentivized to cheat. This unintended effect is observed in the fact that more freshmen than ever are being called into guidance for academic integrity violations. 

These students, “unable to pick up on social cues from a lack of interaction with each other and unaware of the consequences, attempt to plagiarize or otherwise violate the honor code,” all in order to get a better grade, says Dr. Diane Braungard-Galayda, head of the EHS counseling department. 

What this means is that although all students are incentivized to violate the honor code, most, due to the obvious stigma and guided by conscience, do not. It is only understandable, then, that students who are not in an environment where they can emulate their peers and maintain academic integrity are more likely to act on the incentive. Of course, plagiarism is never acceptable, but when grades are valued in social spheres and are pivotal to future career paths—and therefore, success—as they currently are, students are often placed in a tough position to make a poor choice about the path they want to take.

This is not to say that students who perform well are unaffected by the unnecessary value of grades. Consider the following: if a student decides to take a test unprepared, it would be surprising if they ace the test. If a fully prepared student, for whatever reason, breaks down while taking the same test, it would be no surprise if they fail. The contrast noted in this hypothetical situation is that although both students could have performed similarly, one was held back by a factor external to the student’s command of the subject material.

Contrarily, their respective scores suggest otherwise. If the student who failed was someone who chronically breaks down during assessments due to test anxiety, then not only is the pattern of underperformance harder to break, but it is also harder to prove competence in this grade-based system. As for the other student, their experiences make them disinclined to study beforehand, leaving them unprepared for a life of preparation and hard work. Both students stand to lose in this situation, showing that the system sets students up for struggle. 

Most students will tell you that they do not know how to study without grades and monitoring their performance. But it is when students learn out of love and passion, and there is nothing major at stake that they get to fully appreciate the foundational human experience that is education. This experience is scarcely true today, whether in rich or poor countries, and is a result of the current grading method, where students are rarely pushed to master their lessons. Addressing the undue importance of grades and prioritizing student growth through empowerment and positive reinforcement would effectively address test anxiety and result in self-motivated and resilient students.

Fundamentally, representing students using a reductive letter grade, GPA, or standardized test score cannot be reformed: even if the number of and variety in tests is increased, the deeper issue of meritocratic hierarchies stemming from the misplaced and misused value of a grade is left unaddressed. Besides, GPAs are only averages and do not indicate mastery in any subject.

To understand the creation of meritocratic hierarchies from misused grades, it would help to compare the culture of higher education to that of secondary and lower education. “The main difference (between high school and Ph.D. work) is in high school you are expected to parrot or regurgitate information back on a test but as a Ph.D. [student], you are expected to ‘add to the body of knowledge in your field,’” according to retired clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Larry Parker. Ph.D. students’ work, he says, should “provide new information not currently within the realm of the knowledge within the discipline.” Naturally, this vast difference in expectations leads many prospective students to hesitate to join such programs. But the difference in expectations would be a boon to many. Anecdotal evidence from many neurodivergent students suggests that those people whose accessibility needs are not met in high school prosper in higher education because of the newfound flexibility and choice in coursework and the increased accommodations. This, Dr. Parker says, is helping more students not only enter but also prosper in the field of academia. “The [difference between] current high school seniors and those fifty years ago is astronomical, mostly for the good. More students today have more choices today than ever before in ways current students may not be aware of.”

The framework of constant feedback and evaluation needed for Ph.D. students to write a cohesive dissertation is ideal for education at any point in time. The absence of such feedback is what makes grades meaningless today. The only value that grades have is misused by entities like colleges and universities or employers to judge students when the priority for educators should be to ensure that all students have some level of competency in their respective fields. Ideally, all students should be carefully attended to and understood, but since not all students have the same intention for choosing to learn a specific skill, learning their needs and ambitions is key. In concrete terms, then, students should be pushed (if they so desire) and attended to until they get an A or choose to leave the course (ideally because they understand their interests better, and not just because they didn’t get the grade they wanted). If this sounds idealistic, that’s because it is, but only because education today does not bear any semblance to a healthy and functioning system.

The issue with representing students with grades is that grades lack nuance. But this argument to abolish grades falls short because the only purpose of grading is to measure performance, not circumstances. The issue, then, comes from the inappropriate usage of grades to judge students. That is to say that in society and academia, separately and together, the value of grades is misinterpreted and misused. It is when grades are mistaken for competence, and competence confused for success, that this value is challenged. So, what should be done to mend the toxic relationship between students, teachers, and grades?

In terms of amending the grading system, there are several options, of which a healthy mix may be the most practical. But ultimately, the value of the grades students obtain should be a measure of their potential, not just their current standing. First, there is the option of eliminating grades and opting for simple Pass/Fail measures. In this method, there is no measure of competence or comparison: Students would be considered passed if teachers deem their performance satisfactory. This has its own problems, especially because the space for growth would be unclear at the end of any assessment, but the lack of distinction might help maintain self-esteem and remove unnecessary judgment of students, while students can be encouraged to cross the line to a Pass in case of failure. This method is likely practical in P.E. or Driver’s Education classes, since students can afford to barely meet standards or just drive well enough to avoid serious traffic disruption (of course, for driving, the standards should be very high, or we might see an entire road rampage attributed to a high schooler who didn’t want to be judged for failing a test). However, this method is impractical in academic classes like languages, art, or sciences because students always have scope for growth in such subjects.

There is also the option of keeping grades, but removing the GPA from transcripts. As the final goal should be to ensure that all students end the course with a B- or A-letter grade, this might not help differentiate between students’ capabilities at the time of graduation, but since ensuring student mastery is the end goal, it does not matter whether or not colleges can discriminate between applicants. Besides, these measures are relevant to all levels of education, not just high school. However, this grading system cannot be the standalone reform in education: this change should be coupled with expanding student choice in coursework and career paths and enforcing a strong and reliable community safety net for vulnerable students such as low-income, marginalized, or otherwise struggling students. This safety net can take various forms such as special interest groups, regular meetings with on-campus psychologists, or involvement outside of school. Although many of these proposed safety net measures exist today, their expansion would empower students and provide a community circle for emotional or other support in times of need. I believe this option is the most accessible in our school and can be best implemented in most types of school environments.

Finally, there is the option of abolishing grades completely and working with students until they show satisfactory performance. This approach assumes that students’ coursework choices are limited or nonexistent, so it is not the best method for most classes. It might be practical for English or language classes, or even math, where students need to constantly hone learned skills, but the same cannot be said for science classes, where students would need to understand and learn to apply concepts to real-world situations.

This effort would be a great challenge in the best of circumstances. However, the current environment is perhaps the optimal chance for the school administration to implement important changes to grading. Although it would probably be alone amongst hundreds of thousands of schools in the United States if Edison decides to make any changes, the immediate improvement in student performance and satisfaction, and by extension, student success, would likely become unavoidably convincing, especially since students would benefit from the lessening of school-related stress. Although, since most colleges and universities still use GPA for application reviews, major changes would become incompatible with the admissions process. Keeping this in mind, any changes need to be implemented in a systematic and thoroughly consulted manner. That is, students’ opinions should hold the same, if not more weight than any other party. Of course, information is necessary in order to carry out fundamental changes, which is why students, teachers, and parents alike should be informed of the pros and cons of any change, leaving them to assess and choose whether or not to approve changes. Whatever be the case, I’m sure that there is no reason to unconditionally abolish grades—they are useful to measure constant growth, but wouldn’t students fare better if they were all regarded as people with the capacity to grow, and not represented by a reductive letter grade for the most important phase of their lives?