Did You Ever Wonder…

Tim Van SoelenCACE Studies4 Comments

StockSnap / Pixabay

StockSnap / Pixabay

Why students (and their parents) are so grade obsessed? In a previous postWhat Happened to the E?, I noted my lack of surprise when students petition for an extra point or two on an assignment or request extra credit opportunities. Some readers responded with notes of similar experience and frustration. One reader asked the question “how do students become so grade-obsessed but learning indifferent?” A most worthy question to examine as Christian educators.

First, we need to remember that students are not born this way. They do not enter school being grade-obsessed, it is a learned condition. The sad fact is that they were taught this behavior by us (parents, teachers, awarders of college scholarships). It should not surprise us that students turn out this way. As parents, we push our students to get straight A’s. As teachers we put all or at least most of our feedback in service to the grade. As institutions of higher ed, we provide scholarships based on grade point averages and ACT/SAT scores. The grading system shows up in our student handbooks, on our school websites, and in our course syllabi. I laugh a little bit thinking about how many conversations I have been a part of where we have debated whether an “A-“ should be 90-94% or 90-93% or whether we should use S+ and S- in primary schools. Through such discussions and grade distribution venues, we are sending a clear message to our students – the point of their education is the grade.

Second, let’s recognize that there is another way we instill this grade obsession in our students. We preserve their errors. We average test scores and homework scores throughout the semester or year. Students quickly realize that every grade gets carried forward into their final grade. Those two matching questions that they switched around on the last exam will haunt them throughout the entire semester. Better yet, consider what happens when a student receives a zero on a test or major assignment. This was the topic of one of the discussion forums in a recent graduate course. There were some good arguments on both sides of this debate, but the one that I found most interesting was a post that painted this scenario: a high school student had earned a 4.0 grade point average until her senior year English course. She missed handing in a major research paper by the due date and was given a zero for this assignment (because it was late and the school had a zero tolerance policy for late work). The paper was worth 15% of the semester grade. She received an 85% for the semester and a B for the course, dropping her overall GPA to a 3.96. While there are a few issues to debate in this scenario, the grade was what mattered to the student (and the loss of the perfect 4.0 GPA).

As we consider all the grading practices and policies in our schools, let’s ask ourselves the question – do our practices and policies point to learning or to the grade? This might be a difficult question to discover the answer to, at least it has been in my own experience. I have tried to shift my thinking about this toward an end of the learning curve evaluation, not an average. John Orlando, a professor who writes often about educational assessment issues, encourages teachers to stop thinking like a grader and more like a coach. He provides the analogy of a rookie wide receiver who starts training camp without knowing any of the pass routes on the first day of camp but is running perfect routes by Week 12 of the NFL season. The coach does not say “I start him because his understanding of the passing routes is an average of what he knew at the beginning of camp to what he knows now.” Players, teachers, employees of all kinds, are evaluated at the end points of the learning curve, not the average.

As we wrap up another school year, maybe we can take some time to brainstorm some ways to think about how our schools can become places where students can fail safely, knowing missing the mark on that test or quiz does not mean they have dug themselves a hole they cannot get out of. A place where we can actually make some mistakes since we know that is a powerful way to learn. It will be hard to create such an environment if we continue to have a system that preserves and punishes students for their mistakes. I think our students will appreciate the effort.


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

4 Comments on “Did You Ever Wonder…”

  1. Hi Tim. This is a great posting. One added comment that might be relevant. You say that, ‘The grading system shows up in our student handbooks, on our school websites, and in our course syllabi.” It also show up on report cards. Schools report to parents the things that the school thinks are important. For this reason, I often say that if you want to find out what a school really values, examine that school’s report card. Grades, performance-based assessments, rankings etc have real value in helping us to identify our areas of giftedness. However, a lesson from Jesus’ story of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25 and Luke 19) is also fundamental. In that parable, the three servants are evaluated not on the basis of a comparative analysis of the talents they possess (there is no comparing of one servant’s performance with another), but on the basis of how well they had used the talents that they had been given. Even though it may not be as readily assessable from a quantitative perspective, if we are to reflect this biblical priority in school, then I suggest that our classroom practice, our awards ceremonies, and our report cards, need to give a priority to things such as effort, alongside all the other rankings, standardised test results etc.

  2. Thanks, Richard. Excellent addition to this train of thought. There is a phrase that I use often when we work with schools on accountability…we treasure what we measure. I think you state this very well when challenging us to look at our report cards or our board level scorecards. Have we identified and assessed the criteria for which we hope to be held ultimately accountable for? Your comment reminded me of a practice held by the first school I worked at – the honor roll and effort roll. I would rotate between getting to go with the award winners to Magic Mountain (an amusement park) and staying at school with those who did not make the cut (talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!) While we certainly want to recognize excellent work in school, how can we do that in a way that holds true to the parable of the talents. In our sports crazy Western culture, our athletes are constantly recognized for their performances, our musicians (albeit to a much lesser extent) are recognized for their performances, our thespians for their performances…but how can we shine the spotlight on the young man or woman who excels in the classroom or those who display a Christ-like attitude during the school day? The things that Christian schools are called to do – train minds and disciple hearts. Thanks for the challenge, Richard.

  3. Great post, Tim! I want to take it from philosophical to logistical for a moment. In many conversations with middle class parents it’s all about the quickly fading accessibility of higher education, from a cost standpoint. This is the same reason why some (not all) parents spend time, effort, and money on making sure their 3rd grader is the next LeBron James. College education is increasingly unaffordable to the average working class family. If there is a chance at an additional $5000 (this is a very conservative estimate in many cases) because of a 4.0 as opposed to a 3.99 or due to a #1 class ranking instead of #2…that .01 becomes more financially crucial than years of summer jobs.

    Unless the cost of college to the average family stops climbing twice as fast as earnings (again, a conservative estimate), the importance of grades will only increase for parents and, by extension, their children.

    Our teachers do their best to focus on learning, but they too feel the pressure of the thousands of dollars lost from an A to an A-. We would love to go away from grades, but colleges drive this bus as well. Until it doesn’t hurt our students’ chances to get into any college they desire, we can’t abandon the system, no matter how broken.

    Employers largely have stopped looking at grades, and many PK-12 institutions would love to. That leaves colleges and graduate schools as the final holdouts.

    Maybe it will take an executive order to effect real change? 🙂

    1. Excellent point, Jeremy. And I could not agree more. Sticker prices for college and universities have exceeded cost of living increases significantly. There is some movement in the world of higher education to address this, starting with the Ivy Leaguers. Check out the Coalition for College Access (http://www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org/) to see how some colleges and universities are changing their admissions processes. I don’t know if we will see a trickledown effect or whether an executive order will be needed!

      I can certainly empathize with high school teachers and grading. The difference between the A- or B+ or a 25 ACT or 26 is literally thousands of dollars. It doesn’t stop in high school as college students beg for a point here or there or a little extra credit to keep an academic scholarship. One important lesson that some business friends who are hiring glance quickly past GPAs and which college a candidate attended. They are examining work/ life experiences, the ability to communicate well, ability to think critically and creatively, and whether they can work well with others (sounds like things kids learn on the playground!)

      Thanks for your thoughts on this one…Tim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.