How grading creates an alternate reality

We’re living in a simulation. It took me a long time to realize that — some people never do. It’s not easy to recognize that your every move is choreographed, examined and judged, nor does it feel good to notice that you are being controlled and there’s very little you can do about it. Even when people are no longer under the rule of the simulation, they still perpetuate it. They still value it and ensure its longevity. We all participate and think we are right to do so — it is The Way Things Are Done, the only option.
The simulation is a report card.
On the first day of my ninth grade biology class, my teacher proudly told us that a lot of the students who take his class fail it. They need to take it over again and make up their Keystone exam — the Pennsylvania state science exam — in tenth grade. He was proud of this statistic — to him and many others it seemed to prove that his class was challenging. Ninth-grade biology was not for the faint of heart; it was the great battle that we all must fight to graduate from high school, the fire in which our iron wills would be forged. I existed in a state of mild humming panic all year, constantly worried about my grades, putting in hours of studying only to watch as they paid off much less than expected.
I bent over backwards to eke out my A in that class. In theory, I should’ve felt proud or, at the very least, good. Instead, all I felt was exhausted and frustrated.
Education is supposed to prepare you for life, to teach you how to be a human being. On a highly practical level, this includes learning how to cooperate with others, how to problem-solve, how to think critically and how to produce quality work in one’s future field. Yet, we continue to operate in a scheme of assignments, quizzes and exams, all governed by domineering twin dictators: the 100-point scale and the letter-grade scale. We continue to perpetuate a framework that is not even remotely applicable to the terrifying “real world” — the horror! — of which students are constantly forewarned.
The American system of education forces students to suspend their disbelief and pretend that what they’re doing day in and day out matters to their futures beyond the GPA that will ostensibly get them into college. They must constantly make-believe that, outside of the classroom, they will need to do calculus under time pressure without a calculator; that they will regularly need to write three essays in two hours by hand with no resources beyond the prompt given to them and their own memories.
Any person, upon realizing that the work they do day after day is a series of futile tasks designed to please some invisible overlord or greater system, will become — quite reasonably, I might add — miserable. And so student motivation plummets and pessimism skyrockets. This is why extrinsic motivation so often fails. It does not offer any tangible benefit other than the hollow applause of currency. It does not stoke passion or creativity. It does not inspire. It creates despondent workhorses and “slackers.” Incidentally, this is also how students are often described: unmotivated, lazy, poor workers. Few stop to consider that the problem may not lie with the students but rather with the system that fosters this attitude.
In high school — and even still in college — I could not help but constantly be struck by the utter meaninglessness of most of the work that we were forced to do. Teachers inundated us with worksheets, scavenger hunts, short-response questions and exam after exam to round out their gradebooks. Some even distributed “easy points” assignments to boost faltering grades, which was marketed as some sort of mercy.
Education professionals, teachers and administrators alike, are trained to view quantitative measurements as the ultimate gauge of educational success: AP scores, SAT and ACT scores, Presidential Fitness percentiles, GPAs and statewide school rankings. As such, they do not concern themselves with actual student comprehension or growth. This system ends up privileging students who test better, even if they do not necessarily come to understand or learn anything throughout their coursework. It privileges students like me.
I somehow scored a 3 on the AP Calculus exam and passed my class with an A. At the time I was in the class, I could barely explain to you what I was doing, let alone why. Today, calculus looks like a foreign language to me. But I test well — I have a good short-term memory and knack for pattern recognition. This was enough to make me look on paper like a decent — perhaps even promising — calculus student. I, of course, would never self-identify as such, not even while I was taking the class.
Likewise, I passed ninth-grade biology with an A and got an Advanced on my Keystone. To this day, all I can plumb from the depths of my brain about biology is that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.
Traditional grading practices enable the education system to continue to avoid actually educating students. It inhibits real learning and prevents students from ever mastering the art of intrinsic motivation, instead training generation after generation to rely solely on external praise and rewards to fuel their work and curiosity. Good grades do not indicate proficiency, bad grades do not indicate failure and a lack of motivation on a student’s part does not make them apathetic. On the contrary, an awareness of the problems with testing and grading, while headache inducing, means that a student cares an awful lot about what they do in school every day.
Every day that we continue to accept our current testing and grading practices, we spontaneously consent to an inhumane and illogical system that runs counterintuitive to all education can and should be. It’s time we refuse to cooperate — whether it be abolishing traditional grading in our classrooms or questioning our educators’ grading and testing policies. It’s time that we free ourselves from the simulation.
November is International Education Month. This op-ed is part of a month-long series on education.