Do Grades Accurately Represent Students?

This article was written by Biruk Alfarone, a senior in the U-32 Journalism class.

Do grades accurately represent a student’s academic capacity; as well as their ability to function in the world? This topic will be answered by traditional academic teachers, and non traditional teachers. 


Grades impacting academic success is the first key point in this topic. Grades impacting a student’s ability to function in the world is the second key point. Lastly, does school prepare students enough to approach academics and the world with the keys to success? 


For many students, grades determine their future success. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college level classes. For AP Science, students have  a class and lab portion of the course. In AP Biology, for example, students are graded mostly through a mathematical component during the lab portion. “You don’t get graded on your homework, or your effort, and there’s not many reassessment opportunities,” said Aanika DeVries, the AP Biology teacher. 


Aanika sees the challenge of teaching AP classes as balancing the understanding of an inflexible curriculum with the preparation for the AP test. A student’s success in the class can mirror how they might do on the test. “There’s a lot of problem solving. When you look at the test, can you take in information and make connections?” said Aanika.


The curriculum of an AP class is addressed differently for each student. Some students use skills like time management and problem solving to get a good grade, rather than to understand the material. “I’ve definitely seen students who lose sight of the learning in pursuit of the grade,” said Aanika. According to The Honors Society website there is an explanation for high achievers in academics. “For many, academic success may translate to getting good grades. Or it may mean standing at the top of the class as valedictorian at the end of an educational journey.”


Aanika during class. (Biruk Alfarone/U-32 Chronicle)


AP Spanish teacher, Adam French, also notices a difference in student motivation. He said, “I think it’s about developmental maturity. In upper level classes students find themselves focusing on the material because they’re motivated.” According to Adam, his seniors’ motivation comes from a desire to learn the material, and his sophomores want a good grade for college. 


Research shows the causes of this. Daniel Pink, highlights this idea of motivation in his book ‘Drive’. “We assume that the only way to get people to perform is to incentivize them through external rewards and punishments, or extrinsic motivation, rather than focusing people on a desired behavior, or intrinsic motivation,” said Pink. Students are more focused on rewards and punishments that come from a grade rather than focusing on the desire to learn.


According to BYU, some professors have resorted to giving slightly higher grades to students in order to alleviate stress concerns and focus them on learning. Aanika spoke to Saint Michael’s College professors on bridging the gap between high school and college; that students can be successful with the right support from teachers and by deescalating the pressure of a grade. “It’s harder to be motivated when there’s a lot asked of you, you’re not really engaged,” said Aanika.


Karen Liebermann, Branching Out Program Coordinator, and John Boyd, a Transition Specialist, see grades differently. They also see the importance of grades to future success. “How good are you at following the rules and curriculum? How well do students do in that mode of assessing things?” said Karen.


Additionally, The Honors Society research talked about students translating academic success to getting good grades. Karen doesn’t see that as the case for every student. “There are some students who truly love academics,” Karen said.


John is very sure of the impact grades can have on students. “Under the current academic system, yes grades do impact a student’s academic outcome,” said John. According to John, school acts as a sort of test where teachers can extrapolate and make assumptions on how well students will do. He believes grades can change how we treat someone. A student receiving good or bad grades can be because of many situations, “If I have a bad morning I might come and test badly. Now all of a sudden my GPA goes down,” said John. Research done by The Honors Society seems to agree with this statement. Pointing out that other factors like economics, background, and culture can impact grades.

John Boyd (Biruk Alfarone/Chronicle)


Cairsten Keese, a counselor at U-32, thinks college academic success is an indicator of a student who got good grades in high school. “There may be less challenges or barriers, for someone with a strong clear cut transcript,” said Cairsten, “A strong GPA is going to make that next step perhaps a little bit easier.”


Research done by The Honors Society shows that academic success doesn’t just rely on grades. “Academic success also may include a student’s participation in campus or community life. Beyond classroom work, volunteering and participating in organizations can create a well-rounded academic experience.”


Additionally, a student’s ability to function in the world successfully doesn’t always have to do with getting good grades. According to the Montessori Academy’s website, there are principles to why students will flourish inside or outside of school and gain skills to function in the world. “Students that are guided by their interests and led to those things that are valuable and meaningful to them personally, will result in the development of competency, self confidence, and mastery.”


Aanika believes that schools should develop a curriculum that caters to different students’ interests. “We need to think beyond the traditional educational opportunities,” said Aanika. She believes the Tech programs, career center, along with other independent studies offer students a different route to getting real world skills. Aanika still thinks real world skills can mirror some of the things you learn in traditional school; such as communication, following through, and taking ownership.


Adam thinks real world functionality to an extent has to do with grades. “Student’s that prove to be diligent workers in class getting good grades, prove to be capable outside of school,” said Adam.


Additionally, for an employer who looks to hire students, how do they choose between high achievers in grades and high achievers in other departments? According to Ben Gibbs, a Sociology professor at BYU, when the school name isn’t renowned, grades make it easy to narrow down the application pool. “As a society (we) rely on these simplified metrics,” Gibbs said. In part this is because there currently isn’t a better way to measure a student’s capabilities.


According to Adam, the employment process relies heavily on the interview and first impression regardless of grades. “If I’m that person trying to hire somebody…You’d have to show your skills,” said Adam. Spence Wagner, a manager at Cognizant, a consulting company, has a similar view, explaining that skills and the ability to work with a team matter more than grades. However, “it really is that first job, first internship, first position, where grades matter the most,” Spencer said.


Additionally, John who works with students that have disabilities helps them especially with realizing their potential outside of just getting good grades. The topic of employment also surprised him. He had a student who went to college for four years, and one who was working for four years and volunteering. Applying for the same job the one without the degree got in. “That work experience means a lot to an employer,” said John.


Karen believes we should be thinking about non traditional academic opportunities. “CBL, and branching out offers people to get out in the world… Sometimes you need skills that aren’t taught in school,” said Karen. Real world function could involve students being given space in school to try these opportunities.


Karen with a student. (Biruk Alfarone/Chronicle)


Additionally, students who are not getting what they need from school, could be because school doesn’t prepare students enough to approach academics and the world with the right tools. Daniel Pink again states, “What’s apparent in all this focus on grades is that there’s no real emphasis on learning—the true purpose of education.” 


U-32 Department Heads were in the process of addressing transferable skills in a more authentic way before the Covid pandemic. Traditionally, schools were designed with academic content based standards being the focus and transferable skills were added on. “To me those transferable skills are things that are more reflective of what students need beyond high school,” said Aanika. The Coalition of Essential Schools 10 Principles is what Aanika is inspired by, to address the lack of focus on transferable skills in schools.


School doesn’t just have motivational barriers of learning, but also has physical barriers. “I could talk to kids all day long in my little classroom, about spanish, but until they’re out there…” said Adam. 


Adam teaches his students that focus and hard work is going to result in being successful academically, but he notices that most of the kids don’t see a point in it for their future. “I don’t think we prepare students enough to realize what it takes out there right now,” said Adam. 


“My core belief is that students learn in a lot of different ways,” said Karen. Like Adam, Karen sees the barriers of learning that being in a classroom all day can have. “Sitting in classes doesn’t generally involve learning through moving,” said Karen. She believes some students lose track of what it is they’re actually interested in as a result.


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