Grades: the well worn road to (under)achieving

A test on the top of the pile for recent Chemistry quiz.

Photo by Katelyn O'Callaghan

A test on the top of the pile for recent Chemistry quiz.

Grades have been a fundamental aspect of education for centuries. Since 1785 students have been assigned a letter and percentage that measures their level of achievement in every class. They are meant to be a progress report to communicate to parents how their child is doing academically. However, the real implications of this system and the psychological effects on students tell a different story.

According to Alfie Khon’s book, Degrading to De-grading, grades cause incredibly high levels of anxiety, which affects overall student performance. Their ability to partake in critical thinking, to study, and recalling information learned in class during exams or assessments is significantly reduced.  

Throughout the day students constantly check their grades with the PowerSchool app on, to make sure their grades haven’t gone down. This obsessive behavior stems from a long and sturdy root of anxiety.

Not only do grades cause anxiety, but they damage students self-esteem, which can lead to depression. A 2014 study at the University of Michigan found that 80 percent of students base their self worth on their grades. Often times they will compare their scores to other students, if they aren’t at or near the same level as their classmates, they feel inadequate. Each time a student receives a bad grade their self-worth plummets, which correlates to depression amongst students.

Many make the argument that grades motivate students to challenge themselves and do work, but while that may be true for some, many students don’t take challenging classes in fear of getting a poor grade and lowering their GPA. The culture created around grades, the constant stress and anxiety of failure, deter students from exploring and developing their creativity.  Students often don’t make an effort to think outside the box and do what will get them an A. The pressure alone from trying to maintain an adequate GPA and please parents makes the weight of grades a heavy burden that students carry all throughout high school.

Montessori schools were founded on the bases of independent study, community service, and experiential learning opportunities. The system is well known for not having a grading system and extended periods where students can choose their own projects from a wide variety of subjects. These schools have educated many entrepreneurs, such as the creator of Amazon, Jeff Besos, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. At Montessori schools, the pressure of grades and expectations to uphold them does not hold back the students. It is an environment where creativity flourishes.

A multitude of studies has shown that students improve academically with constructive criticism and in a stress-free environment. It’s clear that demanding and unforgiving foundation of the grading system psychologically strains students and stunts creativity and ingenuity. Of course, abandoning a system that America has become accustomed to would create chaos, but continuing down this path of destruction will produce generations of malnourished minds and students who never take risks to grow as people. The first priority for education should not be a letter or percentage. It should be to encourage students to discover and pursue their passions–to create well-rounded individuals that practice free-thought and are not afraid of failure.