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Grades, Mental Health, and America's Manufactured Meritocracy

America is a meritocracy—or so they say. From a young age, we have been taught to measure our self-worth by our abilities and accomplishments. And, for students, whether they are in elementary, middle, or high school, the most important and ubiquitous measure of their abilities is summed up in a single word: grades.

If you have straight A’s, you’re a good student: traits commonly associated with students of this cadre are hard-working, diligent, intelligent, and motivated. If you have a couple of B’s, well…you’re alright, but you’re not the best. As for C’s…it depends on the household you live in, but I guarantee that most parents would not be happy with you. Students who receive D’s are one step away from failure: if you’re a straight-D student, people may associate you with dumbness, laziness, or behavioral problems. F’s, well, it’s in the name itself: F is for Failure.

Why do we rank our children like this? Why are we still being ranked like this?

Grades have less to do with academic capabilities than most people think. Yes, it is indicative of the number of questions you got wrong on your test. Yes, it is indicative of your “class participation.” No, it is not indicative of intelligence, or motivation, or hard work, or diligence or potential or fortitude or any number of traits that people associate with students who get good grades. I am treading ground that many others before me have left their marks on: Grades do not exemplify personal character.

Yet we treat them like they do. Children who do not receive good grades are scolded or grounded when they get home; they have their leisure devices taken away, or worse, are threatened with the revocation of their hobbies. If you don’t bring your grade up, you can’t read. If you don’t bring your grade up, you can’t draw. If you don’t bring your grade up…[insert hobby that the child dearly loves and threaten to take it away.]

But why is getting a good grade that much more important than doing what you enjoy? Grades, as Yale professor Laurie Santos explains in her podcast The Happiness Lab, stemmed from one individual: Ezra Stiles, the seventh president of Yale University. In his personal diary, he details an exam that he conducted on 58 of his students. He then split them up into four categories: optimi, second optimi, inferioris bonni, and pejore—listed from “best” to “worst.” This tiny footnote changed the history of education as we know it: many argue that Stiles invented the 4.0 grading system that we still use today.

Now, grades today aren’t limited to just GPA’s. We have SATs, ACTs, PSATs, GREs, and IB and AP exams for older students; there are COGAT tests and IOWA exams and Milestones and all sorts of standardized tests for younger children. It’s estimated that the average American child will take over 100 standardized tests in their lifetime. That’s an awful lot of grades.

The question then becomes: do grades actually do what they’re supposed to do? Do they push students to become better and more motivated and gain all the qualities associated with good students when they chase after good grades? And the answer is complicated, but evidence from psychological experiments points to increased stress, decreased creativity, and burnout when more emphasis is placed on achieving good grades.

In the 1970s, child psychologist Susan Harter devised a simple experiment for children: anagrams. One group of sixth-graders were given easy anagrams, consisting of three letters, and tougher anagrams, consisting of six letters. Overall, the kids were happier when they were pushing themselves—without any outside incentives, they smiled twice as much while doing the harder anagrams than while doing the easier ones. Human beings, as complex as we are, enjoy solving difficult problems: it’s what our brains are wired to do. Solving problems whose solutions aren’t clear to us at first glance is much more satisfying than solving simple problems that we don’t have to think too much about. It’s not about hard work or diligence; we gravitate towards things that give us the most satisfaction, and if solving harder problems gives us exactly that, then we will favor them over solving easier problems. But this all changes when the possibility of grades are mixed in.

In this experiment, another group of sixth-graders were also given anagrams to solve. But this group of students were told that these puzzles were a part of a school exercise, and that they would be graded on their performance. Harter describes the results of this experiment: “Children working for grades chose significantly easier anagrams to perform. Not only did subjects respond below their optimum level, but they manifested less pleasure and verbalized more anxiety.” Grading performance not only diminished it, but also increased the anxiety and decreased the pleasure of performing the challenge in the first place. And, because children feel pressured to succeed, they choose tasks in which they know they will succeed instead of tasks in which they could reasonably challenge themselves intellectually and have fun solving the puzzles.

The results of this experiment run contrary to everything we’ve been taught about grades. We are taught that grades are an accurate measure of our performance; that grading things cause them to be taken more seriously and therefore leads to higher performance; and that getting good grades is a matter of hard work and intellectual capability. But this evidence points to the other direction: grades are, at best, an inaccurate measure of individual potential, and at worst, the very obstacle that is preventing children from seeking out and tackling more intellectually-challenging subjects and problems and instead succumbing to the pressure to perform. Grades teach children how to choose the easy way out.

That is not what our society needs. As a meritocracy, our society relies on the best and the brightest to, collectively, make progress in science, technology, civics, and policy. Our society relies on the reliable and productive function of every single worker in the workplace. By creating an unnecessary– and indeed harmful– hierarchy of “skill” based on arbitrary-but-seemingly-reasonable criteria– grades– we are causing setbacks that are entirely avoidable. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his podcast Revisionist History, America treats the success of our country like a game of basketball: there are “stars” (billionaires) who add billions of dollars to our economy; these are the people we prioritize and privilege. But their contributions would not be complete without the contributions of the working class. They can’t score goals by themselves. This makes America’s analogy an inefficient model of how our economy actually works. Instead of treating it like a game of basketball, we should be looking at it as if it was a game of soccer: every assist, every player on the team must be a contributor, but none of them need to be stars. By the logic of this analogy, then, why do grades matter as much as they do? Instead of a ranked hierarchy in which we always aim for “the best”, shouldn’t a “pass/fail” grade be enough? And, theoretically, that would lead to more curiosity– as is natural– and more personal pleasure derived from our own achievements because these challenges turn into what we actually want to do, in lieu of what we feel like is the “optimal choice” when we are graded, which very well may not be the optimal choice, for anyone.

Nor can we disregard the strain this places on the mental health of students. Pressure to perform is a very real and tangible thing: our hearts palpitate, sweat coats the insides of our palms, and we start to worry about our performance and how it will affect our future. This can not only result in underperformance, but when this is the norm for students day after day, it can cause a spike in overall anxiety levels and increase problems such as burnout, depression, and unhealthy stress.

This should not be the norm. We shouldn’t be living under a near-constant cloud of stress, always barking unhelpful reminders over our shoulders. Did you finish that homework assignment? Remember to study for that test on Wednesday! Oh no, did I forget to use the Chain Rule on that one problem in last chapter’s test? Did that drop my grade? Am I going to be able to get into that school that I wanted to go to now if I get a bad grade in that subject? Should I take that AP class next year for the GPA boost even if I have no interest whatsoever in the subject itself? And this goes on, and on, and on. It’s exhausting. And it should stop. But our system is so reliant upon putting metrics on everything that we do that it seems like an impossible relationship to break. How is pass/fail adequate enough for classes that prepare you for your future? one may ask. Well, if it’s good enough for Yale, it should be good enough for everyone.

Dr. Laurie Santos, after researching grades and their effect on student mental health, decided to offer her class a choice: they could take her class, the one about achieving happiness, on a pass/fail basis. They could choose to not get graded. She pleaded with them during her first lecture to take this option; but, because of Yale’s administrative rules regarding privacy, she could not see which of her students took her advice. And, because of the stigma surrounding pass/fail grading—which is often seen as “the easy way out”—professors don’t know how many students opted to take their class with the pass/fail grading system. Taking a class pass/fail is still thought of as a shameful action, meant for students who can’t keep up with the rigors of standard grading scales. But it shouldn’t be this way. We know better; we should change, accordingly, for the better.

I realize that the act of me writing this is somewhat ironic: I, along with almost everyone else I know, have worried about my grades. I have maintained straight A’s throughout my academic career—rather ironically, given the purpose of this article is to advocate for the abolishment of the A-F scale of grading. But my success in this current system does not preclude me from advocating for positive change: I believe that this system is unsustainable and harmful for everyone involved. Over time, I have realized that grades do not matter nearly as much as everyone– especially parents– seem to think they do. And in the future, when I am putting together the puzzle pieces to figure out what I want my education to be, I want it to be meaningful, fulfilling, and intellectually satisfying. I hope that after reading this, you may also reflect on your educational choices for the future and prioritize your own happiness and wellbeing above your GPA.

Cara Chen is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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