“I am only good enough if I get good grades.” This is a common ideology that many students develop as early as elementary school. It followed me all the way to college.
Remember the days when you stayed up late cramming for a test that you felt was going to be impossible to pass and thinking about how the inevitable bad test score was going to impact your grade?
Students have come to believe that their GPA and test scores are the ultimate reflection of their self-worth as both students and individuals. It can be difficult to avoid basing your value as a person on your academic achievements because we have been conditioned to make that correlation throughout our entire educational careers.
Academic pressure forces students to go through worst-case scenarios: What happens if I fail this test? What if I have to retake the class? What will others think?
These negative thoughts, which are particularly damaging to self-esteem, are huge risk factors for mental health challenges. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of teens believe anxiety and depression are a “major problem” among their peers. The teens also listed academic pressure as their top stressor, 61 percent saying they feel “a lot” of pressure to get good grades.
It has been clear for decades that when the reward of an A is favored over actual learning, students’ creativity and resilience suffers. In 1978, a study from the University of Denver found that students’ willingness to take on challenging tasks diminished when grades were involved.
I am a perfectionist when it comes to school. I always strive for the best grade and won’t submit something until I’m sure it’s perfect. Throughout my academic career, I would overload my schedule and say yes to every opportunity that presented itself. I only recently, as a college student, realized I was doing all this to prove something to everyone else, not for my own enjoyment.
This realization taught me something: Schools need to focus on learning, not grades. The whole point of getting an education is to gain knowledge and skills to help you develop to your full potential.
As students, we should be reminded that if we struggle with the traditional school system, it doesn’t mean we are worthless. Some people just excel in areas that many of our schools do not see as valuable.
The practice of standardized testing is a particularly flawed concept. It’s unhealthy to place so much importance on the outcome of a test, but students are constantly pushed to do so. A 2015 study from the Council of the Great City Schools found that students in 66 urban school districts were required to take an average of 112 standardized tests between prekindergarten and the end of 12th grade.
Standardized tests don’t actually prepare students for the real world. Instead, they reduce student learning to a set of numbers. Tests are objective, infrequent feedback that focus more on memorization than comprehension.
Tests like the SAT or ACT, for example, are not necessarily predictors of future success; they simply measure how well students can take a test. Many students, myself included, suffer from test anxiety, which means our test scores don’t accurately represent what we have learned. I took the SAT three times only to go up about 20 points from my original score.
So why should one test decide what college we get into when we are so much more than a test score?
This is why it’s heartening that nearly 80 percent of four-year colleges and universities have stopped requiring either an SAT or ACT for admission.
More schools should be adapting to performance- or portfolio-based assessments—projects, individual and group presentations, reports, papers, and portfolios of work—to replace standardized testing. These types of assessments more accurately portray a student’s knowledge and do actually prepare students for the real world.
Your GPA might show you’re a good student, but having a portfolio that demonstrates your knowledge and skills can give a future college or employer a far better picture of what kind of student or employee you will be.
I’m not saying grades aren’t important—they are, just as getting an education is important—but learning does not need to be one size fits all. Schooling needs to focus on actually teaching students something instead of preparing them for test after test. Yes, grades matter, but we are all so much more than our test scores.