Nearly half of American high school students – 47% in the class of 2016 – are graduating with grades ranging from A-plus to A-minus. According to the Department of Education, the average high school grade point average was 2.68 in 1990. By 2016, it had risen to 3.38, with the biggest inflation occurring in private independent schools.
If we are running with the premise that all students earn a grade between 1-100, nearly half are within just a few points of each other. Is this right?
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Perhaps the bigger consideration is that it’s reality. It’s the way we’ve come to utilize so many public forums of feedback. The average Airbnb rating is 4.7 out of five stars, and an Uber driver averages a 4.89.
No wonder that a 2018 study found that 70% of men and 60% of women agreed with the statement “I am more intelligent than the average person.” What a five-star sentiment! But is this really the way people see the world?
Boiling down a whole semester
I can admit that, during the 25 years I have taught high school English, my conception of grades has either softened or evolved, depending on how you see it. While I might fret over the ambiguity on Page 4 of a student’s essay, I’m aware of the greater sausage factory. That student’s whole semester will boil down to one letter, and that letter joins 30 or so others on a college transcript he may send to a dozen schools, some of which have thousands of other applicants.
I recall the father of a highly intelligent, slightly distracted student who referred to A’s as “tents” because of their shape. He told me his daughter only had “tents” until she took my class. At the time, it annoyed me – how could he evaluate what she did in my class? But now I kind of get it. Who am I to break up the campground?
With some moral consternation, sometimes even as the cursor hovers over the drop-down grade menu, I’ve reconciled it’s good teaching. It’s putting the needs of the student ahead of my own. In a class that honors experimentation and emergence of voice, I will see the student at their best. And so my grades nestle closely enough within the norm. Among the personal timorousness and collective weight of our times, students need people who believe in them. And how much easier it makes everyone’s life!
Even teachers have second thoughts
And yet, and yet.
As teachers perpetuate this notion that the exceptional is average and the majority is unique, we give rise to that noisy chatter bemoaning the entitlement of youth and how we promote coddling before actual skills. But what is the constructive feedback here? Perhaps the most irresponsible phrase a teacher can utter is: “When you get into the real world …”
But as Julie Lythcott-Haims writes in “How To Raise an Adult,” “Kids don’t acquire life skills by magic at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday.”
No one is calling for 19th Century reform here, when the best students were placed at the actual “head of the class” and a cutthroat game of musical chairs ensued. There are enough pressures mounting on the graded generation, who approach another year behind masks. But if we are to continue using this system designed to offer objective measure, shouldn’t we use more of its range?
Teaching is about encouraging students to appreciate the complexity of ideas. It’s not that the characters we study are good or evil; it’s the nuances of power within. If their writing and discussion evince a sense of curiosity, they’ll probably get a better grade. And so they have the capacity to see that grading itself can and should be complex.
When my school wisely moved to a COVID-born reprieve from grading in the spring of 2020, we caught a glimpse of what life was like on the other side. Students felt comfortable asking questions that might have otherwise compromised their standing; essay topics became riskier; my comments became less about justifying a grade and more about exploring the book-length ideas their three-page essays began. Free of the overshadowing, single-letter grade, feedback suddenly had its moment.
When half the grades average in the A range, teachers and students can avoid feedback. It sends the message that knowledge can be finished and left behind. Anyone loves to hear that their work is “brilliant,” “lyrical” and “amazing,” but compounded over time, this can distort a student’s estimation of their own talents and stifle their resilience to see that a grade can be a process and not just a stamp.
We have a grading system that currently pays homage to convenience. It can offer a short-term insurance of students’ self-esteem, which may or may not help against the increase in teenage mental health issues. But it all has that powder keg feel about it, that looming sense of climate denial, propped up by wishful thinking. And the only real action is collective
So as we roll into this new school year, fetching those COVID-19 mandates we thought we could toss in the dustbin, conscious that our youth’s capacity for critical thinking is our best shot, let’s think about using more of the grades available to us. Let’s move from the safe space of general magnificence into the brave space of earnest feedback. Let’s consider the B-plus.
Tim Donahue teaches high school English at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He writes about teaching, parenting and endurance sports.