My Thoughts on the American Grading System

Confused+student

Alec Conley

Student, Addison Kachnik, sits confused while peering at her grades on her computer.

Alec Conley, Staff Reporter

Since it first came to fruition, the American grading system has almost never been fair. The letters in our grade books have dictated our well-being and livelihood for far too long and it’s time for change.

When students with disabilities struggle with standardized testing, they may struggle with their self-esteem and question their abilities. The risk of dropping out of school goes up, especially if they can’t pass a high-stakes test that is required for them to move on to the next grade level.” This is a quote from NeuroHealth, a blog written by specialists of neuropsychology; a science on the essence of the mind and behavior. This quote offers a big point that needs to be made when having a discussion in relation to standardized testing. Millions of people around the world have neurological disabilities that are overlooked, which can be extremely harmful, especially in education. 

My older brother has struggled with his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) his entire life, and throughout his educational career he constantly struggled with the pressures of tests and assessments. It got to the point where he didn’t really care whether or not he failed since every school he attended didn’t offer the things he needed in order to succeed. They just kept pushing him along in school, even if he hadn’t learned enough to transition to the next grade. By his Junior year of high school, he was done. School had proved to be of no help to him, so he decided to drop out. He left school, took the GED (General Education Development), and passed his first try. He didn’t even take the full course and got a great score! It was the hardest he’d ever studied in his life. 

This proved something about the grading system; it was never about capabilities. It was always about your motivation. It wasn’t teaching, it was testing. My brother was always able to succeed, but his schools were never able to teach him the way he needed to be teached. He’s not dumb, our educational structure just failed him. So his teachers resented him, and his parents were disappointed in him. And it’s not only neurodivergent people that have to deal with this. 

I use this story to pose a very important question. When did our ability to memorize become our intelligence? Our value? It is important to note that not only is our flawed grading system a large contributor to stress in students but also to dropout rates.

“Students list many reasons for dropping out of high school. More than 27 percent say that they leave school because they are failing too many classes.” This statistic is from ‘K12 Learning Liftoff’, an educational website for parents of students. Over 5% of highschoolers dropout of high school, and a large percentage is due to them failing too many classes. It is far too common that kids seeing their grades deflates their motivation in school and prevents them from genuinely learning. It stops being about how and what we learn, and it turns into a contest of academic performance under pressure.

Now with this pressure comes consequences. This may be a hard topic to bring up in my persuasions, but I do believe that it is necessary. If you are sensitive to heavy topics I recommend you skip to the next paragraph before reading on. 

A little while ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Under the CDC) came out with a few studies to do with suicidal thoughts/ideation and its relation to grades.

“Data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) show that students with higher academic grades are less likely to consider or attempt suicide compared to students with lower grades.” It’s utterly devastating to think that someone, let alone a kid, could think about taking their own life because of their grades. Because a school attached a letter grade to them, that letter tells them how valuable they are. 

I actually wrote about this in November 2021. I asked students and teachers how grades affected them and whether or not they think this grading system hurts more than it helps. It was amazing and saddening to hear what they had to say. Students and adults talked about how harmful the pressure from their peers, teachers, and family to get good grades negatively affects/affected them. 

Here are some stats straight from the CDC:

CDC student suicide rate
Data from the CDC displaying students’ behavior and consideration of suicide based on the grades they recieve.

This is no way to live. We need to do better for the sake of our future, and theirs. These are our doctors, our government officials, our inspiration, our new generation. What would it make us if we were to just stand at the sidelines while our very future contemplates something so unimaginable over an assigned letter?

It would be easy for you to say, “Well maybe their mental state is causing the bad grades and not the other way around.” And you are absolutely right. That could be what’s happening. But even so, does that really matter? I mean seriously think about it. Imagine you are depressed, things have been pretty awful at home, and you feel utterly hopeless. Then you open up your semester grades and you’ve managed to fail three classes and barely passed the rest. 

What do you think that does to a person? Especially when they’re at their lowest. It is quite literally kicking them while they’re down. It’s telling them that on top of everything else going wrong in their life, that they couldn’t do what a lot of educators teach as the bare minimum. It doesn’t matter the causation. What matters is that kids every day are struggling, just hoping to nab a scholarship or get enough credits to graduate while believing that they aren’t even good enough to try.

I wasn’t able to touch on everything there is to know about the effects of grades because it truly is a very convoluted subject that I personally could spend hours discussing. I’ve been to seven different schools in my educational career and have witnessed firsthand the problems in this country’s educational system. This is important. It really is. Not every kid learns the same and we need to stop treating them like they do, or like they are abnormal for needing different methods of learning, or needing deeper descriptions in certain lessons. Let’s stop assigning teens with letters and start seeing them for what they can do instead of what they can’t. Offer opportunities instead of insults or ignoring their–our– pleas for help. 

We are important. Change needs to happen, even if we need to do it ourselves.