How Important are Grades?

A student upset about poor grades next to another delighted by a good grade.
A student upset about poor grades next to another delighted by a good grade.
Maya Williams

All students have grades and all students are worried about grades in one way or another. Maintaining good grades, making up bad grades, whether a test will decrease or increase your grade. Worrying about all of these aspects of the scoring system can often be stressful for students. For all scholars know, these scores will determine if they can attend college and make a bright future for themselves. But do these numbers actually reflect a student’s intellect? 

To begin with, the 1-100 grading scale was not always in place. The earliest example of this grading in the United States is fairly recent, historically speaking, beginning in Yale University in 1785. The university divided students into four cohorts, relating to how desirable their performance was. These cohorts were labeled Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores, and Perjores, which now translates to “Best,” “second Best,” “Less good” and “Worse.” Unlike current grades, these rankings were given only in a student’s senior year of schooling, instead of throughout each school year. This grading system lasted until 1837, when Harvard University started a 100 point grading system. Scores were displayed on a curve, clustering students around the 50 percent percentile. This system was not very well received, as agreeing on what warranted a 50 grade and what didn’t. 

A few decades later, in 1897, elementary and high schools developed an A-F grading system. While still using the curve created by Harvard, different grades were conveyed in relation to the percentile. The consensus was that an A grade was a superior grade, while a C was an average grade. This grading system was also accompanied by a GPA system on a 4.0 scale, showing students how well they scored in courses.

While grading on a 100 point scale gives students an evaluation of how they perform in classes, this does not account for learning by itself. Grades do not calculate what a student learns, but rather how they perform based on what is taught. Instead of reaching learning milestones, students usually focus on prioritizing their grades and not learning by itself. Comprehension is not the same as performance. Because of this, many students tend to focus on achieving good grades instead of learning and retaining the material being taught. This is not to mean that students do not learn in classes at all, but it goes to show that grades do not calculate what a student learns, but rather how efficiently a student applies themselves to their work.

Grades themselves can induce anxiety and fear. Grades are tied to college acceptance, and many students are encouraged to attend college in order to make futures for themselves. Grades also affect scholarship opportunities, possibly awarding students with higher grades more money to put towards post secondary education.

One large part of grading for students includes tests. Especially in high school and college, testing and exams are heavily impactful on student grades. Unfortunately, it is common for suicide rates and thoughts to dramatically increase when state exams take place. In the United States, 43% of teen suicides were implied to be tied to academic pressure. According to the CDC, these percentages have risen over the last few years. As of 2022, 28% of college students reported self-harm and suicidal ideations. This also raises the concern that schools should make more efforts to understand and assist students when it comes to mental health in order to prevent mental decline and suicide. The problem with this is that grades are heavily tied to self confidence and student life, making it difficult to take care of students while simultaneously stressing grades. 

Standardized testing also causes many issues for students. Tests like the SATs do not reflect upon reinforcement of material, but rather retention of material. Students often focus on grades over retention, so many students often forget topics that are displayed on standardized tests. Luckily, most colleges and universities are SAT and ACT optional now. Receiving a high score can boost your chances of getting accepted into schools, but grades, resumes, and portfolios are now the main focus of colleges accepting students.

Academic performance is also embedded in self-esteem. In the research article Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Academic Achievements Amongst Pre-University Students, Mohammad Aryana studies how a student’s self worth is connected to academic achievements. This study in particular surveyed 100 randomly selected students about how their self esteem is affected by their grades. From this study, it was demonstrated that students who have high self esteem tend to receive higher grades, while students with low self esteem receive lower grades. This makes punishment less likely to improve the grades of struggling students, creating a constant uphill battle of hopelessness.

In high school, grades do affect self esteem and, by extension, some aspects of student life. Students are often punished for poor grades, losing access to opportunities and school trips and events. Good behavior is the standard in high school, but bad grades are often punished. Punishment often does not motivate students to do better. It actually does the opposite; it discourages students and diminishes hope for rebound.  

Grades are not only tied to self esteem in college, but grades can also affect student life as a whole. If a student’s GPA drops below a certain standard (usually a 2.0), a college may choose to dismiss students. This is similar to a suspension, where dismissed students are no longer considered attending students. This means no campus housing, no classes, and a permanently tarnished student transcript. While dismissal usually only lasts one to two semesters, this still heavily affects the livelihood of the student. 

So, do grades actually reflect your intellect? Do grades matter? In short, no, grades do not reflect a student’s intelligence, but grades do ultimately matter in a student’s academic career. Your grades can determine what type of college you will be accepted into and what sort of financial aid you may receive. Once you are in college, students are expected to maintain grades in order to simply attend the classes. Grades do not define students as people, but grades can very much determine academic success.

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Maya Williams, Photography Editor
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