I have a lot of a respect for teachers–really, I do. Their dedication to making sure I get the experience I need is inspiring, especially because they do it under all of the difficult and awkward situations that high school students can cause.

In my 2 and a half years as a student here, I’ve observed a trait that all of the awesome teachers I’ve been in class with have in common: frustration with their students’ priorities.

It isn’t uncommon to hear from a teacher “Stop worrying about the points!!” or “It’s a million points, now that you ask!!” This is pretty normal, and completely understandable since it’s the job of the teacher to worry about the content. But, every time I get this response or hear it somewhere else I say to myself: who do you think made us this way?

I know (or at least am pretty sure) that I didn’t come out of the womb screaming “HOW MANY POINTS?????” I’m even nearly positive that in Kindergarten, when I was exercising my developing reading skills, I didn’t say “Sure, I’ll learn how to read–but only if it’s for points.”

So, when did this happen?

If I had to put a date on when points became my main priority, I would say it was my first day of high school. This was the big leagues. Everything I did would be recorded on a piece of paper that colleges would be using to decide whether or not I’m worthy to go to their school. It seemed like everything in my academic life became about this paper, and high school was only a stepping-stone in a stream to my ultimate goal: an acceptance letter.

* * *

Since the day I started school here, I’ve worked hard. I track all of my points, grades, GPA, and test scores tirelessly. A lot of people assume that this comes from pressure of parents, but very little of it stems from that. This pressure came from a place within me that never existed until I learned of the possibility of an admissions office telling me that I’m not welcome–that I’m not good enough.

My work has paid off so far, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough. I’m always trying to squeeze extra points into my grades, sometimes I feel obsessed. In particularly high-stress times like exam week, I find myself refreshing Blackboard 4 or 5 times a minute–just hoping that something will change and I can take a breath. Because of all the effort I put in, anything that appears when I refresh that isn’t perfection feels like a disappointment. This is all because my academic confidence revolves around the number of points I have. It’s all about the points.

You could be wondering “Why doesn’t she want to focus on simply learning?” My answer is very easy. No one has time for that. Just as my day is split into 7 periods, so is my time after school. There is only so much I can do and only so much that I can handle. If I focused on just learning all of the material instead of playing for points, I would fail. There are too many possibilities of spending too much time on one subject, going so far that I confuse myself, or finding out that I actually don’t know anything. This could cause me to lose the opportunity to study at a high caliber institution in a few years. If I learn now, I’m denied a bright future of learning later.

Now, the endless play for points doesn’t go without consequences. Even though I have good grades, my academic confidence is very low. I’m terrified of standardized tests because they might reveal how unintelligent I think I am, because I can’t hide behind my grades. This is a reality all too real for a lot of students that I’m close with.

When I hear the frustration of my teachers about the desperation students have for points, I feel two things: guilt and a longing to be able to say that I don’t live on points and I fully submerge myself in my subjects. But that possibility seems untouchable, a million miles away.

Students are in a sort of tug-of-war on a daily basis. Our enthusiastic and good-intentioned teachers are pulling us in the direction of true education, while the ominous college offices are pulling us in the opposite direction: they only care about the points. As far as I know, the people judging our transcript will always win.

Who is to blame?

I don’t really have an answer. But, when we are scolded for being concerned about the point value of an assignment, it automatically puts the fault in the student’s already overflowing hands. What can we do?

It is about the points. I’m getting points for writing this blog post. Does that make me a bad student? Considering all of the work I put into school, I sure hope not.

I daydream a lot about changing the entire way the education system works when I’m an adult. If I could, I would make school more personalized about what the student wants out of their life, and I would get rid of the point system. Instead, I would introduce a system of portfolios to let schools judge your real work and see you as a person, not as an average of numbers and letters.

But, if I ever want to seriously pursue such an endeavor, I have to attend a great college where I can research and learn from the best. I think we all know by now what I have to do to get there.

Photo from www.businessnewsdaily.com

Join the conversation! 29 Comments

  1. Didn’t realize this was your writing until about half way through and I couldn’t agree with anything more, love this and your writing Maddy!!!

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  2. You. Are. Awesome.
    You say this blog post got you points, but I’m so very glad you wrote it. I teach 7th grade ELA, and I’m trying to go gradeless… well, actually… I’m asking the students to grade themselves (since I’m still required to put a grade on the report card). We have discussions like this all the time, but 7th graders basically go with the flow, and aren’t as concerned as high schoolers (yet), I bet.
    There is a growing number of teachers trying new ideas, so we don’t need to put grades in the grade book, and some are able to not give grades on the report card, as well (all levels – elementary through high school). I feel we need support from “up above.” I feel that the colleges need to put less (to no) emphasis on grades when it comes to admissions. I’ve started collecting articles about that on this tab here: http://www.livebinders.com/play/play/1693716?tabid=b58ac80e-fbf5-784f-9143-dde39180c20b
    If colleges use a test score (which most do) and an essay (which most do) and an interview, and perhaps another standard by which applicants are viewed BESIDES grades, this would help change the mindset of teachers (and students). With education, it’s usually the colleges and universities that drive things, much as you describe.
    Keep writing about this important issue (in all your spare time, of course!), 😉 and maybe this shift towards no grades will continue… it might take awhile, but it will be worth it for future generations (in my opinion)! THANK YOU for posting this!! Teachers have already started tweeting it out like crazy. 😀

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  3. Wow, I am really sorry that we’ve (collective we, society as a whole) somehow turned school into this. It really should not be this way and I work every day to try to undo it, I honestly do. It is cruelly unfair to rob kids of their childhoods and to convince them that real learning doesn’t matter in pursuit of a future goal that, I hate to say it, is hollow, shallow, and not what you have been led to believe.
    I went to an Ivy League School in the early 90s and I promise you, nothing about that specific experience has determined what my life is about now, other than the (relatively small in comparison to many) pile of debt I am still paying for. At 44 years old.
    I hope you don’t give up hope. The fact that you recognize the rat race for points as a system tells me you see that there might be other ways to do this thing called school, and maybe even this thing called life.

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    • Thank you for your support! I find myself repeating throughout the day “this is only high school” to try to put it into perspective. Hearing it from someone who has been through it all reinforcing that is really alleviating!

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  4. I’m 54, so a tad past the high school years. And, although we were told to pay attention to our GPA (and taking advanced courses actually hurt us in that, since back then, they weren’t weighted; AP English A was no more helpful than a low level English class A. And an AP B was worse), we didn’t have the level of pressure that seems to exist today.

    Today, it is a pressure cooker of parents, teachers, administrators, and society as a whole, skewing the focus from what matters to “You must get into an Ivy or you are DOOOOOOOMED.”

    Only – that’s a lie. There are many excellent non-Ivy schools, there are public schools, and a decent education can be had at any of them. Some will be a better fit, for a variety of reasons, than others – and the Ivy may not be a great fit, even for a brilliant student.

    Then there is society’s disdain of a gap year. Scholarships often are lost if not used immediately. Many 17 or 18 year olds do NOT really know what direction they want to go. They may think they do and find out 2 or 3 years into a degree program that, no, this is not for them. But they feel trapped at that point.

    We really need to focus on raising people, not scholars or athletes or musicians, but full, rounded people. One of the reasons I homeschooled my son for 6 years (started when he was 10.5; he wanted to graduate early, so I let him) was so he could explore things that he was interested in. He really didn’t fit in the school box well – despite being extremely bright. (And yes, I know I sound like a mom there. And I am. But he is bright. And gosh, darn it, he’s cute, too.)

    I wish you the best of luck and remind you that you can change things – if you really want to.

    L

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    • Thank you so much for your insight! What you did for your son is really cool–my little brother is the same way. Sometimes the smartest people are called unintelligent because they don’t fit into the school system. I’m hoping for a change and to be a part of that change starting here. Thanks again!

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  5. Hi Maddy! I work for Georgetown University and LOVED your post. Our University is exploring competency-based learning where students would be evaluated on a portfolio of their work over 4 years, as opposed to a traditional GPA system – just as you mentioned! Interestingly George Washington University recently said they would allow SAT’s to be optional on applications. Your voice is important for High School and University Administrators to hear! There’s a great non-profit affiliated with Stanford University, Challenge Success, that deals with this very notion! http://www.challengesuccess.org/

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    • That is so awesome, thank you! My mom went to Georgetown (class of ’93). I’m so excited that more portfolio-based systems are a real idea and not just something I can hope for. I love the idea of a school getting to see my real work and judging whether or not I am a good fit based on my voice, not my grades. I will definitely check out Challenge Success-what an amazing idea! Go Hoyas!

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  6. There’s an interesting section in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about Pirsig’s experience as a college rhetoric teacher when he went gradeless. The issue is a conundrum (and I certainly heard myself in your opening teacher voice:). Let me know when you come up with some good answers, Maddy, as I’m sure you will.

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  7. Great post, Maddy! I shared this blog post with our high school teaching staff because we’re always looking to gain the perspective of students. It has already led to some intriguing conversations!

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  8. I am 78 year old retired teacher. my advice is to be greeted with skepticism I believe and hope; but it’s this. Learn to live in the present moment. Read about meditation, zen or yoga. “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans. Stop being sorry for the past and worried about the future. Accept reality now and appreciate it with a heart full of gratitude. “The kingdom of heaven is within you” (Mk 1:15).

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  9. Wow, thank you for this! I am a teacher (soon-to-be teacher-librarian), and I love the student perspective you have given here. I’ve experimented with my own grading practices to try to get students’ concerns primarily on what they are learning, not how many points they are getting. Please keep spreading these ideas!

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  10. This is just a difference in perspective, Maddy. You are worried about getting into college. Your teachers are worried about you getting out. About 40% of students who start college don’t finish. I’m afraid the stupid point game we created and that you are now stuck playing in prepares kids to think that if they have enough points, they will be successful. That all stops 3 months after high school graduation, and your teachers know that. Hang in there. Your teachers mean well.

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  11. Great writing & insights. Of course, it only makes me worry about the stress levels of some of my students more than I already do!

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  12. […] Stop telling us it’s not about the points | thebloggerina […]

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  13. Dear Maddy, I love your honesty and your voice does present a level of frustration. I hear where you are coming from. It’s timely because I just recently made a speech to our students and parents at our honor roll assembly. Below are several excerpts.

    “The system of awarding and averaging grades has been around since 1870 in the United States. In a sense we are reducing the complexity of what happens during the learning process and coming up with a number, the symbol, to define the level of performance.””

    “While the process of quantifying learning is definitely useful, here at Mount Vernon, we are constantly reminded that we are in search of ways to help each student develop his or her individual story. You continually hear Ms. Ambler and Ms. McCubbin talk about how universities need to understand the whole story of each student. These numbers that we report are only a small portion of that story. In fact, I would argue that it is difficult to tell a compelling story by only using the numbers.”

    “And I guarantee you that not one of our seniors started their essay with.

    “In my pursuit of obtaining at 4.2 weighted grade point average I earned a 92% in Honors Physics, an 89% in AP Language and Composition, a 91% in Honor Pre-Calculus, etc., etc., etc., This is one way to ensure that your entire essay won’t be read by the admissions representative.”

    “Congratulations to all of today’s honorees and I encourage you to not let others define you by the numbers.”

    After working in international schools these past 14 years I can tell you that the there are plenty of schools out there that are not giving grades for practice work, separating feedback and marks for academic performance and learning habits, and determining final grades based on “most recent, most consistent, and most significant”. In these systems the students can articulate how the focus is more on learning and less on the numbers. These students are also able to attend highly selective universities.

    I’ve written several blog posts about one school’s journey. Here is the initial one.
    https://creativetension.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/whats-it-like-to-change-grading-and-reporting-practices-that-have-been-around-for-over-100-years/

    In a future post I will share some of the students’ comments after the first year. Many would never want to return to this outdated system of “points”.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thank you for your response! I love the points you made, especially about the college essay. I didn’t know anything about schools that used different systems until I started getting feedback from this post and I’m so amazed at what is out there. Thanks for sharing more information and your speech!

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  14. This has made such an impression on me and I totally agree with your point. I have shared this with so many people and they also agreed. I am an elementary teacher and mother of 3 (one in high school and 2 in college) and like you, wish the emphasis was on learning. I hope you do go on to be an educational leader and come up with solutions to this. Excellent job on this. So articulate and well written.

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  15. I am a part of an educational movement called “Teachers Throwing out Grades”. Just know that there is a growing community of professional educators around the world who hear you loud and clear, and are working to make changes. Your blog was shared in our FB group. Thank you for sharing your insight.

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  16. Not enough time to capture all I want to say, but very well-written and thought provoking message.

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  17. […] guide students as they develop skills. I think something is getting lost in translation, though. However much we stress learning in our classes, our students often value grades/scores more than wha…. As students go through school, they perceive that high scores and grades have more value than the […]

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  18. […] Do allow retakes to the greatest extent possible and practicable BUT make sure the purpose of retakes is to allow students to learn from mistake and have additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery . That way, students will believe us when we tell them “It’s Not About the Points” […]

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  19. I love this post! This idea is so important because I don’t think many teachers and school admins realize the pressure they put on points. Thanks for putting this out there!

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