The Grading System: Pressure, Competition, and Expectations

Claire Weigus, Editor-in-Chief

Education is a luxury and should not be taken for granted, but when the school system is not solely about learning, growing, and educating, maybe it should be reevaluated.

Teachers, parents, and college admissions officers expect students to get involved in sports and activities while maintaining a high GPA. This means committing 35 hours a week to classes while balancing hours of extracurriculars on top of that.

The stress in a school environment has to have a root cause; in most cases it is seen to be stemming from the poorly focused grading system. According to district guidelines, “the primary purpose of the grading system is to clearly, accurately, consistently, and fairly communicate learning progress and achievement to students, families, post-secondary institutions, and prospective employers”.

If the grading system is supposed to communicate learning, why has it become so competitive, and why has it turned into a mechanism used in measuring students’ sense of self-worth and happiness?

An anonymous survey of Hinsdale South’s students regarding the real-life impacts of pressure, competition, and expectations set by the grading system revealed mostly concerning takeaways.

Participants were asked two yes/no questions, followed by three open-ended questions, giving them opportunities to express their opinions and experiences. Of the 134 students who responded, 85.1% expressed feeling pressure from parents, guardians, or teachers to get good grades, and 91.7% said they put pressure on themselves.

Although pressure can be a good motivator, there are downsides to it as well. One being, students having a hard time trying to do typically enjoyable activities when having the burden of assignments they still need to complete in the back of their mind.

“Tests and homework are major stressors in my life,” one student responded, “Even if I have no work to do, I feel guilty about doing nothing because I feel like there’s something I could be doing”.

Grades can also be used to give students a sense of control or validation.

“Getting good grades gives me a sense of accomplishment and makes me feel good about myself,” a student wrote.

If students feel significant stress in response to school, their hard work should at least be reflected in their grades; however, survey participants did not seem to believe that sentiment.

“I have more of a creative mind rather than an intellectual one. I don’t always do well on tests because of time limits, but when given projects I always thrive” one of the student responses read. This student went on to express a preference for project-based assessments, which allowed for showcasing creativity rather than answering questions under the pressure of a rapidly ticking clock.

“Sometimes I don’t do as well in a class,” the student continued, “because [teachers] only use tests for grades”. This student’s opinion reflects how the diversity between the minds of students is hard to evaluate with a single letter because everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.

Having the weakness of being a bad test taker is unfortunate in District 86 as grades in  the summative category are weighted more heavily than those that are in the formative one. The dilemma here is that the majority of a student’s summative grade consists of tests.

“Sometimes I’ve made myself get sick with the amount of stress I put on myself to perform well in school, I’m not even joking. I’ve let school be prioritized over my mental health and I’ve gone to school even when I felt mentally sick because I couldn’t risk getting behind” a student replied.

The amount of stress placed on students can become acclimated from the feeling of being flustered to a serious situation where a student’s own health is being consequently impacted.

If school is a place where students are supposed to learn and develop, the environment should be less competitive. Students should not feel overwhelmed by panic at the prospect of not achieving perfection, otherwise known as an A in the gradebook.

Although the competitive aspect of the grading system helps to push students to work hard, it inflicts pressure, competition, and expectations that can be detrimental to a student’s mental health.