Why We Are Failing to Make the Grade

Covid-19 has contributed to a crisis in America’s classrooms, but the problems predate the pandemic and are likely to outlast it

Felix Choo/Alamy
Felix Choo/Alamy

When I was in high school in the late 1990s, my copy of The Princeton Review’s 310 Best Colleges was more dog-eared than any of the beloved books on my shelves. Occasionally during free periods, I’d visit the guidance office to pore over data (SAT scores, weighted and unweighted GPAs) from the previous year’s graduating class. I looked often at college websites, checked the results of the cross-country and track teams for which I hoped to compete, and imagined myself leaving behind my suburban public school in Connecticut and walking the grounds of some hallowed university campus. Senior year, I applied early to the University of Chicago, and on a December afternoon, I opened our mailbox and found the large acceptance envelope—a moment that would rank, for many years, among the happiest of my life.

Near the end of my four years at Chicago, I began thinking about a career in teaching. My own high school teachers had influenced me deeply, and English classes in particular had been a kind of refuge, a place where the focus hadn’t been on grades, test scores, and the quest for college admission. After finishing graduate school in 2008, I started teaching at an affluent public school. Then, in 2012, I went home.

Given how eager I’d been to leave Connecticut, I never imagined that I’d return not just to the area but to my alma mater—to teach the very same classes I once took and to coach the cross-country and track teams. Neither could I have imagined how different the place would be. The school’s population was more than twice what it had been when I graduated. But since the colleges to which my students were applying had increased enrollment only modestly, if at all, the obsession with getting accepted was even more intense. My students were habitually stressed about grades, test scores, and how to appear marketable on their college applications, making my own devotion to the process seem almost quaint.

The cross-country team, meanwhile, had grown from a motley crew of 18 intense girls with long ponytails and nylon shorts to a GPS watch–wearing fleet of more than 100 young women who knew exactly how many miles a week they were running, what pace they were keeping, how many calories they were burning, and often, because of social media and online training logs, how they compared with their teammates and competitors. Whereas my friends and I had often lounged around after practice, pretending to stretch as we waited for rides, as we gossipped about the boys’ team or shared flashcards for an upcoming midterm, my athletes often left practice early to make it to private music lessons, or to a variety of service clubs, or to tutors who cost several hundred dollars an hour. No amount of time was left unaccounted for.

In a 2019 article in The Washington Post, Jennifer Breheny Wallace described a study that, somewhat controversially, labeled students like these, in high-achieving school districts, as “at-risk”:

Facing record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, many students feel tremendous pressure to achieve and résumé-build in all aspects of their young lives. In the pressurized ecosystem of high-achieving schools, driven students must out-compete each other for few coveted spots, whether it’s a seat in AP calculus or a spot on the debate team. Even activities that once were stress-reducers, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, have become a means to an end, that end being a spot at one of the country’s most competitive colleges and then on to a prestigious, high-paying career.

What’s lost in this scenario is all that cannot and ought not be measured or quantified: a cross-country practice judged not by data but by sore calves and a good sweat; the camaraderie of a cast dinner after a school play; the feelings of exhausted accomplishment following a successful car wash fundraiser. By contrast, almost nothing my students did was done without calculation and a means of producing metrics.

Paradoxically, as competition for grades and leadership positions intensified, I noticed that high school classes themselves were much less rigorous than what I remembered. It seemed that higher grades were given for lower-quality work and that the amount of critical thinking expected of students had diminished in favor of assignments that aligned neatly with standardized expectations and the contractual, specific language of rubrics. The rubrics—detailed sets of criteria on which an assignment was graded—functioned much the same as the GPS watches and micromanaged schedules: they took the abstract, often unquantifiable task of learning, being a member of a team, or growing up and reduced it all to data points.

The summer before I took AP English, we read Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, Brave New World, and Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. We were given very little indication of what to think about or take note of while we read. During the first week back at school, we were asked to write something, without a rubric, an assignment sheet, or any knowledge of how many “points” the essay would be worth. I was so terrified of my notoriously gruff teacher that I didn’t dare ask him to translate his indecipherable handwriting when I got my essay back, but the next time we had a paper due, I read The Sound and the Fury twice in hopes of producing better work. Later that year, we read Hamlet, To the Lighthouse, Who’s Afraid of  Virginia Woolf, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Invisible Man, the Oedipus cycle, three full-length works by an author of our choice (Annie Dillard, in my case), and a wide variety of poetry and literary criticism. That was all before our grouchy teacher got sick and went on medical leave in March.

When I taught this same class, I asked my students to read Ian McEwan’s Atonement and a book of their choice over the summer. I provided detailed, specific rubrics designed to show them exactly what kinds of notes to take to prepare them for the essays they would later write, a task that was itself outlined in great detail. Once the essays were written, the students could meet with me and revise their work as many times as needed—as long as it took for the cumulative quarterly average in our district’s online grade book to rise into the A– range. This was the expectation; I felt an enormous burden to account for every single reduction in points. I have no problem when students revise their work, but the school culture made revision feel less like practicing the art of writing and more like a frantic hedge against the possibility of failure—or a B+ average.

The first time I saw a rubric was as a high school sophomore, and I remember thinking, I’m never going to fall short on an assignment again. Of course, I did often fall short for any number of reasons—I was distracted or rushed or genuinely confounded by James Joyce’s use of allusion—but the notion that what it took to get a good grade could be so explicitly spelled out was both novel and exciting. No more muddling through an assignment guided only by an elliptical one-sentence prompt.

By the time I was handing out my own rubrics, my students and their parents had come to expect them. These rubrics, however, were no longer brief lists of required elements, but rather full-page grids in 10-point font detailing what exactly was meant by “presentation of work” (fluency; evidence of careful editing for grammar, syntax, and punctuation; use of MLA citations) or “content mastery.” And still, many students wanted more specific parameters—they wanted to know how many sentences each paragraph of a paper should have or how many direct quotations met the standard for “nuanced, varied textual support.” It depends, I would say. That’s part of what makes writing hard work. I didn’t mind having this conversation—after all, it was my job to teach them—but it made me sad that my students had been conditioned to see thinking and learning as so very reductive.

Although designed to make it easier for students to understand what is being asked of them, these rubrics took much of the critical thinking out of planning an essay or presentation. More than that, the existence of rubrics, justified by the desire for higher cumulative grades, trains students to focus their energy on maximizing performance rather than learning. Conversations between my students and me, between my students and their parents, and between their parents and me were less and less about skills or work ethic or strategies for mastering difficult concepts and increasingly centered on numbers. In Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless, the protagonist, Cher Horowitz, tells her father, a Beverly Hills litigator fuming about her report card, that she considers the marks she has received a jumping-off point for negotiation. When the movie came out, the line was undeniably satirical. By the time I began teaching, though, the notion that grades were subject to negotiation was openly acknowledged and even welcomed.

That we entered our grades in online grade books made such changes all the easier. More than one administrator I worked with, in extolling the virtues of online grade books to skeptical teachers, used the language of finance. Grades were a currency, they said, or the grade book was like a bank account, and wouldn’t we want to know how much money was in our bank account? I understood the argument, but knowledge isn’t a product, and neither is a student—do we really want to make school yet another place where numbers are a proxy for worth?

The more access that students, but especially parents, had to grades on individual assignments, the more power those grades took on. It was not uncommon for me to spend the bulk of a free period on the phone with the parent of a ninth grader who needed to know why—beyond the comments I’d left on the paper and the boxes I’d checked on my detailed rubric and whatever conversations the student and I might have had in or after class—a one-page response to Act II of Macbeth had received only a nine out of 10. Often, I wanted to say something glib but true, like: “This response was fine but nothing in it convinced me that the student spent any time considering the play outside of what we already discussed in class.” The rubrics were supposed to help, but they had the unintended consequence of reducing learning to a few arbitrary bullet points. The move to quantify the occasionally unquantifiable (what, for example, is the numerical difference between good transitions between paragraphs and exemplary paragraph transitions? Between acceptable use of textual evidence and surpassing the expectation in use of textual evidence?) was made for the now ubiquitous online grade books. And the attitude that students and their parents are customers indirectly gives a dangerous power to the grades in those grade books: they aren’t just measures of student work at a moment in time, but something much more sinister.

I left my high school teaching job in 2014. In the fall of 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, I started teaching college freshmen. Not a week went by without a series of emails landing in my inbox about the intersection of Covid-19, students’ mental health, and online learning. The ninth graders I had during my last year of teaching high school were by then college freshmen, and it felt like I’d jumped forward in time to see, with a jolt, how six years of near-constant device use (in and out of school) had affected a specific cohort of students. I saw that the increased screen time of virtual learning, the isolation and anxiety of the early months of Covid, and the disruption to two academic years had intensified the mental health struggles of my students. Yet it was also clear that the crisis I was witnessing predated the pandemic and will no doubt outlive it.

Much of the coverage of the mental health crisis among adolescents and college students rightfully points to factors beyond the academic context of grades and college admissions: a general increase in Internet usage and the effect of social media on still-developing brains. My students speak and write frequently about their tortured relationships with their phones and the worlds that live on them.

In a 2019 report published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Jean Twenge and her coauthors found that from 2005 to 2017, major depressive episodes, serious psychological distress, and suicide-related outcomes all increased at least 52 percent among both adolescents and young adults (defined as ages 18–25), whereas older adults did not report similar changes. The study suggested that “the rise of electronic communication and digital media and declines in sleep duration” could have led to “a cohort effect” among young people. In the three years since the study was published, the influence of social media on declining mental health has become a topic of mainstream conversation, in part because of the focus on the prolonged isolation felt by homebound teenagers during Covid.

As I listened to my students talk about social media, I started to think about the ways in which Instagram, TikTok, and the like—with their proclivity for comparison and sanitized highlight reels in place of the nuance and subtlety of the nondigital world—mimic the emphasis on grades and scores prevalent in American education today. Social media is public and performative in a way that grade books are not, but both operate in real time, providing instant gratification. When I was in school, I had to wait until Monday to see how badly I’d messed up Friday’s electricity and magnetism test. If I wanted to know my English grade, I took out my TI-82, added up the points I’d received, and divided them by the total number possible, but this was only a guess, since I wasn’t sure whether the A that I received on my To the Lighthouse essay was equivalent to a 90, a 95, or a 100. I also didn’t know how class participation would factor in. The online grade book, meanwhile, is refreshed as often as an Instagram account. In a 2016 study published in The School Community Journal, one parent dismissed online grade books in the K–12 classroom as “yet another way to attempt to replace community with technology. It’s not really a new thing … simply systems replacing relationships.” The same might be said of social media: “likes” serve as a proxy for acceptance, comments as a hollow echo of conversation, curated images as a substitute for time spent together in person.

In our current climate, K–12 and college educators have responded to the pressure from parents and from students to inflate grades by providing ever more detailed and prescriptive rubrics, by allowing rewrites, by eliminating penalties for late work, or by just lowering standards, all at the expense of the kind of difficult and often nonlinear growth that can happen over the course of an academic year—and at the expense of students’ mental health. The curmudgeon, easily caricatured, insists that back in my day, standards used to be higher, work used to be more challenging, grades used to be lower—I’ve already done some of this myself. But recent data truly do suggest that grade inflation is real, and that in a roundabout way, higher grades are adding to student stress. As scores rise and more students graduate with honors, or with what once would have been exemplary grade point averages, it becomes harder for students to distinguish themselves from their classmates. Some start to feel that perfect grades are required. To give just one example, 93.6 percent of the incoming class of 2024 at the University of Maryland had a weighted GPA of 4.0 or better.

In April 2021, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper suggesting that after taking into account demographic variables and changes in college preparation, “grades are rising over time even when controlling for performance on identical final exams.” The authors further argued that data about students’ study habits and hours spent on part- or full-time employment suggest that

rising grades cannot be explained by changes in student learning. Instead, our findings from the nationally-representative data, the sample of large public universities, and the public liberal arts college in combination with trends in student time spent studying and labor force participation in college suggest that GPAs have been rising due to relaxed standards. These relaxed standards account for much of the increase in college graduation rates.

A once-impressive GPA, let alone the college degree itself, is no longer something that might set a job or graduate school applicant apart.

Over dinner earlier this year, a friend of mine told me that her high school students were struggling despite a significantly diminished workload post-lockdown. Part of the problem, she reasoned, was a result of the pandemic—the concerns about the virus itself, disruptions to daily life, the lack of accountability in virtual school, the exhaustion of spending two years listening to the adults around them use the conditions of their education as political footballs. But when my friend recently showed one section of her honors sophomore English class copies of midterm essays written in her class a decade before, her students were astounded. Had the class from 2010–2011 really read 11 books by the midterm exam in January? And had the kids really managed to write such complex and carefully supported essays in one exam period? Indeed, she explained, they had.

My friend and I shared a classroom during that 2010–2011 school year, and I know from both firsthand observation and student testimony that her class was demanding. And yet, she told me that in the 2021–2022 school year, her students read only two full texts by midyear and that the exam itself was spread out over many days, with students told in advance what kinds of textual evidence and analysis to prepare. It was impossible to imagine a high school class in January 2022 doing what I’d seen my friend ask for in the past, or even what I myself had been asked to do when I took sophomore English.

In the past five years, several initiatives were introduced at my old high school to address the growing concern over students’ mental health. Puppies were allowed on campus for exam week, and eventually exam week itself was reconfigured: what had been for us a rigorous rite of passage became a gentle, drawn-out period of low-stakes assignments. My friends and I had secretly relished the nights we spent at the local Barnes & Noble, cramming for tests and proofreading papers—the work was sometimes stressful and sometimes exhausting, but it felt like we were really accomplishing something. The students who today enjoy a more relaxed exam schedule, however, don’t seem any less stressed or any less exhausted, making me suspect that the work was never the primary cause of that stress. One district where I taught has restructured the school year and the exam schedule while eliminating deadlines altogether. Does all of this tell students that grades aren’t important? Or that grades are so important that they must be artificially inflated, even if it means reorganizing the educational structure and reconfiguring the teacher-student dynamic?

My college students’ average SAT score is higher than mine, and most graduated near the top of their high school classes. They are polite and diligent. They have good attendance rates and are rarely late. Because I did not go to this particular college, and because I started teaching there so recently, I can’t say how much the curriculum or expectations have changed over the years, but I can say that, like my high school students, my college students are experiencing a great deal of pressure. The crisis is all too real. A recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed showed that since the start of the pandemic, 75 percent of college students have struggled regularly with depression and anxiety, with more than 50 percent describing their mental health as “fair” or “poor.” But what can campuses do to address the problem? Some universities, including Virginia Tech, Georgetown, Belmont, and James Madison, are now offering 24-hour virtual mental health care. Meanwhile, other solutions are being tried out. At my college, cake is sometimes served in the library, and puppies are brought onto campus during events such as Paws and Reflect.

One day this spring, during a discussion of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the subject of college grading, mental health, and the relationship between grades and self-worth came up. I happened to make a joke about Paws and Reflect, and I told my class that although I love dogs and libraries and cake, I suspected that the student mental health crisis is not likely to be solved with puppies. One of my most honest students then raised his hand and said that school seemed to have been getting easier over the past several years, but that students were more stressed than ever.

Writing for The New York Times in May 2022, Jonathan Malesic, a professor at Southern Methodist University, observed something similar. When his students came back to the classroom in 2021, it was as though they were still in virtual mode—with their Zooms on mute and their cameras turned off. The image resonated instantly: my students, too, had often been present only in the most literal sense. Malesic went on to argue that as we emerge from the most disruptive period of the pandemic, educators have a duty to gradually “help students rebuild their ability to learn. And to do that, everyone involved—students, faculties, administrators and the public at large—must insist on in-person classes and high expectations for fall 2022 and beyond.” Colleagues of Malesic’s, such as biology professor Matthew Fujita, reported that the results of the first exam in a fall 2020 class reflected “the worst performance [he’d] ever seen on a test.”

Malesic then described an English class he visited at the University of Dallas where students were not permitted to use cell phones or computers as they debated the relationship between meaning and meter in classical poetry. Instead, they took notes on paper. The class rules as well as the rigor of the syllabus forced engagement. Students were present in every sense of the word. They certainly weren’t on mute. The description of that class reminded me of my own education as well as a college-prep 10th-grade class that I’d taught back in 2008. We started a unit on the loss of innocence and the acquisition of knowledge with a close reading of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” I projected the poem on the whiteboard and, by the end of class, had marked it up to near illegibility with student observations, questions, and ideas about the poem’s meter and meaning.

By the early 2010s, the students at my Connecticut high school were accustomed to bringing laptops or tablets to class. In fact, the school encouraged this BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy as a “green” initiative. One of the athletes on the cross-country team, an excellent student who eventually went on to study biology at a top research university, told me ruefully that she and her classmates would watch entire seasons of Netflix shows at school, with the sound muted and the closed captioning activated. When I learned this, I felt an awful sense of having abdicated my responsibility for her education—had she been watching Pretty Little Liars while we were discussing Of Mice and Men? What are my college students watching as they sit politely, dutifully, their laptops open between us, only half present in the three-dimensional world, eager to move through their work as quickly as possible without deeply engaging with the kind of brain-hurting questions that I believe are the essence of education? Is their immersion in the virtual world the reason why our classroom discussions lack frisson and energy, why outbursts, even mild disagreements, are rare?

Much has been written about how Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his children use iPads, or how the elite Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which educates many Silicon Valley children, is screen free. I have contemplated banning computers from my classroom—I don’t think my students would revolt. But eliminating access to technology in most American schools would be complicated, and perhaps not even desirable. Students in low-income school districts who might not have access to devices at home need to be technologically literate, and in some cases, the only place for that to happen is at school. Still, I keep returning to Malesic’s description of that Dallas English class, and I remember how magical class discussions can be when students and teachers feel connected in the same intellectual and physical space. Might disengagement from technology be a start toward higher standards, more rigorous classes, an environment less focused on grades? And might a shift away from data and scores also combat grade inflation, and paradoxically do something to recenter classroom relationships, potentially making education, at least sometimes, feel more magical?

Malesic suggests that the way forward is in connection: “Professors must recognize that caring for students means wanting to see them thrive. That entails high expectations and a willingness to help students exceed them. Administrators will need to enact policies that put relationships at the center.” Rightfully, much of the conversation about mental health on campus has focused on how faculty members might show students that they care—but caring for my students might require the discomfort of banning the computers and phones we’ve all become accustomed to and establishing distance from the virtual world to better allow for the intimacy of difficult learning. It also means moving away from the instant and the superficially measurable in service to both deep critical thinking and improved mental health.

In Pedagogy of the Depressed, written during the pandemic but conscious of and engaging with patterns that preceded it, Christopher Schaberg writes that today’s “students are better writers than readers.” In part, this is because students are writing text messages and social media posts all the time, whereas “the kind of slow time required for reading is a rapidly vanishing thing.” If the goal of education for so many students has become an accumulation of currency (points, grades), then reading, discussing, and thinking might begin to seem like investments with a low return. And although reading ought to be an active endeavor, assessing how thoughtfully, deeply, and carefully students read can be hard. There’s a less direct line between time spent and measurable outcome.

According to Schaberg, the “conundrum might be explained as follows: younger people ‘these days’ are under constant pressure to perform, and to practice being on the market. Or, really … children these days are always already on the market: working (without pay, most of the time) to hone skills, prove their worth, increase their value, and ultimately outperform others.” In one sense, I can relate: surely the binder in my high school guidance office was an earlier iteration of Naviance, the “college and career readiness technology solution.” The notion of the social media highlight reel, moreover, is not so different from a yearbook or a carefully placed college decal. Yes, I spent a good amount of time in my high school guidance office, worrying and dreaming about my future. But because I was also frantically writing down notes about the McKinley Act or trying and failing to figure out what Stephen Dedalus’s priest was really ranting about—the work itself demanding so much attention and care from both my teachers and me—I had less time to wonder how an 89.47 might be rounded on my report card. Being so involved with the act of learning made it less likely that I’d see my self-worth as defined only by or synonymous with a number.

At the heart of both Schaberg’s and Malesic’s arguments, divergent though they appear in their philosophical and political frameworks, is the importance of relationships and care. Put another way, both Schaberg and Malesic shed light on the dangers of our focus on the measurable outcomes that educational trends have made standard. The importance of the relationship between student and teacher is also at the heart of Phaedrus’s experiment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—and it’s what’s most endangered by the decades of emphasis on student data. In addition, the larger supposition behind many education initiatives of the past decades—the mentality that treats education like a business—is just as damaging. You can assign fewer books, you can dole out higher grades, you can make the classroom experience easier, you can bring all the cake you want, but if students now believe they are both a product and a customer—as they’ve been hearing for years—their mental health will inevitably be tied to their grades in an unhealthy way.

A colleague said recently that she thinks students who negotiate for higher grades at the end of a semester just need to be told something like, I know this is hard, and it’s okay not to do it perfectly. My own approach is to tell students that I rarely remember the grades they receive. Instead, I remember how engaged, how delightful, how funny they were. Student work is mostly not memorable. I don’t mean this unkindly. It’s the students, not their work in isolation, that I’ve spent all year caring deeply about, the relationships I forge that make teaching challenging, worthwhile, fun, and engaging. Paying attention is how we care for people, for ideas, for our world. It’s also an antidote to the notion that worth is achieved or bestowed simply by attaining the right grade.

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Amanda Parrish Morgan's first book, Stroller, was listed as a Best Book of 2022 by The New Yorker. Her articles and essays have appeared in such places as The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and LitHub. She teaches at Fairfield University, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and The Westport Writers’ Workshop.


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