Why Grades Are Not the Best Measure for Success

As an academic coach, I am always amazed at how much my students teach me with their feedback and observations. A few days ago, one of my students made an observation about grades that reinforced for me how unreliable they are as a measure of success.

I am not at all anti-grading in saying this. I am fine with the concept of studying hard and receiving a grade in return to reward the effort. In life, we are all ‘graded’ in some form or another at our jobs, and getting feedback from others is essential to growth in whatever form that feedback takes. So on the surface, a student goal of making A’s in classes makes sense, and is such a habit for most students and parents (and, I admit, for me as well) that I sometimes forget there’s a better, more measurable goal to set than looking at grade reports – until a student comes along and reminds me.

This student was feeling frustrated because he was having a hard time measuring his success from week to week due to the lack of grade updates he was receiving in some of his classes. He may have studied hard for his tests and quizzes, and turned in some late assignments to teachers to eliminate some zeroes, but when the teachers didn’t get those grades and makeup assignments entered into the online system quickly, he was unable to get confirmation that his efforts were working.

It can be frustrating to look at low averages week after week when the student knows they’ve made up some of their missing work, or re-taken a test to up the score, but I do think we need to give teachers a break here. As a former high school teacher, I know how overwhelming a job it is, and the truth is grading and entering those grades takes time that has to be carved out from the myriad other responsibilities teachers have to juggle from day-to-day. While waiting weeks to get test grades entered certainly isn’t acceptable, it makes sense to give teachers several days to get them posted. On the other hand, I always tell my students that one of the many benefits of turning in work on time is getting to see the grades in a timely manner, and that a teacher isn’t under much of an obligation to quickly grade and log assignments that missed the deadline. Resolving the consequences of your lateness, and the low grade that results from it, isn’t going to be a teacher’s priority, and for the most part, it shouldn’t be.

All the more reason for realizing a measure of success that relies less on the teacher, and more on the individual student. So how is this done? The student can think about the actions he or she is going to take to accomplish the goal of improving grades, and make those actions the real goal. Saying, “I am going to bring all my low grades up to passing” or “I am going to bump my Bs to As” is a great idea, but again, the student doesn’t control how or when that magic happens. But, a goal that states, “I am going to turn in all my homework on time this grading period” or “I am going to study for 30 minutes every day for 4 days before my tests, instead of trying to cram everything in the night before” is not only more clear and productive, but it’s entirely dependent on student action, and therefore, immediately measurable, even if it takes the teacher another week to enter grades.

Setting goals that are outside our realm of control is a habit that is tricky to change, especially when it comes to academics, because the big reward is generally to get that glowing grade report at the end of a semester. But it is worth checking in with ourselves every once in a while, especially when we’re feeling frustrated with our lack of progress, to see if part of the problem is that we’re relying on someone else to give us the feedback we need to know whether or not our efforts are paying off. It’s not about abandoning the goal of making good grades, it’s about being as proactive as possible in working to achieve them. Measuring  success against a student’s own actions provides much more immediate feedback than waiting for grades to post (which puts them in a reactionary position that doesn’t serve them). This also provides students with a more concrete and useful evaluation system if something goes wrong grade-wise – sometimes, in spite of their best efforts, students fail a test or miss a deadline, and the more detailed a student’s action goals were, the easier it is to go back and evaluate what went wrong along the way and make changes.

It may sound strange to say that grade reports are not the proper measure of student success, but in reality, action-oriented goals that focus on how a student will behave from day-to-day are, in the long run, a better form of measurement. Students need to be able to evaluate themselves regularly, without waiting for feedback from others to validate how they are doing.