The beginning of February is report card season at Stuyvesant. The first thing any Stuy student does after receiving their grades is whip out their graphing calculators and determine their GPA, a number that will become as revealing as their Social Security in the months to come. After homeroom, the halls are flooded with students waving around their term transcripts and eagerly comparing theirs to their classmates’, enjoying internal triumphs over decimal differences.
We’re competitive students driven by grades as a way to definitively affirm our academic standing. However, the recent cheating scandal, and subsequent articles in the wider media about the destructive cheating culture at Stuyvesant, indicate how the cutthroat nature here is destructive to many of the young minds that pass through our halls. The pressure-cooker that Stuyvesant can so easily become, with its emphasis on grades and success, is among the roots of our problems. The grading system is a huge factor in why cheating is so rampant, and it needs to be reformed.
As an Editorial Board, we discussed some possible new systems that could be implemented in place of our current system: number grades on a 1-100 score, with an overall average rounded to the nearest tenth. However, there are many proponents for the current system, so we’ve included it in our list of alternatives.
These aren’t going to get put in place tomorrow – rather, they are proposals to bring to the table, to help start a dialogue. We’ve done our best to assess both the pros and cons of each system in an unbiased manner, so now it’s up to you to decide for yourself which is best for our school.
Stuyvesant has long been producing generations of successful students and professionals – clearly, we’re doing something right. The current grading system we use, which consists of number from one to 100 accurate to the nearest tenth, has shaped the rigorous culture that values accuracy and precision. That decimal grade provides clarity about rankings relative to our massive student body and relieves stress about where we stand, not so much in comparison to other students but in terms of our own progress. Those extra decimal places motivate—giving an extra push to students who are satisfied to see their grade slowly inch up, and feel rewarded for the progress made, no matter how tiny, during each marking period. Furthermore, the stimulus offered by the decimal assimilates the student into the college experience and the real world, where students will face situations of overwhelming pressure and stress with relative ease because of the diligence and responsibility that have arisen from our current system of grading.
However, the very same attributes that define this system’s success can also act as a double edged sword, as some of us feel that our current grading methodology was a key factor in the cheating scandal that occurred last spring. The decimal places at the end of our grades induce a learning culture filled with pressure to be exceptional, imposed by ourselves but also by our peers, teachers, and parents. This pressure has introduced an inherent social hierarchy within the school based on grades; students just a tenth of a point below another are seen as intellectually inferior. This pressure and incentive within each student to make it to the top have caused the focus of school to shift from the sole purpose of learning to a fierce competition based on numbers. Thus, this system is alleged to have created the make-it-or-break-it, cutthroat society of Stuyvesant students, prompting those who can’t seem to reach their set bar of excellence to resort to the unfortunate depths of the cheating culture in order to achieve that 97 average cutoff perceived to be necessary to gain admission to an Ivy League.
Yes, there’s no way to stop students from comparing GPAs–– it happens everywhere from middle schools to graduate programs. And without the abolition of grades altogether, competition will continue to persist at Stuyvesant. But it isn’t healthy to impose social hierarchy based on fractions of a point in a system that already strains students to the breaking point, especially when its only justifications are that it helps create a sense of motivation and gives us a taste of the cruel world that awaits us once we graduate. Sorry Stuyvesant, but we shouldn’t be sorting ourselves by tenths and we definitely shouldn’t derive pleasure from infinitesimally small numbers. Students are fully capable of determining their progress based on their own metrics for understanding–– that should be the goal of education, not working furiously to eek out another 0.1 to beat out a student or two.
Rounding the transcript GPAs sent to colleges to the nearest integer would allow us to take advantage of the few beneficial effects of an accurate average, such as a running measure of improvement, while stunting the cutthroat attitude that has so negatively shaped our school. Unfortunately, use of such a system would come with a distinct pitfall: it could have the effect of inflating grades or erasing gains if the final transcript average ended with a number above or below .5. However, the advantages of allowing a degree of imprecision would foster a student population less driven by decimal points and instead motivated by personal growth, and this benefit would far outweigh the already insignificant numbers we carry after the decimal point. Indeed, we are aware both students and college admission boards have calculators capable of determining exactly where a student stands–– to the nth decimal point we might add, but considering the latter is constantly distancing itself from a wholly numerical approach to decisions, and the former could use a break from an often dehumanizing high school experience, perhaps this is what is needed to help balance the friends-sleep-study triangle. After all, doesn’t leveling averages encourage more focus on the things that make us well, more than things?
Another option would be to revert to the traditional A through F grading scale used in many high schools and universities. The Department of Education details recommended numerical equivalents for letter grades on a 1-100 scale, which would be used to calculate a numerical average if necessary. However, the school would be ultimately responsible for determining numerical conversions. This would relieve some of the stress on students to attain a certain number rather than a general status in the class – rather than worrying about obtaining a 95 over a 94, students would instead strive for an A, and hopefully divert their energy toward absorbing and understanding as much material as possible rather than regurgitating what is necessary to get a certain number grade. Students would not be able to impose social hierarchies based on fractions of points or even points themselves. Rather, they would have a clear understanding of how they are doing, which colleges would be able to understand easily.
This system could prove even more problematic than the current one in terms of the academic and social hierarchies of Stuyvesant. Under the current system, the averages of students fall somewhere on a spectrum, with many gradients between extremes. This system would potentially separate students into categories (A students versus B students versus C students) with the potential for labeling and profiling based on the grade category of the student. Because of the reasonably large numerical ranges for each letter grade, grade mobility would be especially difficult, and after a certain point students would be effectively locked into their letter grade. Additionally, as teachers convert numerical test grades and rubric scores into letter grades, arbitrary lines in the sand between grade categories could be created as a result. And while using grade categories rather than strict numbers would alleviate the pressure on a student solidly within grade categories, it would unfairly separate students on the edges. For most students, small differences in grades would be rendered irrelevant, but for the students constantly on the cusp of an 80, a 90, or a 97, they would mean a whole world of difference.
What if the cause of the cheating were removed? What if students no longer received numerical grades? What if school became entirely about progress rather than a parochial system of assigning a symbol to indicate human being’s intellectual worth? Instead of using grades, teachers would write a paragraph on each student, adding more information each term, so that by the end of the term, a student and his parents would have a snapshot of his performance. Something similar to this system is utilized quite successfully in St. Anne’s High School, a small private school in Brooklyn. Obviously, adapting something like this to a school as large as Stuyvesant has its challenges, but the system has many benefits.
Teachers would talk about how the student acted in class. Did he participate? How conscientious was he on his homework? Did he demonstrate a strong understanding of the material? These broad categories that teachers currently assign numbers to would become a paragraph that highlighted a student’s strengths and weaknesses. This would be a way to hold teachers responsible for getting to know their students, addressing one of the common complaints that our school in an impersonal one.
Tests would be different. Instead of having a number in a red circle at the top of the page, a teacher would highlight student’s mistakes without an ultimate grade. Tests would serve their original purpose, to inform the teacher of the student’s process. In their writing, teachers would discuss how students performed on tests – not in terms of numbers and points, but in terms of truly understanding the material. A student could try to work out his grade on the exam by calculating percentages, but he would find that it wouldn’t matter since that number would have no impact on what came out in the paragraph.
By removing grades, students would learn for learning’s sake, not just to get a good grade. Kids would push themselves to do better because they would know that they would learn more, not because they felt compelled to get a higher grade than their neighbor in math class. Instead of competing against each other, students would strive to do better in class. If they slacked off, it would be reflected in the paragraph. By instituting paragraphs, Stuyvesant would reinstall a passion in learning, something that seems to have diminished in this age of testing.
A total lack of grading may seem scary, especially when it comes to looking at colleges. With nothing but prose to recount four years of hard work, it’s easy to say that Harvard may be skeptical when comparing an essay to a row of straight 98s from another school. However, students from St. Annes have been getting into phenomenal colleges on this system, and admissions officers dealing with Stuyvesant students need merely to be debriefed on the change of system and evaluate the written record without the metric of a GPA or individual grades. There are hundreds of different grading methods that schools from all over the country, and admissions personnel are well equipped to handle all of them and adapt to new ones, as well.
A change in the grading system may be exactly what Stuyvesant needs to fix our number-obsessed culture. However, simply presenting scores in a different way, while helping to level the playing field between students with similar numbers, does only a little to compensate for different teachers’ grading styles – and this is a big problem, as well. Grading discrepancy is rampant. Departments don’t hold their staff to standardized grading rubrics, and teachers grade similar topics in vastly different manners.
As an Editorial Board, we tried to be careful and detailed in putting these different techniques together. While the St. Anne-esque technique may be closer to a perfect system for some of our more holistically-minded students, there is a significant argument to be made for the current one, as well as the two more moderate ones in between. We don’t know which system is best; we just know something has to change. Let the debate begin.