Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school (Einstein)
Coming back to the anxiety-provoking grades, I'd like to ask teachers and parents what the difference is between a 69 and 70 (for those using numbers), or an 89 and a 90, or a 98 and a 100. It may be fairer to use letters such A,B,C,D and F (failure). But the eventual all-important GPA (grade point average) will determine whether the student goes to top universities or merely the average ones, therefore creating a load of stress for the young candidates. The same argument applies to the entrance examinations such as SAT or ACT. The eventual score will have profound consequences.
School results are a significant source of stress for both students and parents. One of the main indicators, perhaps the most important one for some, is grades. Students regularly ask me to give them a copy of their grades for every topic and for every marking period. As a special education teacher, I have to make sure that my assigned pupils have a clear path to an occupation or to college after high school. Passing every required course is a constant source of anxiety since graduating cannot be achieved otherwise. Are we giving too much importance to grades as opposed to other indicators that may give a better information as to the readiness of these teenagers?
International academic achievement results place us, the United States, in the first tier of the pack for Reading (17), in the lower 50% in Math, number 22 in Science; there are 65 countries involved in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) survey. Considering that we are still the largest economy in the world and have the most powerful military force, these results may seem to predict a gloomy future for our country. But on the positive side of education, we produce more Nobel Prize winners than any other comparable region in the world, we have the best research centers, we enjoy the best hospitals (though the cost of medical care is ridiculously high), we produce the best technology, and we host the largest corporations. Furthermore, foreign students flock to our best-known universities, famous for the quality of their teachers and research labs.
It is ironic that some of the most brilliant minds in our country failed to finish college or even high school. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is a case in point; he dropped out of no less than Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious university in the world. Henry Ford never went to college and yet founded one of the most valuable automotive brands. Dave Thomas dropped out of high school to start Wendy's restaurants. But of course talent with a capital "T" will always find a way to succeed. The problem sometimes comes from parents who refuse to let their gifted offspring choose a career they object to.
For the vast majority of teens, the downside of failing grades in high school is not an academic problem; many students simply stop going to school, believing that they are incapable of succeeding in that environment. Some drop outs join gangs, where they find the acceptance they crave. Others are content with menial jobs that pay very little and offer no future. A valiant effort has been made in many school districts to visit their homes and try convincing them to return and finish their schooling. But that costs money and nowadays school budgets are reflecting the national crisis, barely able to meet the most pressing demands.
It is imperative for public education in the U.S. to find new ways of evaluating children by eliminating the undue stress caused by the need to pass the standardized tests. Some of the most successful countries have rejected these measures outright and still manage to produce well-prepared students. Yes, schools need some kind of measuring stick, but let's not make it the torture instrument it is today.