An Experience is Worth a Thousand Lectures

Many spend so much time squabbling and scratching for the highest grades that they can get—searching for extra credit and scrounging for every last point—that they don’t actually learn a darn thing. They can regurgitate obscure facts muttered by their teacher that they jotted down hurriedly in their notebook, but they lack the fundamental understanding and context that fact requires to be useful. After all context doesn’t help you get the question right on the test, does it? And all they need is that extra bump to bring their GPA up that one hundredth of a point.

Surely this type of student doesn’t make up the majority, but their affliction is one that often effects people who would otherwise be the most intelligent among their peers. Their obsession with grades, GPA’s, and scores, however, relegates that intelligence to the compulsive nitpicking and teacher’s-pet banter that belies their true potential.

On the opposite end of the spectrum there is a similar group of people—this group spanning the scale of intelligence—who have become so frustrated with this system of grades and GPA’s that they have completely banished them from their lexicon. These people apply little to school, if anything, and come out on the rock bottom levels of accomplishment. Whether motivated by a mediocre or lack of intelligence, far-too-high expectations from parents or peers, or a simple antiauthoritarian streak these people are procedurally squandering their own potential of future success.

I know about these two groups because at different times in my publicly educated life I have been at both extremes.

I aspire to do a lot of things in my life, but one of the things that has remained at the forefront of my psyche is my desire to reform the American system of education. Whether I end up being a rock star, author, politician, teacher, or movie director I have every intention of putting large quantities of effort into changing how we teach our young. The way we do it now caters too much to the middle, destining the low performers to a life of poverty and hard labor while destining the high performers to antisocial and awkward adulthoods.

Part of the purpose of our education system is to level the playing field. By giving everybody a basic, nearly homogenous set of knowledge we hope to open doors and make anything possible for anybody. It’s a noble concept, and for most people it works at least moderately well. But once you’re out of high school it becomes a very competitive world. Everybody who intends to continue their education suddenly has to fight their way into a college, armed with their GPA and their SAT scores.

The SAT is something that I am saving for a future rant, I’m here to talk to you today about grades and GPA.

As colleges begin to turn away from the SAT, GPA’s are becoming even more important than the Holy Grail they already were as far as entry into higher education institutions. But the danger in paying too much attention to the Grade Point Average is that it is based on individual class grades, and we all know that those are often far-from-fair.

For example, my high school grades were based quite a bit on homework scores, and I never had any interest in doing my homework. My freshman year at Chantilly High School was marked with a terribly bad set of grades, despite the fact that I passed—and in most cases aced—nearly every test and quiz. Well perhaps it is naive, but it seems to me that if I aced the tests I should have been graded well regardless of my homework scores. After all, the intent of the class is to teach the material, and if I’ve learned the material it should be irrelevant if I finished the plethora of busywork assignments I was asked to do throughout the year.

But as probably 50 percent of my readers are thinking right now, tests surely aren’t always a good indicator of class performance. There are plenty of people who are poor at test-taking, despite having a good understanding of the course material. That’s why I propose a sliding system of grading where tests and homework (primarily papers rather than busywork) are valued differently based on the strong points of the student. Students would have to demonstrate a knowledge of the course material, but it would be unimportant how they demonstrate that knowledge.

Somebody who does great research papers on the course material but tests poorly would have their research papers weighted more. Good test takers would be weighted to opposite way.

This kind of dynamic grading system would allow students to focus on understanding the course material rather than spending all their time stressing about a paper or a test they know they won’t do well on. After all, as long as they have learned what the course is teaching why does it matter how well they do on a paper or how good they are at taking tests?

But there are more fundamental flaws in the GPA system than this flaw in grading itself. Colleges accept the best students they can find, but as much importance as is put on GPA the admissions process seems skewed toward the nitpickers. I would argue that those nitpickers are not, in fact, the best candidates for college admissions at all. In a realistic academic sense, college requires nothing more than a basic understanding of subjects taught in high school. So in admissions processes, they should really focus on which students will be best able to utilize a college education.

There is a radical education reform that would simultaneously change college admissions focus and help prevent the creation of nitpickers (and most low performers) in the first place. It’s a crazy reform, for some a frightening reform, and as far as I’m concerned a necessary one. We must eliminate grading in its present form throughout all levels of education.

While students would still be told individually by their teachers and professors how well they did on that educator’s system of grading, at the end students would be given one of two scores—they would either “Pass” and get the course credit, or “Fail” and get no course credit. Instead of skewing admissions toward nitpicking compulsive people and skewing it away from often talented low performers, you open up a real college possibility for everybody who has done well enough to be considered knowledgeable. “Pass” would generally correspond to anybody in the mid-C to A+ range, while “Fail” would generally correspond to anybody in the F to mid-C range. Students would know privately how close they were to that separator and would know how to devise their course strategy, but colleges will see nothing more than that they are dealing with a student who has met the public education requirements or one who has not.

All of a sudden the playing field—for those who are educationally capable—really has been leveled. There would be no nitpickers because there would be no necessity for perfection. There would be fewer low performers because they wouldn’t have to fight with the nitpickers or perfectionist influences. Colleges would be forced to base admissions on overall qualifications, not on arbitrary numbers that don’t fairly represent anything. Imagine how wonderful that world would be!

In the real world it is entirely unimportant whether you got an A, B, or C in Government class. Having that basic knowledge—having passed—is what matters. So why encourage the kind of shameless competition, strategic course taking, and all the other crap people do in their desire to get that 4.0+ by rewarding them with an advantage others cannot achieve without demolishing their entire out-of-school life?

Oddly enough, George Mason University is one of the few with a forward-thinking admissions policy—whether or not you get in is based primarily on an interview. I had an average SAT and a lowball GPA, but I still got accepted because I had the chance to talk to a real professor and make a real impression as to what I was going to do with my life (and explain my low grades—one of my interviewer’s specific questions was “Do you think your grades are a fair representation of your ability?”). This kind of flukey fairness is uncommon in any college, let alone a public university, and it’s time that it be forced by eliminating some of those numbers that colleges can lazily base their admissions policies on.

But even GMU continues to use grades once you get here, the GPA is still given prominence even though it continues to be an unfair representation of my—or anybody else’s—capability. Yes, many could get straight A’s if they really tried, but nobody should have to dedicate their life to their education in order to be granted the prestige of a perfect score. As long as one demonstrates a good knowledge of the course material—as long as they pass—they should be taken as seriously as anybody else. Education is of paramount importance, but there’s a whole world out there waiting to be discovered. A picture is worth a thousand words, and likewise an experience is worth a thousand lectures or a quintillion busywork homework assignments.

Should anybody be encouraged to dedicate their lives to that 4.0+—and be rewarded for it—at the expense of those experiences that are worth so much more than anything school has to offer? That’s a question for the teachers and educators of tomorrow, I can only hope they are listening.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.