Column: The culture of grade obsession


Naperville North is notorious for its academic rigor. With 50% of seniors boasting a GPA of 3.5 or higher according to District 203’s Naperville North Profile, the standards at North are set high. Students feel the expectation of academic superiority in their daily lives, and it manifests in the obsessive checking of grades.

Sophomore Ellie Rancich, an honors student involved with show choir and theater, checks her grades at least five times a day.

“I need to check my grades, I do it almost impulsively. If I get to class and I don’t have anything to do, I’ll check my grades for no reason,” Rancich said.

This compulsion is not unique to her. In our achievement-obsessed society, the easiest way for students to judge their progress is their grades. With plans for college so far in the future, checking current academic progress is a simple way for students to have a sense of control over their future. They can make sure they are always meeting standards set by themselves, their parents or society.

Michael H. Romanowski, a Professor of Education at Qatar University, believes that grades are often touted as the sole key to a successful future.

“The issue is that grades transfer into scholarships, acceptance to schools, happy parents and ‘success’ as defined by culture,” Romanowski said in an email interview. “You can be very smart and well educated, but if you have low grades, the path to ‘success’ contains many obstacles.”

Grade obsession can cause anxiety among students who are hyper-focused on their achievements. Students can lose sight of the reason they are at school — to truly understand new material, not just memorize and recite. Instead of focusing on mastering material, students put their energy into performing well on tests because of the grades attached.

Unrestricted access to grades through apps like Infinite Campus Portal bring another factor in to grade obsession: parents. Many parents have access to their child’s grades, and though it is meant as a way to keep parents involved in their student’s education, some abuse that power and contribute to their child’s obsession by focusing only on their grades instead of their comprehension of the material.

“[Unrestricted access to grades] has developed into something unproductive and unhealthy, such as parents hovering over students. The process has reinforced the idea that grades are all that matters,” Romanowski said.

While some may argue that focusing on grades keeps students accountable, the level at which students have become dependent on their grades as a measure of success is detrimental. Grades do serve a purpose — to provide a tangible result of the time students spend in school — but students have begun to put their value in whatever grade they have received, instead of using it to motivate them to work harder. Students have become obsessed with knowing every time their grade rises or falls even a few tenths of a percent. The need for grades to validate the student and their work creates a negative mindset for education. Students don’t focus on comprehension and building skills needed for the future, they focus on success in the moment. Grade obsession needs to be addressed in schools, but ultimately, the issue feeds off a culture where success is everything.

“The problem is not only the school but rather a society that requires good grades,” Romanowski said. “I think administrators and teachers can try to reduce the students’ focus on grades and shift to learning. Using formative and summative assessments can reduce the worry and shift the focus on learning from mistakes and improving.”

While administrators and teachers can help the situation, as Romanowski suggests, it ultimately rests on the students to change the culture surrounding grades. It is time for students to turn their anxiety about their grades into a positive form of motivation — a challenge instead of a threat. The weight that students put on their grades causes them to lose sight of the true beauty of education: challenging students and showing them how capable they truly are. Once students learn to look past their grades as the only measure of their success, learning becomes exciting again.