New MCPS Grading System Hinders Genuine Learning
By Ella Goldblum
It’s the end of second quarter and you just took a big math unit test. It didn't go well. And according to myMCPS, you already have a borderline grade in the class: an 89.5, in fact. You get worried. You gear up for a retake. You prepare to verbally go to bat with your teacher for the best score you can possibly convince them to give you.
And then you remember: Oh yeah. I got an A last quarter!
You’re free. If you get an A first or third quarter, it's safe to say your actions do not matter. Anything between a 79.5 and a 100 means the exact same thing to parents, colleges, and any other confused onlookers who might be checking out your Montgomery County Public Schools transcript.
So, what does the grading system instituted last year mean for MCPS students? It means we get to relax a little bit about grades, right? Or does it mean that we all slack as soon as we know we have an “A” or a “B” on our semester report card? Does it mean that we hinder our learning, our classroom environments, and the abilities of our teachers to properly teach us, by caring more about how many points we “need” on a given assignment than what we should learn from it?
I have long complained about the lack of genuine love for learning within B-CC’s walls. Make no mistake: I, too, am completely guilty of this. And I certainly don't think it's unique to our one school. But I do think that the more wealthy, white-collar, and high-pressure a population is, the more fixated we are on a high SAT score or a 4.0 GPA or a top-20 college or a career as a lawyer/doctor/banker/whatever. And the more fixated we are on these measurable goals, the less possible it is for us to authentically be interested in the subjects we are learning. There is so much to learn in a school like this, from multivariable calculus to Arabic to comparative religions. We are so lucky, and I worry we squander that luck by focusing exclusively on the things that can be quantified. I worry we have tunnel vision sometimes.
The interesting question is: was the new grading system meant to change this? Was it intended to mitigate student obsession over grades and reduce stress? Or, was it as an attempt to make more MCPS students desirable to colleges so that the school system would look better on paper?
Regardless of what specifically motivated last year’s change in grading policy, both of these goals have backfired. The A-B-A system doesn't do MCPS students any favors in the long term. Getting an A in a class that you don't really deserve an A in isn't going to serve you well when you try to elevate your understanding of a subject, to take your education to the next level. If you didn't understand pre-calculus in high school, but you got an A anyway, college calculus is going to be exponentially more difficult. And when it comes to just getting into college, the value of an “A” is devalued if half the kids in the grade are getting them. It’s unfair to the many students in this building who work hard because they care about understanding the material. Because they view education as an end in itself, not just a stepping stone to a high-salary career.
Maybe the answer to the problem has nothing to do with the new grading system. Some would argue it might be better to get rid of the emphasis of grades altogether. In MCPS, though, this seems like a long shot. But the new grading system is a bad band-aid solution. We all love it----sometimes. I do, too. When I’m in a bind at the end of the quarter and I’m too burned out to try, I can always fall back on first quarter grades. But in the heat of the moment, we forget how much better it would be to have a system that is fair and transparent. A system that is not so easy to game. A system that demands and rewards a good work ethic. Not because that is what will “get us into college.” But because that is what will ultimately get us through, both college and the rest of our lives after that.