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Grades vs. Achievement

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Installment #20
Chapter 3-Gaining Perspective One issue At a Time
Issue #4-Grades vs. Achievement

Chapter 3/Issue #4/Preview

Grades vs. Achievements

While Grades might translate into Achievement,

Achievement might not automatically translate into Grades.

While Each is important in a child’s Academic Life,

Both will not always be of equal Value.

Keeping Grades and Achievement in Perspective

can be of enormous Benefit

in fueling  our children’s Motivation

for their studies, their assignments, and future intellectual pursuits.


Achievement vs. Grades

It was certainly the largest class I had ever attended—in an amphitheater, and led by, I was told, a renowned science teacher. Science and I did not get along. It had been my weakest subject in high school and here I was, a freshman in college, having to take it for a core credit. That day, the professor spoke on astronomy. At the end, he gave a research assignment. We had to write a ten page paper on one of the subjects listed on the board or, if we had another proposal, to please see him after class. I had a fun idea! So, down I went to the professor  and brightly shared it! The expression on his face was a cross between, someone please shoot me, and someone please shoot her!

Miss, your last name?  

Miss Crain.

Yes, Miss Crain. Well, this is a science class. The assignment is to be scientific in nature. Perhaps you did not understand me.

Oh, but I did, Sir, and I thought it might be interesting to do a paper on how the stars and planets influence behavior. After all, the first astronomers were also astrologers and Queen Elizabeth-

‑Excuse me, but I must tell you that I do not believe, at all, in astrology and its relationship to human behavior—and those who claim to be modern day astrologers are frauds.

Pause. Silence. Therefore, Miss?

Miss Crain.

Therefore, Miss Crain you have a choice. Either you can do the assigned paper on astronomy or another scientific exploration, or you can do your requested paper on astrology. But, please be advised that the highest grade you can possibly achieve, if you choose to waste your time in such an exercise, is a C, and believe me Miss?

Miss Crain.

Most likely, Miss Crain you will receive an F! The choice, however, I leave to you.

Thank you, Professor.

Good day, Miss Crain.

Not a good thing to dare youth! They always take the bait!!! He did not wish me good luck. So, with books from the library piled high on my bed, I started to read, do exhaustive research and think about how to make a convincing argument for astrology in the Middle Ages. After all, he had said modern astrologers, right? I will not go into what I wrote–suffice to say, my argument became  about nature and how people, influenced by seasonal changes, and geography, exhibit certain similar traits.

I also don't remember how long it took me to write but it took the professor two weeks to grade. Finally, in he walked with the huge stack that he then had his assistant hand out according to our assigned seats. I wondered whether he had actually read them, or had his assistant done most of the grading? If so, how did he feel about astrology? I watched the teacher assistant walk around this huge room. He never came to me. When the class ended, I went down to the Professor.

Professor, I did not receive back my paper.

Yes, Miss Crain.

He remembered my name?!! With that, he took my paper out of his briefcase, and practically threw it at me.

I do not believe in one word that you wrote, and furthermore, if I had the time, I would have challenged and destroyed each and every point that you put forth!

And with that he said, good-day and walked out of the room. There was no grade on the front, no comments.  I starting  flipping through and no edits at all!  I was hurt and wanted to cry.  Had he not read it at all?  I got to the tenth page in tears.  Then, at the bottom of the very last page, in the right hand corner, appeared a very small C with a note scribbled along side. 'Totally implausible but well written' I remember staring at that C over and over again for weeks. In my entire academic experience, there would never be another grade that would mean quite as much, or make me feel quite as accomplished.

Grades vs. Achievement

My son did not really start wanting to achieve until he received grades. The difference between very good, and good made no sense to him as a young child. When he entered 4th grade at a new school, he, all of a sudden, understood that B was better than C and A was better than B, and, in fact getting an A was great! He wanted A's but would be all over the first three letters of the alphabet until high school at which point, he became a consistently good student. But while his grades were roller coasting, he continued to hope for the often illusive A.

I look back on that and I ask myself, why his experience was different from Lory's, a middle school student I was asked to mentor, and who felt like a failure whenever she didn't receive an A. Those A's., i discovered, meant a great deal to Lory's mom, so much so, that what she really wanted me to do was help Lory maintain her A average. Lory was extremely bright, and I had no doubt that as she developed academically, she would continue to be a fine student.  All she really needed was time–to learn how to organize, how to shift from thinking just creatively, to writing analytically—but there was really no reason to tutor her. She didn't need extra support. Her mother did, and I was tutoring Lory for her mother. I tried to tell Lory's mom that middle school represented a time before high school, when kids could hone skills. Grades were not nearly as important as working through the kinks. For one thing, (even though we need not tell this to our kids) middle school transcripts do not go to colleges, and so, there exists no serious consequence for just concentrating on developing and improving. (This is true in sports, too!).

How to write an essay, how to express ideas, how to discuss literature as opposed to history, as opposed to science are vital skills for high school when students will need to know more than just facts. They will need to understand how those facts relate to each other and connect to the larger picture. Knowing how to write, and to write well, is probably the most important Middle School skill any student can develop.

Lory knew how to write. She just needed to understand how to approach different subjects. I met with her several times, gave her some tips, and then told her mother that Lory truly did not need me any more, and to simply let her daughter develop. She would be absolutely fine. It was a hard sell. How could she be fine, if she was getting the occasional B-?

My son, on the other hand, had a more difficult task. He was a slow reader, and he could not spell. His creative and insightful mind worked faster than his ability to write. (As a result, learning how to type was a G-d send for him). Furthermore, he hated doing the required steps in math—too tedious, too much work. He just wanted to get to the answer, which, most often, he got right. But, because he had not gone through all the steps, he consistently received poor marks on his homework. Do the steps, his teacher would write, and he would complain, but, I know the answer, so why do I need to do the steps? Because, I told him, those steps teach you how to think through a problem. When you're older, you will have problems in math, theories in science, or comparisons in history, all of which will require that you make connections, compare and contrast, or build to a point. You cannot do that, if you do not know how to take something step by step through a process.

It took my son a long time to finally understand how to do that and realize the importance of it. But, it was that ability that turned him into a good student and writer. He had few A's in middle school, but after many nights of his storming, my nagging, his frustration, my optimism, he made it through, and then exploded academically in high school.

I tried to tell Lory that middle school was her "try-out" time. Those three years offered a wonderful opportunity to get herself prepared for high school, and that it was absolutely NOT about grades. It was about skill building–looking at where she felt she was shaky and addressing those issues. I told her that her grades might, in fact go up and down, but that no real success ever came without some failure, and no true learning comes without mistakes.

I told my son that, too. No one can learn or train or develop without making mistakes, stumbling, and failing. And you have to be willing to risk failing if you want to succeed. It comes with the territory. But to Lory, and to Lory's Mom, failing meant a B. I told Lory's mom that if Lory's self esteem depended upon getting A's, she was in trouble. She had to develop enough confidence to receive a C. There would come a point when she would, and in her present state, what would happen to her then?

Because my son's high school offered senior parent/teacher conferences I went in just to touch base and say thank you for a wonderful year. His English teacher told me that one of the things she loved about my son was his willingness to take risks in his writing. Sometimes, they worked and sometimes they didn't. That was the best teacher comment he could have received. We want our kids to be able to take intellectual risks in college.  It is an important part of growing and developing.

Achievement vs. Grades/Grades vs. Achievement? Both are important. Both come in their own time, some students, early, for others, much later—maybe not until college. Each child comes with his or her own time table.

Our children are moving ever closer to Optimism.  Perspective is the pre-curser. They simply cannot be hopeful if they don’t have the ability to step back and take in their present view.  We cannot impart wisdom without context and we cannot give our children a more panoramic view of their circumstances without offering them a wider lens. That is why I am spending so much time talking about middle school.  It is full of issues that every child will have to deal with regardless of personal circumstances, social ties, or academic standing. 

We parents will be an integral part of each of those issues.  And there is no issue that falls more heavily upon our sense of responsibility for our children’s academic promise than grades. Some of us will go way over board in our obsession with those first four letters of the alphabet. A, B, C, D. and will equate a bad grade with a lack of trying or laziness or an early warning sign of learning problems. We might also see an A as an automatic sign of accomplishment, affirmation and future opportunity. Neither of those views is totally accurate. Yes, we want to help our chidlren if and when they are struggling.  Yes, we want them to be motivated.  But, for some children over-achieving can be just as dangerous as under achieving.  They can be stressed, as was Lory, and exhibit that stress with problems sleeping, with mood swings, and with eating.

We need to be careful about grades in the middle school years. During 6th, 7th and 8th grades lots of growing pains will influence grades, not the least of which is puberty—a right of passage every child goes through, and somehow gets past, but during which an extremely rocky time will abound physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

What we might tend to overlook during that time is achievement because it could be small--an extra page read or one diificult problem solved or a new insight about a book.  When our children take any baby step forward, or an unexpected jump or a surprise leap in their cognitive skills, they experience, what my aunt used to call, that ah ha moment--something clicks and it all begins to make sense.  That moment is worth its future weight in gold.  The grades may or may not follow, but the ah ha moments will transform into accomplishment and accomplishment will turn into achievement.   So, all our children need to do is keep moving forward. At some point their progress will be rewarded with recognition. Promise!    next installment #21 The last Word: Achievement and Book Club With Our Kids


H20 to Go!

Growing Emotional Resilience and Navigating Through Childhood

with Hear, Humor & Optimism


Updated 2009

H20 to Go! Copyright, 2004
By  Margo Judge

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