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Grades Are Not the Primary Measure of Our Kids' Success

SheKnows logo SheKnows 19/05/2022 Rachel Garlinghouse
© biscotto87/Adobe Stock

As I sat in the school pickup line, I scrolled through my social media feed. Post after post featured moms discreetly-not-discreetly bragging about their kids’ latest accomplishments. The most common brag-fest was about their children making the school honor roll. If not the honor roll, the high honor roll.

I’m just as proud of my kids as the next mom, but I can’t help but wonder why we don’t hold space for the kids whose grades are less-than-perfect. After all, grades are hardly the only measure of success. Many children simply don’t have the ability, support, or equity to have a fighting chance at getting “good grades.”

My love-hate relationship with the school’s honor roll began when I was a child. I desperately wanted to be both on honor roll and chosen as student of the month. The teacher-selected student of the month had their picture taken for the yearbook, was given a bookmark, and earned a certificate for a personal pan pizza. The problem was that I was barely-average in two subjects: handwriting and math.

I put tremendous pressure on myself to be honored in the ways some of my peers were. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I would now qualify as having a math learning disability. Also, handwriting? It’s really not that serious. Why that was even a graded subject is beyond me. However, in my elementary-school mind, I was desperate to be academically recognized. After all, I wasn’t athletic, musically gifted, or good at art. Academic honors were my only chance to shine.

I’m now a mom of four kids, each very different in personality, ability, and areas of interest. Two of my children have learning disabilities, and one of my kids is neurodivergent. I believe there’s beauty in diversity — which includes how each child performs at school.

When I say “performs at school,” I’m not talking about focusing on grades. Learning is so much more than pop quizzes, state testing, worksheets, and essays. True learning is social, emotional, physical, mental, and academic.

If my child is proud of earning a certain grade on a test — wonderful. I will smile and hug them. One of my children was dead-set on making honor roll, and I gently supported their efforts while making sure I was emphasizing the process and not the grades.

I tell my kids that their job is to do their best — not to earn a particular letter or average. I also recognize that there are so many reasons why any child, some of my own included, cannot earn the honor roll accolade.

As a former college teacher, I understand why grading happens and the reasons why grades matter. However, I am also mindful that my kids’ mental health, physical safety and well-being, and emotional regulation should be prioritized far above the letter written at the top of their paper. If the basics aren’t met, forget about the math test and social studies worksheet.

Some kids’ progress is so gradual that it doesn’t earn them any outside recognition. The child with ADHD who is in third grade and can barely write their printed letters. The kiddo who has panic attacks and who struggles to sit through a single class, much less navigate a busy middle school hallway, stop by their locker, and get to the next class on time. The high schooler who has dealt with a reading learning disability since kindergarten. Maybe, sometimes, there’s a “most improved” award, but these don’t make the newspaper or have their own bumper sticker like the honor roll.

Parents and teachers work hard to be the students’ cheerleaders, no matter how grand or small the progress. However, this doesn’t take the sting out of being “othered” when kids don’t fit into the success box.

I wish society held equal space for children whose progress doesn’t look like the typical or “normal.” A child’s grades aren’t always a measure of effort. There are a host of inequities — ability, race, gender, and money, just to name a few — that keep many kids from being among the most highly-praised. The main problem is that our focus is so narrow, which leaves a lot of kids in the dust.

I was never the best of the best, and I don’t want my kids to feel they need to be, either. That kind of pressure is unhealthy. However, would it be nice for there to be a (figurative) pep rally for the kids who are simply doing okay and trying their best? Yes.

Grades and scores may be the standard for now, but I hope for a day when they aren’t the primary focus. Measuring a child’s success, and conveying to them that their worth is wrapped up in percentages, is not the way to go. We need to encourage and cheer on every child, no matter where they are academically, and then watch them flourish alongside their peers.

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