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Good Grades Are Nice - But, Mastery Is Better

Dec 20, 2007
When I was growing up, there was nothing better than bringing home a report card that had good grades on it. Oh, I wasn't a straight A student, but I got my share of A's and B's. I also got my share of C's and D's. I guess I was what you call an average student. My parents always checked my report card and questioned any low grades and encouraged me to do better when they felt that I wasn't working up to my abilities. Today good grades are still the benchmark we use to determine if a student is going to be promoted or retained. The higher achieving students who are in high school usually strive for good grades in rigorous courses, because they know that their class ranking among other things will determine the type of college that they will be admitted to. Good grades are something that everyone wants, and for some reason, they're just about what everyone gets. The two questions that I have are these: does everyone who gets a good grade deserve it, and is that grade a good indicator of the person's ability?

I remember when I was a freshman in high school, and I struggled with Algebra I. I couldn't catch on no matter what. The teacher was great, she knew her stuff, and she did everything to try and get me through this subject. I ended up failing the class. I told my dad that I would take the class again in my sophomore year, because back then you only needed to take three years of math. He wouldn't hear of it, and he made me go to summer school. In summer school I really got a grasp of the subject matter. My grade was still only a C, but I really understood the material. I had mastered the content. When I took algebra two during my sophomore year I received a final grade of an A. That was one A that I felt I really earned. I felt good about the A, but I felt even better that I really knew the subject matter.

A student can earn an A in a class for a lot of reasons. He/she may be a very hard worker and really apply himself/herself. The teacher may be benevolent and award A's to most or all of the students, the student might cheat on tests and quizzes, or the teacher may have cooperative groups set up in his/her classroom, which allows for group work to be turned in with everyone receives the same grade. In the last 20 years, the grading system has become progressively more liberal. Teachers almost never fail students anymore. I think two of the biggest reasons why the grading system in schools has become so liberal is because of parental pressure, and because teachers have been told by administration that they can't fail kids. Parents who have kids in high school know of the competition that's out there to get into good colleges. If their son/daughter receives a B in a class, they know it could throw of their child's class ranking and their child might not be able to get into the college of their choice. Teachers fear giving a low grade because district scrutiny says that if they fail too many students, those failing grades are reflection poor teaching.

Society views good grades as an indicator of student success. The current brain research tell us that in order to determine if a child has mastered school related material they have to show that they retained the information 24-48 hours after they have been given a test.

If a student takes a social studies test on WWII and receives a grade of an A, does that mean that he/she has mastered the content? The only way to be really sure is to test the student again in a day or two. This is very unrealistic and I could never imagine any school doing this.

I have a friend whose son is attending Dartmouth College. I know that he never worried about his grades and neither did his mother. He was more concerned about learning the content of the course. The good grades came as a result of his attitude about learning. I don't believe that he measured himself based on grades, but rather on how much he learned and remembered. When he took a class he always tried to figure out what he was going to get out of the teacher, or out of a textbook if the teacher wasn't too good. It didn't matter to him how the material was taught, and it certainly didn't matter to him if the teacher was good or if the teacher was bad. He applied himself as a student and he himself worked to master the content. Successful people don't really worry about a grade; they are more concerned about what they are going to learn. Knowledge to them is sacred, and they work to get as much of it as they can. Grades create competition and that's a good thing. Good colleges are filled with good students who have worked hard to get where they are and who want to stay where they are. Excellent students like receiving A's, but they know that that the grades they have received are only an indication that they have truly mastered the material that was taught.
About the Author
Jim Burns is one of America's most inspirational educational speakers. His humorous and insightful presentations touch and influence his audiences in an unforgettable way.He is best known for his presentations on Bullying, Motivating Disaffected Students,Diffusing Power Struggles,& Character Ed. For more about Jim Burns http://behavioral-management.com/
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