In Defense of Learning

Arko Mazumder

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Everyone has their own needs. It’s a common cliché at this point, but it makes sense that we know when the needs of one person are different than the needs of another. But that is not the case with proficiency in our schools, where needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few, and not in a good way. There seems to be a reluctance to talk about the impact of SIS in our education system, even though it is so deeply ingrained in our academic lives. And though our community is okay with that, I’m not.

This is something that people must be aware of, as there is no catcher in the rye that will protect their innocence. It cannot remain unnoticed in the elective classes and AP classes where the problems continue to increase. It has come to the point of increased stress and anxiety for both students and teachers on what they are doing wrong. It has come to the point where an AP Language and Composition teacher worries about things being “overly quantified” in his class, because numbers are compared to writing skills. It has come to the point where one 3/5 on a weighted quiz can cause mass anxiety in a German class. It has come to the point where a Physics Teacher had to argue with a student about a 0.1% difference between and A and A- for the quarter. And yet the community seems to blame those kinds of students or teachers for having that mindset. One reason has gone unnoticed, and that is the implementation and impact of SIS into our academic community. It mostly affects the students who are in higher level classes, where the problem stands out the most. As certain as an F on a test, this has also affected many lives.

Both the students and teachers agree that SIS has put an emphasis on grades and GPA rather than learning. With the instant access of grades, SIS has consumed the lives of students and parents. Allen Bong stated, “I have to remind myself that grades are only a shadow of who you truly are as a person, but it’s hard to see that sometimes, especially in the end of the quarter”. Allen’s sentiments are not out of the ordinary, as many teachers have asserted that the individual percentages are not who someone is as a person. What should be a given is now unfortunately being argued by a student in a report. This mentality of putting individual grades or numbers to an extent over mastery is even more harmful during adulthood, when those students transition into college, and the rubber literally and figuratively hits the road. If a “grade grubber” does not have a learning mindset in college, he or she will be in big trouble. That extends to a career, where the main criteria are based on a person’s knowledge, skills and talent, not as much his or her GPA. Having that mindset may get a student into a good college, but that does not mean that he or she will do well in college. For as John Dewey, the great education philosopher of the twentieth century, said, “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation of future living”.

Unfortunately, all that is disregarded in high school, where the “grade grubber” mindset is completely fine. In fact, it’s exactly what our community is going for. Every time a teacher puts a test score on SIS and some students do not perform well, those students panic as if it was Monday morning in the NYSE and the Dow Jones fell 400 points. At times, the panic is justified. If someone does poorly, they have every right to be worried. What worries me is that those people who under-performed on a test do not usually try to improve their understanding of that subject. Instead, these students usually conclude that the teacher is “unfair” or “mean”. Like the stock market, there is constant speculation on whether a group of numbers goes up or down. This is not just idiotic. It’s dangerously idiotic.

Surely this social stigma did not arrive overnight, as the root cause of this kind of behavior comes from the community itself. Fairfax County is a hyper-competitive school district, where parents of all cultural and socioeconomic status come to get the very best education for their kids. Because parents want the very best, they are mostly responsible to substantial changes to the grading system, such as the 50% rule and the 80% retake rule. I cannot assert that SIS is 100% responsible for an emphasis on grades over learning, as the 50% and 80% rule are key factors as well. A Calculus teacher listed the 50% rule as a rule that “inflates the SIS gradebook along with student scores, and is simply lying to everyone about what a student has really mastered”. It is just a form of grade inflation, which helps no one. Many teachers and students have made a stronger assertion that the issue of grades over learning has been around before the implementation of SIS, but SIS has put salt on the open wound. Jenny Lee went so far as to say as it was more of our system in general, that one cannot survive on a capitalistic society without a strong focus on grades. Her statement reflected the views of others, as many have noted that learning should be a beautiful experience, but these changes and SIS added on to the problem.

I am not arguing that the implementation of SIS was terrible from the start. I am not arguing that SIS has absolutely no benefits to it. I am not arguing that SIS should be abolished from our community. On the contrary, I can recognize the benefits that SIS offers and can say that it should stay. I can agree with students by saying that SIS gives immediate feedback on a person’s progress, something which weekly progress reports could not do. Nathan Her described a situation where a teacher marked a project as “not handed in”, and his grade dropped 7%. After he consulted that teacher, it was fixed. The consensus of teachers is similar, where SIS can allow teachers to monitor a student’s progress. The teachers don’t have to generate progress reports, so the fact that students are checking SIS makes some feel less obligated, which really adds up. The ease of access is crucial for certain teachers, such as a Learning Disabilities Teacher who accredits SIS for allowing him to “see if a student struggles across the board, or needs remediation after school”. For certain types of classes, the use of SIS is a vast improvement compared to previous grading systems. I am thankful in the sense that I now don’t have to wait until a teacher posts a progress report to check for irregularities, and I can relate to the viewpoints of students and teachers on the benefits of SIS. Unfortunately, as Caton Gayle put it, “SIS has become the new focus compared to literally everything else”.

Now, a lot of skeptics might say that this is all great philosophically, but it seems impractical. In fact, many students have said that a change would be difficult as well. Katherine French mentioned that “It’s so heavily ingrained in our world that a change is almost impossible”. Even some teachers have agreed that it will take many changes up and down the ladder for anything meaningful to happen. To fix this issue, the system itself must be changed, then the problems that SIS and the overall “grade grubber” problem will be fixed. I have heard lots of potential: a Spanish teacher suggested a four-point grading scale instead of A’s and B’s, and a Physics Teacher suggested a change in expectations and a shift from “industry-level jobs”. I also found a method used by Barbara Swartz, who is part of The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She gives biweekly quizzes to her students that carry no grade, but on the quizzes, she writes feedback so that they can improve their learning, which seems to produce favorable results.

I am suggesting however, that classes should be modeled after the AP Computer Science curriculum. In that curriculum, the grades are secondary, as people can retake tests any time before the AP exam to boost a previous grade. What matters is whether one learned the material or not, and that makes sense. For example, I was not able to understand what an Arraylist was until I understood the concepts of an Array. If this is implemented, students will put an emphasis on learning, which is what ultimately matters in the future. This is not a one size fits all solution, but it is a good place to start from.
It will take many changes to make that work, maybe even to the entire system. What we have now are far too many students with 4.0 GPA’s, many don’t understand the material in the first place. Of course, it will all lead to no avail if the parents, teachers, and students do not strive to put learning ahead of GPA. Only then will those students truly be ready for the complexities that life has ahead of them.