Heightened Stakes: Getting a Bad Grade

Cal looked queasy. He's a freshman at a Manhattan private school and a smart, interesting kid, but any hope he'd had of enjoying a successful life—college, career, general happiness—had just shattered.

It was his last math test. He hadn't properly factored a pair or radicals. He'd messed up on "completing the square." A young life doesn't come back from boneheaded mistakes like that. He was ruined.

Cal (I've changed the student's name to prevent college admissions officers from finding out his identity) was in deadly earnest. See, after a tenuous start to the year, in recent weeks, he'd rallied his grade to a B+ and was even flirting with an A-. This test, his last opportunity of the year, had probably sunk his hopes of ending the term in A-range. And to his mind, that was the ball game, not just on that class but virtually on his entire academic career. As he saw it, "top" colleges wanted not just a mix of A's and B's, but a *solid* mix of A's and B's. He'd lost that, by his own estimation, and therefore he'd lost "top" college prospects—and what good could ever come from anything else?

And what had been the problem on the test? Well, he'd known the material cold the night before the test, but then at test time, he'd panicked. His mind went blank. He flubbed it. That begs the question: Where could this panic have come from?

In light of my experience with Cal just days ago, I was struck by Amy Quick Parrish's interview with David McCullough, Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley (MA) High School and author of You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements. Mr. McCullough came to the national consciousness a couple of years ago with a graduation speech at his school in which he exhorted his departing students to go easier on themselves, to slip out from under the burden of heightened expectations and impossible standards. In the demographic sliver Mr. McCullough's students represented (and we at PwP often work with), a kind of Lake Wobegon logic has taken hold: everyone is above average. Grade inflation and bizarro-world expectations have become the norms because if a C is average than our kids must all be B-students and if everyone's a B-student then a B is just average and our kids must all be A-students. (One student from a hyper-competitive high school, who happens to contend with severe language-processing disabilities, reported with extreme incredulity that he'd been told he was a B+ English student. Even he thought the very idea was patently absurd.) Overheated fantasies about college admissions feed this, the delusion that every good school has a Harvard-level admissions rate and that perfection is the only thing that counts as qualification. The immediate trouble, of course, is that expecting all of our students to perform at the very highest level in every subject, loading them up with activities to demonstrate varied interests and leadership potential, we eventually crowd out their genuine interests and their ability to demonstrate that interest by autonomous choice.

These observations aren't new. But what struck me this week, as I talked Cal through his anguish, was just how backwards so much thinking about school and college admissions is. When a college admissions officer sits down with a portfolio, she wants to see a human being on the page. She wants to read a story (and what good story doesn't involve some redemption?) and find an applicant with the texture that suits the culture of her school. Experimentation and failure are descriptive, too.

Cal's struggle (such as a B in math at a competitive NYC private school can be) might be frustrating, but it also afforded him an opportunity. He could study what had gone wrong and learn something about himself. He could use it to learn how to learn. A dud grade (especially in 9th grade!) isn't a cataclysm, even more emphatically not if it's the beginning of a process of growth.

Most importantly, it's worth remembering, as I reminded Cal, how many of great successes in our lives emerge from the muck in our wake...

Tags: College Admissions, Pedagogy, Grades, Politics of Education, Tutoring Philosophy
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