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Nov 28 / Great Apes

A Brief Story About High School Grades

I was reading this story in the New York Times the other day, about how digital technology is distracting students.  I could talk at length about a lot of the issues that the article raises, but there’s one thing in particular I want to comment on just now, and that’s this passage:

“Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.”

This is an issue I’ve gone on about many times in the past, and it’s this bizarre idea that grades are an accurate measurement of . . . anything.  What does it tell us that Vishal got a D+ in English and an F in Algebra?  Well, allow me to answer that with a little bit of a story about myself:

I was a C student in high school.  There were classes that I did extremely well in, and classes that I did very poorly in, though I never actually failed anything.  At any rate, at the end of high school I had pretty poor marks, and I had trouble getting into university.  I finished my Honours BA, and moved on to grad school.  I went on to get straight As while working on my Masters degree in history.  Following that, I taught myself computer programming and I’m now employed more or less as a web developer.

What’s the moral of this story?  That my grades in high school told you nothing about my capacity for learning, even academic learning.  All they told you is that I didn’t get good grades in high school, but they couldn’t have told you why (largely because I thought high school was pointless, which is a sentiment I still hold).  So what does it mean that Vishal has poor grades in some of his courses?  Is there some kind of message about the way that technology is holding back otherwise intelligent students from achieving their true potential?  I doubt it.  Marks just don’t mean anything.

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