Competitive Grades

This year, I get to teach two students Calculus II (basically, AP Calc BC, plus whatever fun things I want to cover once we finish the curriculum.) Two really fun students who are best friends makes for an entertaining class.

Today, they started talking about their grades. It’s the second day of school, so it’s not like they have a lot of grades. But they took a pre-assesment in science, and they were talking about how one of them tied for best in the class with CG, and how JL won’t ever talk about her grades even though they know they’re really good, and how one of them is table partners with CT and managed to beat her on some question.

I spent a lot of junior high hearing remarks along the lines of, “Hey, what did you get?” and “Wow, I beat her!” and “Aww, I’ll never beat her!” I got really tired of being the measuring stick for other people’s self esteem, and I got really tired of people gloating when I didn’t do so well. I stopped discussing my grades with people. It didn’t matter if it was the PSAT or a spelling test, I stopped telling people what I scored in 8th grade.

I told that to these two today, and I briefly told them why. (More briefly than the previous paragraph.) They thought a minute and then said, “We’re really competitive.” And they’re right.

It’s not just those two, though. As soon as I hand out a test in any class, someone will say, “Hey, so-and-so, what’d you get?” Once they hear, they respond. If they scored higher, it’s, “I got a xx!” If they scored lower it’s a, “Oh…ok.” Some of them will go ahead and share their grade; some of them won’t.

Everytime, I say, “It’s not a competition.” “Yes, it is,” they tell me. “No – you’re only competing with yourself. It doesn’t matter what someone else made.” They don’t believe me.

I know that in some schools, it is a competition. It certainly was in my high school – the top ten percent and, even more, the top ten was a really competitive fight. They posted class ranks every semester starting junior year; intense speculation about who would rise and who would fall swirled through the lunchroom on those days. “Hey, what’s your rank?” was the most common question for days. College admissions were tied to being in the top ten percent; glory was tied to being in the top ten. At graduation, the top ten students were called up on stage and honored specially. Families of those students got special seats. The students got plaques. I have no idea who #11 was, but that had to be rough to watch, knowing that they missed out because of that one map quiz on Africa that they failed back in freshmen geography.

But at our school, we don’t rank students. If a college really, really needs to know, the registrar will compile a list and tell the college a rank, but no one else knows. I don’t know. The students definitely don’t know. We don’t even say who the valedictorian is.

So why the competition? Why are other people’s grades the measuring stick for their self-esteem? Why is satisfaction in knowing that you did your absolute best not enough?

I especially hate it when it’s a really strong student asking a struggling student what they got so that they can gloat. Sometimes I want to tell them, “Who cares if you got a 93 and he got an 87? He’s been making Cs all semester; an 87 is huge for him! As for your 93, you really should have made a 98. You can do better! Why are you gloating when you didn’t do your best?” I don’t, of course – privacy laws on grades and all. So what should I say instead?

Why does this happen? And more importantly, how can I change their minds?

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