Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Emory student: 'A' is not the goal now but the standard

Sunidhi Ramesh is a rising junior at Emory University double majoring in neuroscience and sociology.

In this piece, she discusses how grade driven students have become. She believes the outcome will be less creative professionals.

By Sunidhi Ramesh

Two semesters ago, I received my first B-plus. And I was a decimal point away from an A-minus

I stared at my grade-stamped computer screen for what felt like hours, eyes darting back and forth, trying to play back how this could have happened. “I didn’t do THAT badly,” I thought. This had to be a mistake.

Fighting back tears (yes, tears), I shifted into warrior mode. In minutes, I had typed out a page-long argument as to why my grade had to be bumped up .3 points and why I more than deserved it. Satisfied, I pressed send.

My professor got back to me the next day. “I'm sorry that you're disappointed,” he wrote. “There are always students who are within a few decimals of the next letter grade. But, unfortunately, we have to make a cut somewhere.”

“That’s it,” I thought. “It’s over. I can’t get into medical school.” And the tears came for what felt like forever.

Yeah, I can be a bit dramatic. But hear me out. There once was a time when a “C” was considered “average” and “satisfactory.” A “B” represented students who worked hard but could reach a little higher. The “A’s” were reserved for the brightest and the boldest, the students who had mastered the material beyond what was required of them.

Today, the “A” is not the goal but the standard. After hundreds of years of standing strong, an education system that places emphasis on rising expectations and values scores over learning has finally managed to corrupt its own grading structure. What expectations, you ask? Let me tell you.

In recent years, prestigious American universities have seen a dramatic decline in admission rates. Between 2005 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania’s admission rate has fallen by almost 20 percent. Vanderbilt? 30 percent. Georgia Tech? 43 percent. The trend is dramatic and consistent across schools around the nation.

Why? Are high schools getting better? Doubt it. Are the applicants getting smarter? Possibly. Are the standards getting higher? Most definitely.

With each university admitting fewer students than they have in years past, high school students are continuing to feel the pressure to do better than just “average” in school. Less acceptances means a sudden need for taking more AP classes, getting higher SAT scores and better GPAs, adding in additional extracurricular activities, engaging in more unique and “meaningful” experiences, and being more well-rounded than ever.

And this trend isn’t just with undergraduate admissions. Between 2008 and 2015, Yale Medical School’s acceptance rate fell from 6.3 percent to 1.9; in other words, this past year, 104 of the 5,213 applicants were sent admission letters with “CONGRATULATIONS” bolded on top. And it keeps getting worse.

So perhaps my breakdown was a bit justified after all. But whatever, right? So what if students today are more stressed, creatively limited, and burned out than any group of kids before them? So what if running toward a diploma and a degree involves jumping through hoop after hoop of standardized tests, letter grades, and check boxes? So what if we are upping expectations and standards just to shortchange our young scholars of a legitimate education in the process? What is the bigger picture?

Imagine your new generation of doctors 10, 15, maybe 20 years from now. They scored the top grade of 5 on their AP Biology exams by mindlessly memorizing hours’ worth of body cycles and systems. They aced their organic chemistry classes by drawing and redrawing hydroboration oxidation mechanisms until they could recall the 1-2 alkyl shift by memory. They scored in the highest percentiles on the MCAT by taking every practice test they could find in order to think in a way test-writers wanted them to think. They trudged through medical school by staring at their anatomy textbooks until their eyes wanted to close and stay shut.

Your new doctors will not be doctors or scholars or creative minds. They will be workers — workers who are confined within a curse of repetition. Workers who spent 20 years becoming flawless test-takers and learning to scheme a system that asked too much of them — a system that valued their performance within the institution over their own personal aspirations, talents, and abilities. A system that cooped them up in the library instead of asking them to volunteer and work on becoming more caring, selfless, and approachable individuals. A system that cut out hundreds of capable, passionate, and promising future doctors because they were unable to perform on exams as they were expected to.

Your lawyers will be workers, too. And your nurses. Your pharmacists. Your politicians. Your computer engineers. And that is how it will be. Because education in the United States has evolved into a volatile battleground where students are encouraged and awarded for learning how to appease the system. For understanding that it doesn’t matter if you delete the folder in your brain titled “AP Physics” the minute you walk out of the exam. For coming to the conclusion that grades are more valuable than learning. And that learning means nothing at all.

Sound like a serious problem? It is. And it will stay that way until something is done to change the system as well as the mindsets of the students and professionals within it.

So where do we start? With doing justice to these kids. We start with getting rid of practices such as class rank that pit high-achieving students against each other. With relieving an emphasis on grading and every single assignment. With instilling our students with a passion for learning and discovery. With empowering these younger generations with the tools they need to become innovative and successful people rather than workers of a broken system.

But before any of that can be done, the general public in this country needs to begin to recognize that there is even a problem of this magnitude at hand. A problem that is in desperate need of attention. And if that does not happen (or happen soon), this educational race to nowhere sparked by years of misplaced intentions, rising expectations, and ignorant denial may finally reach a point of no return.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.