See that cute kid reading the outlandishly enormous book? That was me, I think in grade 4. For the lack of a better term, I was a “nerd.” I think one of my favorite games at the time was Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, which might explain why I was posing with a gigantic book about different places around the globe.

Report card time was never especially stressful for me, because I always got good grades. Always.

A Note on Demographics and Environment

I don’t say this to be boastful. If anything, my good grades made me something of a social outcast, because it wasn’t “cool” to be good in school. Maybe part of this had to do with the neighborhood where I grew up, an area largely populated by immigrants and low income families. For many households, English was not the first language. Understandably, a lot of kids struggled with their studies.

Comparatively, I did quite well across just about every subject, from English to math to geography. If I wasn’t the top student in the class, I was pretty close, usually among the top 5 or so. Would things have been different if I had grown up in a more affluent neighborhood? Probably. Maybe my report card, filled with As and Bs, unjustifiably inflated my ego. I’ll never know for certain.

But I do remember the one time I got really, really emotional about my report card. I may have cried. I may have cursed out my teacher. I may have held a grudge against that teacher for the rest of the term.

This Report Card Is Not Acceptable

It’s been over 20 years, so you’ll excuse me if some of the details are a little fuzzy. I don’t recall the subject, but it was definitely grade 7 and the teacher was definitely Ms. Bishop. It may have also been the first time (at least up until then) that I had received a C+ on my report card. I was heartbroken.

And angry.

After seeing that C+, I immediately stormed over to Ms. Bishop and demanded answers. Some four letter words may have been uttered. She may have told me to watch my mouth. How dare she give me such a grade? Does she not know who I am? Doesn’t she recognize I am clearly the smartest kid in class? Does she remember that I was hand-picked for an “enrichment” program?

Actually, she did. And that’s exactly why she gave me the C+.

She explained that the C+ was reflective of two things: the effort I put into the class and my performance relative to my potential. Now that I think about it, this may have been for English… which doesn’t strike me as ironic at all, given that I make my living as a professional writer today. But I digress.

Pointing the Finger the Wrong Way

As a self-entitled brat (and sometime bully), I singled out one of the other students in the class who got a better grade on the subject, but who I said “clearly” didn’t do as well as I did. Without actually agreeing with me, she said that this other student — who happened to come from a low income immigrant family — demonstrated a lot of improvement over the previous term.

My “potential.”

She said that while, objectively, I may have done “better” than my peers, she also recognized that I myself could have done even better. A lot better. I disagreed with such a perspective. I, as a bitter tween, pointed out that this is not how the actual world works. The real world does not reward you relative to your potential. People and their performance are compared on absolute terms.

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction

She told me the grade stuck and it was non-negotiable. She reminded me of the “plus” after the C, signifying that I was still “above satisfactory.” That wasn’t good enough for me. I went home in huff, positively steaming over the matter.

Realistically, in the grand scheme of things, the grades I got in elementary school didn’t matter. Aside from getting me into university, where I subsequently majored in my worst subject, the grades I got in high school didn’t really matter either.

Even so, now that I look back and now that I have a child of my own, I really start to wonder about how report cards and grades should be handled. And should this change as the kids get older?

Making the Grade

The way I see it, performance can be evaluated one of three ways:

  1. Objective test score: Yes, I know that tests can be biased or poorly designed, but the idea is that your grade is based on how you do on a specific test or set of tests.
  2. Relative to your potential: This is how Ms. Bishop decided to treat my performance. She thought I could do better, so I only got a C+. Meanwhile, the other kid got a B (I think) because he was closer to maximizing his potential, even if his performance was objectively worse than mine.
  3. Relative to your peers: The top students get the top grades, the middle students get the middle grades, the bottom students get the worst grades. It is predetermined how many students should fit into each group.

At the undergraduate level, at least during my time at the University of British Columbia, I know that many (most? all?) of my classes were graded on a curve. Instructors had some flexibility, but the general idea is that a certain percentage of students should get an A, another percentage should get a B, and so on. The curve was to approximate a normal distribution.

This is meant to ensure a certain level of fairness. Students with an “easy” professor shouldn’t necessarily get better grades than students who have a “difficult” professor. It wouldn’t be fair if one class was filled with As, when a majority of students failed another class. I’m not entirely sure I agree with this model either.

No Child Left Behind

I don’t know. And I don’t really know about the current school system either. I hear all this talk of standardized testing and common core among American parents. Is it the same here in Canada? Is “teaching to the test” really hurting how much kids are actually learning and how well teachers are able to do their job?

What does that mean for my little girl when she starts kindergarten in a couple years? And how is it that my daughter is already starting kindergarten in a couple years?!?!