Evaluating Our Evaluation System

Nathan Luo ’25 in Opinions | October 21, 2022

As I walk around campus, I can’t help but overhear comments like “Man, I cannot believe the grade I just got on that test!” or “I need to get a good grade in this class.” I’ve found that at Lawrenceville, we tend to obsess over the grades that we receive—and I say we because I’m guilty of this, too. We use our grades to assess ourselves, frantically speculating on how these numbers could affect our futures. Yet I’ve found among my peers that interims, which consist solely of feedback without any grades, rarely generate the same amount of stress that graded assignments do. The disparity between these two reactions begs the question: are grades really a helpful, or even accurate, evaluation of our intelligence?
Our student body’s stances on grading can be placed into one of two main categories. Some disregard their actual GPA; they focus on maintaining a steady progression and are satisfied as long as they learn and improve. On the other hand, others are overly concerned about the numbers themselves, striving for consistently high marks that will give them the overall term grade they desire. Unfortunately, among Lawrentians, the latter mentality is more prevalent.
When we work merely for the grade, we err on the side of caution, playing it safe rather than embracing academic challenges for ourselves. For example, a Lawrentian may choose to take Precalculus AB over Precalculus BC not because they lack interest in math, but because they fear receiving a lower grade in a more difficult course. This decision to relinquish the opportunity to take a more challenging course deprives students of the experience of learning. We don’t learn through low effort and repeated success; rather, we learn through working hard and making mistakes. When we make mistakes, we analyze the reason we misstepped, and therefore make an effort to reconstruct our understanding of the concept. Dutch designer Marcel Wanders said that “doing a good project in school should be forbidden…students have to make as many mistakes as possible, and learn from [them].” Mistakes made through embracing challenges help us grow our knowledge and understanding of what we’re learning.
Yet this lack of risk-taking is not the only detriment that stems from a strict “good-grade” mentality. Oftentimes, students focus so heavily on earning good grades that their entire approach to learning changes; instead of working to achieve a deep, long-term understanding of the concepts at hand, they merely focus on being able to regurgitate information for just long enough to pass a test. In other words, our learning takes a backseat to short-term memory, which then expires—I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been unable to help an Underformer in a class because I just couldn’t remember the concept at hand. Our learning should prioritize comprehension and the ability to build off of prior ideas, which is simply impossible with such a style of memorization. 
The objective that fuels this desire to get good grades may vary, but many of our peers would probably answer the same way: college admissions. It seems straightforward in our minds: getting good grades means going to a good college, which means achieving what we want to achieve in life. Yet rarely do we stop to think: What happens once we actually get into college? Exemplary grades may play a part in receiving that acceptance letter, but getting into college isn’t the be all and end all—we need to use and build upon the knowledge that we have developed in highschool to actually succeed in our endeavors. Beyond higher education however, in the broader scope of life, there is more to leading a prosperous existence than grades. Former Google Executive Laszlo Bock said that “GPA scores are worthless as a criteria for hiring, [as] they do not predict anything.” While high numerical grades indicate an ability to succeed on academic assessments, they indicate nothing about other critical skills like communication, independence, or sociability.
With all this being said, I believe that Lawrenceville’s interim system does an exemplary job in fostering a healthy mindset towards learning. Interims help us understand exactly how we can improve. If you look at your recent interim, you will see the four categories Lawrenceville uses to evaluate its students: “Thoughtfully prepares for class,” “Effectively engages with classmates,” “Willingly embraces challenges,” and “Actively responds to feedback.” While end-of-term report cards use grades, the interim uses behavior-based benchmarks and comments to evaluate one’s class performance. When one reads an interim, their impression of the feedback isn’t obstructed by a glaringly obvious letter grade stamped at the bottom. Rather, they can sincerely engage in the comments that their teachers have given them and reflect on the ways that they can move forward in the class. Interims de-emphasize the importance of the grade itself while emphasizing the importance of the habits and performance that can get you such a grade in the first place. And do not fear: as one responds to the feedback and improves in the class, the good grade will follow, too.
While Lawrenceville gives us the tools to be active agents in our learning, we often disregard these tools. As Lawrentians, we need to shift our focus from our grades to our learning, prioritizing improvement over constant success. The next time you walk through campus complaining about how you could have gotten a better grade, remind yourself that your grades do not determine your capabilities as a student. What matters most is how you digest and respond to feedback to facilitate your own learning.