Toxic Grade Culture: The Reason You Think You need a 7

Written by: Li

Edited by: Mariah

Visual by: Tatiana 

Let’s talk about grades. 

What’s the first thing you think of when reading the word: “grades”? Possibly the number 7?

That is because of toxic grade culture

Toxic grade culture is a huge problem. It encourages students to have unrealistic expectations of themselves to consistently reach very high goals, and if they can’t sustain the workload, their self-esteem suffers. 

This is especially true in ISM, where kids are often sent with the expectation that they will get into an elite university, despite the fact that it is very statistically hard to get accepted. This has a huge impact on the stress and anxiety levels of students who feel like they have to maintain a high GPA throughout their school years, rather than focusing on learning. In other words, they are not taught the fact that sometimes you have to do badly at something in order to get better and learn from your mistakes. 

In order to delve deeper into this topic, BT reached out to some fellow ISM students and asked for their opinions on how grades are approached within our school. 

Kailani, a senior, said, “I think ISM is a school full of extremely talented and intelligent students, which raises the base standards quite a bit. This is overall a good thing and looks great on college transcripts but it comes with the downside of these standards being unhealthily high at times.” The student body is most definitely composed of extremely intelligent people, which understandably raises the bar for academic performance. But, as previously stated, this added pressure also puts more emphasis on the final result -or grade- than on the learning journey. 

Sam, a freshman, added, “I think grade culture can be a really harmful thing mentally for students. A lot of pressure is put on us to get 7’s… it can be really unhealthy and anxiety-inducing, and in the future, we should try to create school communities that don’t have as much pressure around grades in support of students’ mental health.”

In terms of the effects of stress on mental health, back in 2005, Stanford lecturers, faculty, and guest Denis Clark Pope (a lecturer in the School of Education) spoke at an “Everyday Ethics” forum about how many educators started labeling the high-stress levels in students as a health epidemic. NYU also looked into this and found that “stress [was] the number one reported impediment to academic performance,” while 55% of students across the USA, ironically, claimed that their biggest stressor was academics. In addition to this, many of the emotional and physical symptoms that occur commonly in students, such as headaches, fatigue, depression, and anxiety can be attributed to their stress. 

Denis Clark Pope also found a connection between cheating and academic pressure. She stated that the focus on students getting high grades caused them to value the number or letter over the actual learning, which ultimately led to some students compromising their integrity in order to get a higher grade. Pope researched this further by shadowing five students at a high school to observe their intellectual engagement. She found that they spent most of their time “finagling the system” -or cheating- in order to get good grades: “In every class where a test was administered, there was cheating. Students feel as if their life success depends on getting the top SAT scores and the highest grades. They know cheating is wrong; they tell me they wish they didn’t do it, but they feel like the most important thing they do is get the grades, by hook or by crook.” 

A trend throughout all of this has been the fact that there is more of a focus on the score than the actual improvement of a student’s performance or their learning curve. At ISM specifically, there is an obsession with the number seven; the notion that if one doesn’t get a 7, “they aren’t good enough.” This idea, this culture, needs to be dismantled. But, in order for that to happen, we need to reframe our mindset regarding grades and achievement. To put this in perspective, a 5 at ISM is equivalent to a B in letter grades, a 6 is an A and a 7 is an A+. If you were to say “I have a B in science” that would, in most places, still be viewed as proficient. But, as Kalani put it so well during her interview, “at ISM it’s just a 5.” This needs to change. 6’s and 7’s shouldn’t always be the expectation, it should be recognized that they are very hard to achieve consistency across all subjects, just as it is seen in most parts of the world that A’s and A+’s are difficult to maintain. 

This is not to say that striving for a 7 is bad; in fact, it’s great to push yourself- you can’t reach your goals without putting in the work! But, that doesn’t mean that you should push beyond your limits. In other words, when it gets to the point where the pressure you are feeling is impacting your mental health, it’s time to put the grades on the back burner and focus on yourself. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is your best. That doesn’t always have to mean 100% or an A+, it can be 60% (a C) if that’s where you are right now. As long as you are trying to get a little better each time, and are focusing on learning -not necessarily for a grade- but for yourself. 

Works Cited

NYU Web Communications. “Stress.” Nyu.edu, 2011, www.nyu.edu/life/safety-health-wellness/live-well-nyu/priority-areas/stress.html

Palmer, Barbara. “Pressure for Good Grades Often Leads to High Stress, Cheating, Professors Say.” Stanford University, 23 Feb. 2005, news.stanford.edu/news/2005/february23/cheat-022305.html.