What's in a Grade? Not Much.

I recently finished listening to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, read by the author. His enthusiasm and awe come through in his voice, and it was a pleasant, educational, and inspiring nearly-four-hour listen. Go read it.

Listening to this book reminded me of my own history in these sciences. Although I'm an intelligent person, I have two major scientific blind spots: physics and astronomy. I can talk to you about chemistry any day of the week, but these two...

Honors Physics in high school was the only subject I had to get tutored in. I ended up, miraculously, earning a B+. My husband, however, has banned me from explaining how things work to our preschool children for fear I will confuse them for life. It's a valid concern.

As for astronomy, I managed to pull a B out of an "Intro to the Sky & Solar System" course during my first semester at UVa, one of my lowest grades for all of my undergrad studies--but hey, still a B!

And YET, a few years ago, Matt and I were talking about space (he went through a big Star Trek run with Netflix), and I finally learned that, actually, the solar system just has one star. Blew my mind. I don't know what I thought...that stars are sprinkled around between the solar system's planets? I mean, I knew that the sun is a star (I've read The Sun Is My Favorite Star!), but I thought that the other stars I saw in the night sky were also part of our solar system. Spoiler alert: That's totally wrong.

And now you're doubting my assertion that I'm an intelligent person. I can get you references.

I bring all this up to point out the paradox: B grades and a lack of understanding (and even MISunderstanding) of the basics in these subjects. How did this happen?? It happened because grades don't equal successful learning.

Here's an interesting (and brief) video from The Atlantic about how grades/scores and learning/college success don't necessarily correlate:

It is a hard line to walk: getting the evidence of academic achievement colleges really want to see while also enjoying the learning process.

There are some high schools and colleges that use, to some degree, a narrative evaluation system rather than stand-alone grades. What a refreshing approach! College admissions officers are stuck with a lot of reading when evaluating applicants from such high schools, but they will get a better picture of that student as a learner from such rich descriptions of student performance.

For those not at such high schools, what to do?? First, remember that colleges that use holistic admissions processes will evaluate you based on your high school. Not based on the high school down the street, across the state, or around the globe. You are evaluated based on your own context. Secondly, remember that posted "accepted GPA ranges" are totally unhelpful. One high school may be on a 4.0 scale, one on a 12.0 scale, one on a 100-point scale; some may add weight to courses, some may not; an algebra II class at one school may not match the rigor of a course of the same name at a different school. Don't let published accepted GPA ranges for colleges carry more significance than they should.

Also, colleges that offer the narrative evaluation approach mentioned above may be schools to consider for those students who feel an unhealthy emotional and psychological connection to their grades. See a current list of such schools here.

For further, in-depth reading on this topic, I'll point you to "Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)" from CBE-Life Sciences Education.

Now it's time to let my five year old teach me how circuits work. Apparently, the answer is not "It's magic!"