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The Fallacy of Good Grades

Why tests don't measure your child's most important strengths


At the beginning of each school year, my daughter always anticipated a new opportunity to achieve "A" grades. But as the semester progressed, her expectations usually faded as test scores diminished her chances of believing in her abilities. Like many students, my daughter has learning differences - ways of thinking and showing what she knows - that are vastly different from the norm.

Even for children who perform well on academic tests, an "A" grade is only one measurement of success. A few things that school testing cannot measure include:

Internal strengths, like those listed above, are far more important to a life of success and well-being than whether a child earns an "A" on an Algebra exam. In fact, many tests only measure a student's ability to produce a correctly memorized answer. For today's learners, correct answers are not enough. By the time children reach late adolescence, their brains have the capacity to think about interrelationships, to explore the boundaries between fields of study, and to create new ways of learning. These critical abilities, fostered throughout childhood, will fuel tomorrow's innovative technologies and create important social change.

Despite a strong body of research on the value of internal strengths, we continue to measure kids using standardized, quantitative tests. Why? Because skills like critical thinking, curiosity, and collaboration are much more difficult to measure quantitatively across large populations. So we tend to measure what can most easily be measured - reading, math, and science knowledge.

There has been a great deal of debate in recent years about these issues. The Search for a New Way to Test School Kids acknowledges the many problems, including those related to meeting the challenges of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And of course, the Atlanta cheating scandal has reformers on each side of the testing issue pointing fingers at one another. A Teachable Moment from Atlanta's Cheating Scandal offers salient advice, pointing out that we need to pay attention to the conditions that help students achieve. These conditions, like how children develop initiative, resiliency, and compassion are driving current research in the field of positive youth development.

Whether or not you are a proponent of standardized testing or question the value of grades, there is a fallacy about grades and test scores that leads many parents to become complacent, particularly when their child is doing well at school. Children succeed in life for many reasons; grades do not guarantee success. The article, Thinking About Psychological Literacy, explains important aspects of success that are not measured by grades, like the ability to be self-reflective, action-oriented, and connected to work that improves the lives of others. These skills cannot be measured in quantitative terms, nor are they easily compared through testing from one child to another.

We may be living in an age that is obsessed with numbers, but that doesn't mean we have to teach our children to measure their self-worth by grades or test scores alone. In fact, parents are in a position to nurture psychological literacy and help develop the internal strengths that determine a meaningful life. When was the last time you helped your teen identify and build on his or her character strengths? The VIA Institute of Character provides guidance that helps parents talk about these internal strengths to children, including how to use movies to engage your teen in conversations about moral values.

Fostering 21st Century Skills

Learning Skills

To succeed in the 21st Century, students need a multitude of abilities that go beyond internal character and reading, math, and science skills. Today's young adults must be able to adapt to change, problem-solve, innovate, and manage large quantities of knowledge. To do so, they must learn to think critically about complex issues. How do we test critical thinking in schools? We don't. In fact, most schools don't even teach critical thinking skills, the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a goal of improving it.

Daniel Koretz, Professor of Education at Harvard has studied the effects of testing on children. He talks about the skills needed by today's learners, admitting that complex application of knowledge is difficult to teach kids -- and also difficult to test. Like many scholars, he believes that tests should be a supplemental source of information, rather than the lone measure of a quality education. An informative, 5-minute video by Koretz, Skills We Need for the 21st Century, helps illustrate the importance of these skills and the dilemma faced by educators.

It is important to acknowledge the role of grades and test scores in measuring children's progress throughout school. Parents should support good work habits that help students do their best. While grades may determine who gets listed on an Honor Roll, chosen for a scholarship, or invited to attend a prestigious university, grades are not the end of the story. Grades may motivate some children. For others, particular those with learning differences, grades can discourage and defeat them.

Parents can make a difference by paying attention to the "whole child," - not just the child who attends school each day but to the child who participants in family life, reaches out to others, thinks creatively, acts wisely, collaborates, and shows respect. Parents have the capacity to nurture these qualities in children, to let them know they are more than a test score.

Additional Resources on Positive Youth Development

Search Institute - Offers a framework for understanding 40 development assets that help young people become caring, responsible adults.

Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence advances the research and practice in this understudied domain of human development.

Roots of Action: How Families, Schools, and Communities Help Kids Thrive, a blog that applies the principles of positive youth development for parents and educators.

The Critical Thinking Community - A foundation dedicated to improving critical thinking in education.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement.

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©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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