A few months ago, I hosted a workshop for third grade students. Even though I had to teach virtually to an in-person class, the students — with their cartoon-themed masks and gleaming eyes — never hesitated to call out questions and volunteer their answers. Their excitement was as infectious as it was adorable; their obsession with the why of things was something I’d never seen before.

It was jarring to return to my high school classes that same afternoon and witness silence whenever my teacher asked a question. Taking a page from my third graders, I wondered why. Why does the light of our curiosity from when we’re young — so radiant, so unconfined — extinguish as we grow older?

It’s not difficult to find schools and districts that enforce practices that snuff out this light. Many classrooms emphasize order and control in the way they regulate when and which students can use the restroom or get up to sharpen a pencil. Other schools struggle to eat and digest fast-paced, overstuffed curricula that prevent deep engagement with different ideas. Support systems for the mental and emotional needs of students are often unstable and unreliable at best.

But one of the greatest impediments to student growth — and arguably the most contentious — is the grading system.

As the standard for college admission rises while acceptance rates fall, academics have become entwined with the self-worth of thousands of students. According to researchers Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner, grades were developed in the 1940s for the benefit of post-secondary education. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, institutions evaluated candidates based on medals and class ranks, but as the number of colleges increased, so did the need to create a more efficient system of communication to measure student readiness and accomplishment. 

The aftermath is bleak. Most modern schools place an unhealthy amount of emphasis on high grades. Each grade helps build a student’s GPA, and GPAs help secure internships, college admissions, and job offers. Some employers don’t even consider applications with GPAs below a specific number, and some colleges automatically admit students who achieve certain GPAs, SAT or ACT scores, and class ranks.  

But despite the apparent importance of grades to schools, the system by which schools evaluate students is far from ideal. Denia Smith, a teen advisor to the United Nations, believes schools don’t recognize personal factors that could hinder a student’s academic success, a practice that “dehumanizes students because it doesn’t really acknowledge that we’re human.”

Richard Lemons, the Executive Director at the Connecticut Center for School Change and a Lecturer in Education Studies at Yale University, agrees. He believes grades are too arbitrary. “There tends to be a lot of variation teacher to teacher in what constitutes an A, what constitutes a B, and what constitutes an F,” he said.

But grades are not only inequitable, they also create inauthentic learning experiences and impede student growth. Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the College of William and Mary, found that creative thinking has declined at all grade levels over the past few decades.

“We have kids who are great at getting A’s, but they haven’t really learned anything deeply,” Lemons said. “They haven’t learned how to think. They just learned how to manage the A. We’re not serving those kids well in terms of promoting creativity, critical thinking, and self-actualization.” 

Now, students are unhealthily obsessed with their grades, begging their teachers for bonus marks and merely regarding their peers as ladder rungs to the top of their class. They shackle their identities and motivations to their transcripts. Instead of enjoying the process of learning, students shove information into their brains for exam preparation and forget the content moments after. And given the rapid pace at which the curriculum moves, who can blame them? As students, we don’t have the luxury of exploring subjects that pique our interest; too often, our minds are fixated on a single question during class: “Will this be on the test?” 

We need to reevaluate how schools approach grading and learning. Schinske and Tanner argue that students who have more control over the grading process become more self-regulated and self-motivated; with this in mind, some teachers like to ask students to use rubrics to self-assess their work. Other educators believe grading should emphasize participation and effort rather than the final product, as this approach has been proven to better engage students in their learning and academic improvement. 

It is also important that feedback takes the spotlight when handing back assessments, as opposed to the overall mark. The type of feedback matters too: one study has shown that descriptive feedback – which offers productive information about how a student can improve – triumphs over evaluative feedback, which merely appraises a student’s work.

But evolving our approach to grades is only the first step in reimagining an education system that has remained the same for decades in our rapidly-changing world. Lemons believes we should constantly “redesign schools based upon our best thinking at the moment on what schools ought to look like, smell like, taske like, feel like.” 

When we start education, we are brimming with energy and pondering the world. Why is the sky blue? Where does time go? Are aliens real? We are enthusiasts vowing to become doctors who cure cancer, astronauts who land on Mars, and presidents who achieve world peace. The light of our spirit is blinding.

In high school, it burns out. We no longer ask these profound, important questions, and we’re more scared to answer them. Students, teachers, parents, administrators, school boards, and governments need to come together to identify the purpose of the education system and what it will take to fulfill it. 

More importantly, we need to be more like my third grade students, unabashed to be wrong and eager to learn what’s right. Let’s start asking ambitious questions again. How can we foster greater passion in students? What does a just grading system look like? Why do some students feel so disengaged with their learning?

How can we rekindle our light?