Grades – A Valuable Means, But Not the End

Written by Ryan Evans on March 21st, 2018

As parents, we often grapple with the meaning of grades. We try our best to help our children navigate through the often-murky waters of interpreting their grades, and inevitably we place either too little, or too much emphasis on grades.

Grades are valuable in several ways: they help teachers assess a student’s performance and help establish growth areas; they help students measure their achievement based on course goals and objectives; they provide a tool for parents to help their children grow academically, mentally, and even spiritually. With this in mind, there are two ditches to avoid. If grades are disconnected from attitude and effort, students tend to attribute academic success to factors outside of their control. On the other hand, grades can become an idol if they lead to an internalized perception that one’s worth is determined by performance. To guide our children in approaching grades in a healthy way, here are some practical principles for parents.

  1. Grades and character are not mutually exclusive. Some parents intentionally focus on character and minimize the importance of grades. However, grades are usually (with few exceptions) a manifestation of character traits such as perseverance, diligence, and tenacity. We do our children a disservice when we separate personal virtue from academic performance. Yes, they are different, but they are friends, not foes.
  2. Praise effort and progress, not grades. As we evaluate report cares and scores, our focus should be on using grades as a means to measure the effort and progress our children are making. And, this should be done in light of their own natural proclivities and God-given abilities (see point 5 below for more).
  3. Put grades in the proper perspective. Grades have some practical value, but parents and students benefit by viewing grades as something valued within a framework of character and life skills. We’d all agree that intellectual virtues such as courage, carefulness, honesty, and fair-mindedness are more important than a simple letter grade. Yes, they are connected, but context is important.
  4. Avoid giving rewards for grades. While it makes sense to have logical consequences for a lack of faithfulness (in my experience, an “F” is almost always a result of apathy or lack of effort), incentivizing good grades through external rewards can create a dangerous motivational paradigm. If we believe that giving our best effort is paramount, grade incentives make less sense.
  5. Look beyond the grades. Similar to a sports score, there is much to examine beyond the numbers. It’s possible to celebrate a “B” for one student and express concern about an “A-” for another when a child’s ability, effort, attitude, and the subject matter are taken into account. We believe in moral victories, and a child who naturally struggles with spelling or math can be affirmed for a grade that some would consider unworthy.

Using teacher feedback with these principles in mind helps our children grow in wisdom and virtue. Ultimately the goal is to help our children do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). When our children learn to apply this principle to their academic pursuits, they – and we – can be content and satisfied with their best efforts regardless of the grade.