Emory student: ‘A’ is not the goal now but the standard

Sunidhi Ramesh is a rising junior at Emory University double majoring in neuroscience and sociology.

In this piece, she discusses how grade driven students have become. She believes the outcome will be less creative professionals.

By Sunidhi Ramesh

Two semesters ago, I received my first B-plus. And I was a decimal point away from an A-minus

I stared at my grade-stamped computer screen for what felt like hours, eyes darting back and forth, trying to play back how this could have happened. “I didn’t do THAT badly,” I thought. This had to be a mistake.

Fighting back tears (yes, tears), I shifted into warrior mode. In minutes, I had typed out a page-long argument as to why my grade had to be bumped up .3 points and why I more than deserved it. Satisfied, I pressed send.

Sunidhi Ramesh

Sunidhi Ramesh

My professor got back to me the next day. “I’m sorry that you’re disappointed,” he wrote. “There are always students who are within a few decimals of the next letter grade. But, unfortunately, we have to make a cut somewhere.”

“That’s it,” I thought. “It’s over. I can’t get into medical school.” And the tears came for what felt like forever.

Yeah, I can be a bit dramatic. But hear me out. There once was a time when a “C” was considered “average” and “satisfactory.” A “B” represented students who worked hard but could reach a little higher. The “A’s” were reserved for the brightest and the boldest, the students who had mastered the material beyond what was required of them.

Today, the “A” is not the goal but the standard. After hundreds of years of standing strong, an education system that places emphasis on rising expectations and values scores over learning has finally managed to corrupt its own grading structure. What expectations, you ask? Let me tell you.

In recent years, prestigious American universities have seen a dramatic decline in admission rates. Between 2005 and 2016, the University of Pennsylvania’s admission rate has fallen by almost 20 percent. Vanderbilt? 30 percent. Georgia Tech? 43 percent. The trend is dramatic and consistent across schools around the nation.

Why? Are high schools getting better? Doubt it. Are the applicants getting smarter? Possibly. Are the standards getting higher? Most definitely.

With each university admitting fewer students than they have in years past, high school students are continuing to feel the pressure to do better than just “average” in school. Less acceptances means a sudden need for taking more AP classes, getting higher SAT scores and better GPAs, adding in additional extracurricular activities, engaging in more unique and “meaningful” experiences, and being more well-rounded than ever.

And this trend isn’t just with undergraduate admissions. Between 2008 and 2015, Yale Medical School’s acceptance rate fell from 6.3 percent to 1.9; in other words, this past year, 104 of the 5,213 applicants were sent admission letters with “CONGRATULATIONS” bolded on top. And it keeps getting worse.

So perhaps my breakdown was a bit justified after all. But whatever, right? So what if students today are more stressed, creatively limited, and burned out than any group of kids before them? So what if running toward a diploma and a degree involves jumping through hoop after hoop of standardized tests, letter grades, and check boxes? So what if we are upping expectations and standards just to shortchange our young scholars of a legitimate education in the process? What is the bigger picture?

Imagine your new generation of doctors 10, 15, maybe 20 years from now. They scored the top grade of 5 on their AP Biology exams by mindlessly memorizing hours’ worth of body cycles and systems. They aced their organic chemistry classes by drawing and redrawing hydroboration oxidation mechanisms until they could recall the 1-2 alkyl shift by memory. They scored in the highest percentiles on the MCAT by taking every practice test they could find in order to think in a way test-writers wanted them to think. They trudged through medical school by staring at their anatomy textbooks until their eyes wanted to close and stay shut.

Your new doctors will not be doctors or scholars or creative minds. They will be workers — workers who are confined within a curse of repetition. Workers who spent 20 years becoming flawless test-takers and learning to scheme a system that asked too much of them — a system that valued their performance within the institution over their own personal aspirations, talents, and abilities. A system that cooped them up in the library instead of asking them to volunteer and work on becoming more caring, selfless, and approachable individuals. A system that cut out hundreds of capable, passionate, and promising future doctors because they were unable to perform on exams as they were expected to.

Your lawyers will be workers, too. And your nurses. Your pharmacists. Your politicians. Your computer engineers. And that is how it will be. Because education in the United States has evolved into a volatile battleground where students are encouraged and awarded for learning how to appease the system. For understanding that it doesn’t matter if you delete the folder in your brain titled “AP Physics” the minute you walk out of the exam. For coming to the conclusion that grades are more valuable than learning. And that learning means nothing at all.

Sound like a serious problem? It is. And it will stay that way until something is done to change the system as well as the mindsets of the students and professionals within it.

So where do we start? With doing justice to these kids. We start with getting rid of practices such as class rank that pit high-achieving students against each other. With relieving an emphasis on grading and every single assignment. With instilling our students with a passion for learning and discovery. With empowering these younger generations with the tools they need to become innovative and successful people rather than workers of a broken system.

But before any of that can be done, the general public in this country needs to begin to recognize that there is even a problem of this magnitude at hand. A problem that is in desperate need of attention. And if that does not happen (or happen soon), this educational race to nowhere sparked by years of misplaced intentions, rising expectations, and ignorant denial may finally reach a point of no return.

Reader Comments 0

31 comments
jmmharrison
jmmharrison

Ms. Ramesh's rant confirms that she feels entitled to have the best, reflecting the same thinking as many in her age group, the thinking that her parents and environment instilled in her. She needs to accept that she doesn't get to determine the special rules which apply only to her, because she is so special. She didn't cut it, in her own words.

Bill O'Rourke
Bill O'Rourke

Grades are the measure an employer looks at for how well you do at accomplishing a long term project. So if you want the job you desire, it'll be easier to achieve with A's than it will be with C's.

Johnny Knight
Johnny Knight

hahaah and you really think that to be true?

Johnny Knight
Johnny Knight

The Socialist Government run Public School System SCKS. BURN IT DOWN and let people use their money to send their children to the best school they can afford.

napi21
napi21


I HOPE this article gets the national attention it deserves.  I'm old now, so the education system doesn't affect me, but I am very worried about the current students and those to come.  I can't even tell you when it changes, but teaching to the test has been a BIG PROBLEM for quite a few years.  I do believe there will be no more scholars or creators in the future because the students were never taught how to THINK.


redweather
redweather

@napi21 Many students today are not inquisitive, nor are they interested in learning. The answer to every question, or so many of them think, is Google. Spending time figuring something out for themselves is a non-starter. Why actively engage in learning about something, they wonder, when wikipedia is just a quick click away? 

The flip side of this is that as soon as you deprive them of Google and wikipedia it becomes obvious that they are not adept at thinking something through. Their views and ideas, if you can call them that, are paper thin at best, laughably so at worst.


Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes

Unfortunately the world still is run by people with the grades, not just those who just show up.

peanutgallery
peanutgallery

Hate to be the bearer of bad news but the first two years of medical school make the academic competition in college look like junior varsity. 


Repetition is not an ugly word. It's how the rest of us mere mortals keep up with the born geniuses with flawless memories.


Doing away with grades and rank will not solve anything. Highly competitive schools will need some way to filter out a large applicant pool.

redweather
redweather

This is from a Time magazine article published in 2013:

"In 2000, just 9% of students applied to seven or more schools. In 2011, about one-third of all applicants did so, according to the NACAC’s 2012 annual report. And nearly 80% of students applied to more than three colleges or universities. The result is a record number of applications at many colleges and universities in the U.S. — and a fraught decision for students admitted to multiple schools."

The low acceptance rates at top tier schools is probably related to just how many applications are submitted today. So maybe the sky isn't actually falling, as this young Emory student seems to suggest.

Linda M.
Linda M.

Maybe the writer needs to get over herself and stop being a drama queen.  A "B" is not the end of the world.  Maybe just explain in your medical school application that you were off exploring the world and learning for learning sake, and ended up with a B in a class.


I don't know where she gets the idea that medical school wasn't competitive in the past, because it was.  I attended Emory in the early 80s for 2 years.  It was competitive then, and it was competitively driven by students for grades.  When I received an A in organic chemistry, I had another student tell me I didn't deserve it because I did not study enough, and they had put in way more hours (how they knew this I don't know) and deserved an A.  I was there when they implemented the +/- grading system and all of the super competitive students were having a fit, because there was no A+ grade, but an A- would mean you didn't get a 4.0!  I had good grades in my first 2 years, but decided to transfer to Georgia Tech.  My friends did not understand because my grades were good enough for med school.


Georgia Tech was competitive in a different way, it was students vs. professors.  Professors would give you a test so hard that no one would get everything correct.  It was not uncommon to have test grades average below 50%.  You were competing against the professor, but less competition among students.  I found my engineering classes at Georgia Tech to be much more challenging than Emory.  I actually got a D in Physical Chemistry, but managed to graduate with honors anyway.  Whatever I missed in PChem has not hurt my career.


If med school is your goal, there are only so many slots.  If you want less competition, go into another field.

Another comment
Another comment

I had the same this happen to me at Grad School at Purdue by some Army Corp of Engineer LTs. Tried to tell me I didn't deserve the A in the class on test because I skipped doing the homework until I sat in class. I was taking a full load and was a TA for two classes. Grading papers for a huge lecture class that the professor gave me no key. Then I had an actual 4 hour lab section. Along with another class that their was multiple different solutions for the problems, partial credit was given. I also had students following me around campus and showing up at my door for impromptue tutoring or office hours ( this was pre Internet and cell phones). Meanwhile, this jerk is living on LT pay with Per Diem in a nice house, with a wife waiting on him. Taking minimum course load and nothing other to do than coursework. He was just mad that a girl got an A and he only got a B. I told him college was a game you had to figure out how to use your resources efficiently.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Seems like Sunidhi is channeling a Deming (1900-1993) kind of wisdom.For example, the following from Deming’s The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education:

Ranking and grading produce artificial scarcity. If two people play tennis, one wins, one loses. The same for poker, swimming match, high jump, horse race. The human race has enjoyed games for centuries. The Greeks had their Olympic games and so do we. There is no harm in a game, and no sin in winning a game, so far as I know.

“There is scarcity of winners in a game. Only one player can come out on top. The human race has somehow, for reasons unknown, carried the pattern of games into grades in school and on up through the university, gold stars for school athletics, the merit system (putting people into slots), ranking groups and divisions within the company. All these practices induce competition between people.

“Grading and ranking produce artificial scarcity of top grades. Only a few students are admitted to the top grades (see table below). Only a few people on the job are admitted to top rank.

“This is wrong. There is no scarcity of good pupils. There is no scarcity of good people. There is no reason why everyone in a class should not be in the top grade, nor at the bottom, nor anywhere else. Moreover, a grade is only the teacher's subjective opinion. This is so even for the result of an examination.

“What is the effect of grading and ranking? Answer: humiliation of those that do not receive top grades or top rank. The effect of humiliation is demoralization of the individual. Even he that receives top grades or top rank is demoralized.

“I may cite as a horrible example a recommendation of a Department of Statistics, dated October 1991:

Grade Percentage

.   A     20

.    B     30

.    C     30

.    D     20

Total  100

“Of all people that should know better, it should be teachers of statistics, and certainly in a school of business. They should teach why forced ranking is wrong.”

bu22
bu22

@EdJohnson So everybody excels?  And what the author is talking about is not forced ranking.  Its that she didn't get a high enough score for an A.  Competition is good.  It is not a bad thing.  And it sounds like she got a professor who didn't use the "gap" system.  In that grading system, nobody is a few % points from a grade.  The split is at the "gaps."

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@xxxzzz

"So everybody excels?"

Funny how all too often that's the interpretation.  The question reveals the person.

gapeach101
gapeach101

"With each university admitting fewer students than they have in years past" 

No, they are not admitting fewer students. They are admitting the same or more students.  The problem lies with the students who are applying, mostly because no one has ever told them they are not the best and the brightest.

Riceville1
Riceville1

I caught that error as well, but I don't think I agree with your conclusion.  They are admitting a lower percentage of applicants because the population of applicants has risen due to population increases and the loss of job types that did not traditionally require a college degree (factory jobs).  Most parents realize the only path to a decent living for their kids is via a college education and thus more kids are pushed to achieve that.


HIbought theRefs
HIbought theRefs

Too many kids getting denied admission - look at the impact of the Common App.  Too many kids are applying to too many schools because it's easy. Click a check-box, provide the credit card number, and Voila! another application completed.   Much of the increased competitiveness is nothing more than the simplification of the college admission process. Now any student with enough money to do so can apply to 10, 15 or 20 (or more) schools.  What this really says is that there is not enough discernment by students when selecting the schools to which they apply.   Look no further than the Ivy League for proof --- a student who applies to all 8 Ivies really hasn't done much comparative analysis, because Cornell's academic programs and perhaps a polar opposite of Brown's.

Were we to limit every student to 5 applications, and you'd see them do more work on finding the schools that would be a good fit, and the artificial admissions stats will change tremendously.  

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

Behold Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone generation in which all of the children are above average. Behold the product of the Nanny State.

trifecta_
trifecta_

About the only thing Ms Ramesh gets right is that she's a drama queen. 

But she picked a topic (Tests are Evil!) which always catches the eye of Get Schooled. 

Plus, a "positive" story featuring an attractive youth with an Islamic sounding name is guaranteed to shoot to the front of the line this week—in a crusading liberal newspaper like the AJC.


BRV
BRV

I LOLed

Ralph-43
Ralph-43

This writer does not really want to be a college student or future physician and should receive some significant career counselling to find an occupation in which she will be successful and satisfied.  In addition, whether she meant to or not, she points out the meaningless of grades in these products of the 'helicopter parenting' society where everybody gets an A.  Time to reintroduce the 'curve' where 15 percent get an A, 20 percent get a B, and 50 percent get a C.  The rest get Ds and Fs, are removed, and directed into activities in which they can excel.  The testing and course material is obviously too easy if every Emory student expects to answer every question perfectly. 

gactzn2
gactzn2

For the record- give me the doctor who was cooped up in the library and gained mastery over what is required to become a doctor.  Doctors should be masters of their craft when they are making life and death decisions.  There are other less rigorous, career choices that value the skills she notes.  

moboman
moboman

@gactzn2 Mastery over rote repetition and regurgitation of library material does not necessarily mean mastery of the ability to analyze and interpret diagnostic issues, and definitey doesnt guarantee any mastery of surgical skills.  Test taking and clincal practice are not the same skills.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@moboman @gactzn2 I agree the field encompasses a variety of skills- however, for diagnostic purposes, you need a body of knowledge to work with.  For that reason, I want you to know the various disorders and diseases that could potentially be ailing a patient.  With a solid body of knowledge, you can then apply the critical analysis (required to gain entrance to medical school) to make a more definitive diagnosis and prognosis.  Each patient that enters a practice is a test.  They need to be correct.

gactzn2
gactzn2

While the author makes some valid points regarding the need for more rigorous learning experiences and grading fidelity (I agree), she is short-sighted and fails to acknowledge that there are social and historical forces that also shape our educational system.  I agree that the world is competitive, but we all do not start at the same point in the competition. The author takes an authoritative stance that reeks of privilege and naivete, by blaming a system made up of students who overwhelmingly, by choice, do not aspire to be doctors, pharmacists, or nurses and opt themselves out of these rigorous learning experiences because they are not always relevant to what they aspire to do.  


So much for "choice" in the classroom and its unintended consequences.  Lest we forget that many successful companies were started and are run by those who were cooped up in libraries, became great test takers, and learned by memorization some of the time.  All learning will not be tailored to the fickle notions of ever-changing, short-sighted students.

redweather
redweather

Perhaps too many students are applying for admission to schools like Yale, Vanderbilt, and Georgia Tech? Just a thought. 

lab-mom
lab-mom

@redweather Yes, sadly lacking the ability to understand that an admission rate can drop but number of admitted students can still increase, if the total number of applicants at a given school increases.


As an example:

1,000 applicants, 250 admitted = 25% admitted

10,000 applicants, 500 admitted = 5% admitted

The admission rate has dropped from 25% all the way down to 5%, but the # of admitted students doubled. 


It's called math.

RolleTheorem
RolleTheorem

Few Americans care about truly learning anything.They are too busy trying to "get paid."

Now you undersand why you have not arrived in America until you can buy foreign that is not Chinese.