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Are Straight A's Worth It?

Spoiler alert: I do not know, but I do have thoughts.

A high-school kid with straight A’s through all four years of schooling could represent a number of situations. The kid could be a genius. The kid could be smart and a hard worker. The kid could be clever about choosing their classes. The kid could be very good at communicating with their teachers and getting second chances. The kid’s parents might have any number of the above skills.

There is certainly a financial value to finishing high school with all A’s. Class ranking can automatically get them scholarships at a number of schools. Class ranking, GPA, and valedictorian status are a part of their financial aid story as well as the story they share on their scholarship applications.

Where it gets more interesting, I think, is when considering how valuable straight A’s are to the student’s growth and happiness. For most students, that amount of grade excellence would require a lot of hard work. Most societies around the world consider a strong work ethic to be a positive moral characteristic. (There is a lot of social engineering behind that fact, but this isn’t the time to delve into that topic.)

It seems likely that a student with straight A’s has learned a lot of things. Learning things is a good practice in my estimation. I don’t believe that straight A’s mean a student learned the most things, though, nor do I think we can know if straight A’s mean they learned the right things. What if a student had to work incredibly hard at a math class that was particularly challenging to them? Odds are they did not learn that material much beyond getting by (if you can call an A getting by). Odds are they won’t retain that material. Odds are the time they took struggling with that one class took them away from a more natural, deeper learning they could have been doing in an area in which they were more interested. Or perhaps the stress of that studying took them away from extracurricular or social activities that would have been better for their growth into adulthood?

Along similar lines, students pushing towards these top grades may also be pushing happiness and contentment away during their pursuit. There is certainly an argument that dealing with imperfection in life, with situations that are not perfectly what you want, is a useful skill to learn. No matter how much we hope for an ideal environment, that’s just never going to be the case for any of us. Conversely, I think we would do our teens good to help them learn to seek fulfillment. It would be good for kids to discover how to discover what they excel at; to be given opportunities to go deep into those areas and learn to build skills around focusing on those topics.

When comparing the extremes, of course I would deem more successful the kid who achieved straight A’s than the kid who barely passed any of their classes. For the average and above-average kids I don’t think grades tell as clear of a story. There is certainly data that proves me wrong. That shows grades correlate pretty strongly with common measures of success: career achievements and monetary rewards. Though I suspect many of the highest achievers were not from that straight-A group. I suspect we could do more to foster these less-tangible skills that make for well-rounded, happy, and fulfilled humans, which to me is a truer measure of success.