Why Grades Don't Matter

Why Grades Don’t Matter (at least not as much as you think)

With the end of the school year knocking on our front door, you may be asking yourself, “Was this a successful school year for my child?”

Chances are you will look to their end of the year grades and averages to determine that.

But what if I told you that you that you are barking up the wrong tree?  Sounds suspicious, right?

We are trained to think that grades are a true measure of how much we are learning and succeeding.

The true measure of success is perseverance.  The focus on effort and the continued personal development and growth.

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What is Success?

It is what we all want for our children.  It also has a plethora of meanings which come from different perspectives.  Success can look vastly different for different people.  One person may become a movie maker while the next may become a CPA.  We need both in our world.

When I was in high school, I thought success was becoming a mechanical engineer. In college, when I couldn’t seem to make higher than a “C” in Calculus I, I assumed that I just did not have the intelligence required to become a mechanical engineer. That caused me to change my major.


All too often we are encouraged to look at a student’s grades in school to “assess” whether they are mastering the skills and learning objectives.  Grades are certainly one way to assess knowledge and progress, but the assessments used to create those grades have long been the subject of controversy.

The most common assessments used today in the school systems emphasize limited isolated skill sets like geometry and grammar.  These assessments leave out huge portions of necessary skills that are essential to success in the work place and life, such as creative thinking, problem-solving, cooperative teamwork, technological literacy, and self-direction.

Randy Bennett, who holds the title of distinguished scientist at ETS, writes that this rigid idea of assessment yields a “narrow view of proficiency” defined by “skills needed to succeed on relatively short, and quite artificial, items”

Why are multiple choice tests so common?  They are simply the fastest and cheapest way to assess students on a large scale.  Unfortunately, multiple choice tests severely limit how students can show mastery of a skill.  You may ask, why is that such a bad thing? Keep reading. . .


What is Intelligence?

When I thought that I didn’t have the intelligence required to become a mechanical engineer, I changed my college degree plan to education. Now I know at this point you may be inclined to hate me because I thought getting my degree in education took less intelligence—but please stay with me until the end of this article so that I can redeem myself.  My view of what intelligence is was just my naïve and very narrow-minded way of seeing the world as well as me buying into the very myth I aim to debunk.

Oh, and have I told you that I grew up in a small town in a rural state?

When I got to some of my senior level classes in the education program, I took one of the most important classes in the curriculum—Assessment Theory and Practice.  My professor was very wise and introduced us to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  I was awestruck and his theory resonated with me to my core and would forever change the way I looked at what it means to be “intelligent.”

Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist from Harvard University.  Using contemporary cognitive research, he developed a theory that we (a.k.a. every student) have differently “wired” brains that have certain strengths and weaknesses.  And because of these differences in the way our brains work, we all “LEARN (how we are taught), remember, PERFORM (how we show our mastery of a skill), and understand in different ways.”

This “Theory of Multiple Intelligences”

challenges our current educational system that assumes “that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way and that a uniform, universal measure suffices to test student learning.

These different strengths directly correlate to the different ways each of us learn and process information. Howard Gardner identifies seven different “intelligences”: Visual-Spacial, Bodily-KinestheticMusical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical-Mathematical.

Our “current educational system is heavily biased toward linguistic modes of instruction and assessment and, to a somewhat lesser degree, toward logical-quantitative modes as well.”


Reframing Our Perspective on What Constitutes Success

In Michele Borba’s book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, she asserts that research has shown that grades do not matter as much as effort.  If parents switch their emphasis from what grades their children get to how hard their children are working, then that is key to increase your child’s potential.

“Switching your emphasis to how hard you work from what did you get out of the experience increases your child’s potential”

She cites a few different studies to back up her theory:

1. University of Michigan; Harold Stevenson, professor of psychology

“Why do Asian students tend to do better academically than American Students?

Asian parents stress perseverance—work as hard as you can and you will be successful

European American parents stress the end product-grade or score”


2. Columbia University; researchers studied hundreds of junior high school math students.  Those who believed intelligence could be developed did better than kids who thought intelligence was fixed

If intelligence can be impacted by hard work and effort, those kids are less likely to give up.

After graduating college with a degree for teaching English at the junior high and high school level, I spent three years teaching in the public-school system.  Was I happy?  No.  My heart was in my profession but I just couldn’t deal with all of the injustices I witnessed.  I actually started to apply for law school so that I could “help change the world.”

It was at this precise time that I met my future husband.  I knew in my heart that I had always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom above any other profession, and he had always hoped for a wife who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.  As soon as we married, we began our family and I have been a stay-at-home mom ever since.  It is truly the best job I have ever had.  It doesn’t feel like a job—which makes it the best job!  I am not implying that motherhood is easy, it just makes me insanely happy, accomplished, and successful.

Accomplished? Successful?

Some might say, “But you don’t have a ‘real’ job? How can you feel successful?”

And there you have it folks—our society’s underlying message of what defines actual “success.”


Putting It Into Practice

What to teach our kids to emphasize?

The best way to help our kids find true success, is to emphasize effort, not intelligence.


1. The harder you work, the more successful you’ll be.

2. Start a family motto that highlights perseverance

3. Don’t call it a mistake

4. Instead of looking at end of year averages or “products” as a measure of success. Consider growth, development, level of happiness and fulfillment.


In the seventeen years since I graduated college with a degree (an accomplishment many equate with success), I have come to the conclusion that my college degree was not needed to attain true success.  I was so focused on the importance of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences that I never considered anything outside of college as leading to success.  The years spent as a stay-at-home mom have allowed me the freedom to explore other interests and develop talents outside the linguistic/logical-mathematical expectations of the world.

I love to create.  I probably would have found more happiness in learning a trade, such as becoming a jeweler and thus designing my own line of jewelry (think James Avery, Mignon Faget) and eventually owning my own business than I did in the teaching profession.

I now am a huge proponent for my children seeking a career doing something they love even if that means without going to college.  Together with that realization and the experience of having a dyslexic child, I now believe that a strong work ethic and a healthy dose of perseverance can lead to success in anyone’s life.



1-The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries by Michele Borba, Ed.D.

2-Multiple Intelligences: The Theory In Practice, A Reader by Howard Gardner

Does the theory of multiple intelligences sound really cool?  Here is a very brief look at the different intelligences and common careers often associated with each.  It also should be noted that each person does not have only one of these intelligences.  We all have different combinations and degrees to which each intelligence makes up who we are.  Like our fingerprints, each person’s intelligence is unique.



Good sense of direction (sailors, drivers, guides);

Excellent visual imagination (architects, photographers, interior designers, graphic artists);

Keenly observant (detectives, police officers; firefighters; crime scene investigators)




Likes figuring out how things work (mechanic, carpenter, craftsman)

Well-coordinated with good motor skills; likes to be active (dancers, sports athletes, performers)




Keen sense of hearing, rhythm, pitch (performing musician, music composer, DJ, recording studio)




The ability to establish and maintain relationships; can be a good team leader bringing out the best in people (teacher, social worker, hospitality, politician)




Extremely good at self-knowledge; knowing strengths, weaknesses, limitations, moods (therapist, religious leader, missionaries, yoga instructor)




Good at understanding written and spoken language as well as being good at writing and speaking (journalist, broadcaster, professor, writer, public speaker)




abstract thinkers very good at logic and reasoning; good at investigating scientific processes (lawyers, doctors, scientist, accountant, computer programmer)
Why Grades Don't Matter

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