Overriding the Game:
A student’s perspective on creating school policy change to improve engagement and well-being

(Some) parents felt as if our proposal was lowering the standards to make it “easier” for students in high school. But we aren’t lowering the standards: we are redefining them. We are “challenging” what they define as a child who is “successful.”

Perfectionism, Fear of Mistakes, and GPA

Our school is comprised largely of perfectionist students who are terrified by the idea of failure. The race for a higher Grade Point Average (GPA) dominates in our community. Our worth and value in the eyes of our friends, family, and, worst of all, ourselves, is dictated by this number. Being ranked by GPA only worsens the crisis through constant comparison to each other. Mistakes, whether during lectures or on tests, become viewed by students, and even many teachers, as signs of weakness and stupidity.

Fundamentally, if making mistakes is how we learn, and if those with the highest grades have by definition made the fewest mistakes, then when we compete for the highest grades, we compete for who has made the fewest mistakes, and therefore who has learned the least. Why, then, are our mistakes equivalent to failure? The answer lies, of course, in the GPA.

The GPA Game & Its Costs

At our school, grades in advanced courses are multiplied in the calculation of GPA, which attempts to both incentivize and “reward” those who take on challenging coursework. Students who are enrolled in a pre-AP course receive an earned grade for the course multiplied by 1.1, and those enrolled in an AP receive one multiplied by 1.2, when factored into GPA.

Inevitably, this type of number competition spurs the GPA Game. Students’ course selection is extrinsically motivated, forming a sameness among students who participate in the Game: courses considered easy and titled AP or post-AP receive high enrollment by students who do not necessarily hold interest in the subject. Electives not holding a multiplier are left to flounder. In fact, the vast majority of us are shameless enough to admit to playing this GPA Game and to taking “easy APs,” unconcerned with our education itself.

Those of us who don’t enroll in the most advanced course offered in any subject are considered by many to be stupid and lazy. For some reason, a student can’t take grade-level U.S. History without being ridiculed by those in the AP and punished numerically by the GPA system. I, for one, respect the students whose decisions are not influenced by the multiplier or others’ perceptions: they are much wiser and more successful than those enrolled in advanced courses in which they lack interest and time.

The majority of students who play the Game take on three or more hours of homework per night, and, with their numerous extracurricular activities, constrict their sleep time to an average of six and a half hours per night – much less in many cases. Students who have time to simply relax or spend time with family, both large determiners of a well-balanced student, have become oddities.

A Solution – with Students at the Center

To address these issues, a committee formed, authorized by our school’s Campus Leadership Team, to design a new system of GPA and rank calculation. Forty stakeholders held membership: teachers, parents, administrators, and 16 students of various backgrounds, including me. Our initial meetings concentrated on identifying the problem with GPA, throughout which student voices were critical to identifying the faults of our current calculation system.

Then we crafted a proposal, in which student voice was again vital. If the goal was to design a system that couldn’t be manipulated or gamed, then students accustomed to the “gamer mentality” could detect the flaws. The fundamental goal was to develop a system that satisfied our state law requiring the top 10% and a valedictorian to be named from every public high school in the state. However, our more significant, school-specific goals were to improve student well-being through 1) not penalizing students for pursuing their interests, 2) denoting equal importance in humanities, STEM, fine arts, etc., 3) specifying a number of courses to be weighted per year, and 4) pursuing the highest levels of learning in their areas of passion.

Seeking Buy In, Addressing Backlash           

After a year of meetings, we took our proposal to the Campus Leadership Team, who responded with great enthusiasm. In the meantime, foreseeing the community’s potential concerns, we took a further step in presenting this proposal to the district’s middle school and high school parents and faculty. We organized a series of panel-style presentations by our student committee members for mostly middle school parents, whose children the proposal would have affected. At these presentations, we shared the context of our school’s current situation, its necessitation of a new GPA system, and the proposed system itself.

Although we received immensely positive feedback for these changes both through the presentations and through a community survey, not all were pleased. Some parents within the high, middle, and even elementary schools of the district began to form a retaliation campaign, and spread their arguments through the distribution of “anti-GPA-reform” pamphlets at our community meetings. To ease this, we took all feedback into account and adjusted our proposal accordingly for those who believed that the current system requires no change.

Encouraged by the community forums, we presented our ideas formally to the School Board over several meetings. Our reform arguments and proposal were met again by strong opposition consisting largely of parents who might themselves be too blinded by the GPA Game to realize its implications on their students’ health. These parents felt as if our proposal was lowering the standards to make it “easier” for students in high school. But we aren’t lowering the standards: we are redefining them. We are “challenging” what parents define as a child who is “successful.”

Moving Beyond the Status Quo & Challenging Notions of Success

Although set back by the Board, we did have some victory. We were eventually able to pass altered parts of our proposal. And our work continues.

As a community with strong roots, we were and continue to be stuck in tradition, questioning why something ought to be changed when it “works” now. We figure that because those who play the Game are accepted into their desired colleges and benefit from the current GPA system, it’s okay as it is. We figure that if the system works for the top 10%, then it’s okay as it is. We rely on the these too-narrow numbers and types of results to imply success – rather than on our stories, overall lives, and education.

But we all too often forget about the other 90%: those who are “left behind,” and often, at least as miserable and unbalanced as those in the top 10%. The GPA journey itself, however, was only the spark for the widespread recognition of our school’s deficient standard of student well-being, acting as the exposition of reform. We continue today and into the future to eschew the Game: to redefine the standards of our school’s culture in aspects such as sleep and scheduling, pursuing a goal of 100% of our student body as healthy and engaged, lifelong learners.

Joseph A. is a high school junior, student leader, and Challenge Success change agent. Joseph’s blog expresses his personal perspective and experience with school policy reform.