It’s All About the Grades

It’s a Punch in the Gut and not a Pat on the Back

Why is it all about the academic output—the grades, the achievement, the scores?

As a mother of three gifted children and a committed gifted advocate, my heart sunk in my chest, actually it broke in many little pieces, when I saw in my Twitter feed today a wonderful young scholars program happening locally for qualified high school students—an incredible opportunity for high-achieving and gifted students.

Why did my heart break?

Because I have a brilliant, innovative, creative, independent-thinking, entrepreneurial gifted high schooler who could have benefited from attending such a program. But he is often excluded from such programs because he is homeschooled and his academic output, his proof that he is as intelligent or as gifted as his IQ says he is, doesn’t qualify him for such a program. It’s all about the grades.

Many such programs across the country offer our high-achieving, high-potential students exceptional opportunities to utilize and strengthen their intellectual gifts. Through these programs, our best and brightest are acknowledged for their academic accomplishments in traditional school and provided tools to strengthen and enrich their intellectual talents in order to encourage them to continue to excel in their educational endeavors. For nearly all of these high-ability students, acceptance into and attending these programs gives them a well-deserved pat on the back and it boosts their self-esteem—it confirms to them that they they are on the right path in life and so they have the confidence to continue to excel.

What about the high-ability, highly-intelligent or creatively gifted students who don’t have the academic output–the grades–needed to be accepted into these programs? What happens to the gifted child who has the potential to be a mover and shaker for our world, but uses his knowledge and talents to create, innovate and invent instead of conforming to the traditional school norm of learning for the sole purpose of academic output—making good grades and achieving high scores? Where and when do they get their needed pat on the back?

What about a gifted, high-potential child who for various reasons such as underachievement, being homeschooled (many programs only accept traditional school students),  emotional issues or being twice-exceptional does not have the needed academic output—grades, scores, achievement—to qualify her to be accepted into these academic achievement programs? From my own experience,  these deserving, but excluded gifted students, this exclusion feels more like a punch in the gut, not a rightful pat on the back.

When grades, scores and other forms of academic achievement are the only output or proof we are looking for in order to acknowledge any student’s academic efforts and future worth, then are we just giving other high-potential, highly-creative and intellectually-gifted students a punch in the gut while sending them the message that you are not good enough?

What are the repercussions when we only reward our high academic achievers while ignoring our highly-intelligent visionaries? Throughout a child’s educational career, he receives feedback about his achievement, intelligence, behavior, academic performance, and this feedback can strengthen his self-confidence or it can destroy it.

I am ashamed to say I have on many occasions stressed to all three of my children that they need to focus on their grades. I’ve uttered to them such stupidity as, “You only have to memorize all of these spelling words long enough to make an A on the test on Friday”, or “I know this test is unfair, but if that is what they want, then that is what you have to give them if you want to make good grades.”  I’ve even told my children, “I know it is stupid. I know it makes no sense. I know that you will forget all those isolated facts you need to memorize, but you have to play the game to get ahead.” And I am a former public school teacher and it disgusts me thinking about those statements—true and necessary statements, but still disgusting.

But, as I sit and stare at the image in my Twitter feed of all of those lucky, high-achieving students taking part in this incredible opportunity which also provides them invaluable feedback, the affirmation that they have what it takes to excel in life, I think of all the other equally-deserving high-ability gifted students— children who are repeatedly provided with negative feedback, the affirmation that they don’t have what it takes to excel in life because good grades are what make you successful.

Selfishly, I think of my own gifted child whose intellectual potential—whether measured by his IQ, his inventions, his intelligence, his creativity, his giftedness—is more than enough to make him equally deserving to be among those high-achieving students attending this scholars program. I know he is highly intelligent, extremely capable and has as much potential as any of those lucky students, but what he doesn’t have is critical positive feedback, the same affirmation that these lucky high-achieving students receive—the affirmation that says, “you have what it takes to excel in life.”


Why? Because it’s all about the grades.


*The painting used in the above graphic is an oil painting by my then 7 year old.

28 Comments on “It’s All About the Grades

  1. I have good news. Like a rat in a maze, I kept trying to find a way to make a case for my poor-test-taking kid to participate in a very competitive program (well, more than one haha). Without disclosing the disabilities. I knew she needed the stimulation of being around other smart, motivated kids. It worked, and she has thrived, and the best part is it led to several other amazing opportunities for her. I’m also thrilled with the way her self-esteem, excitement, and motivation has gone up. I got her accommodations for her classes, and for ACT – her score skyrocketed to the top. If she wasn’t smart, her score wouldn’t be so high even with all the extra time in the world. So my advice to parents with younger kids is, even if you are a homeschooler, a paper trail of the disability, the accommodations, and accomplishments (whether grades, awards, portfolio) might be needed later. You never know. If the kid needs an accommodation for one class and doesn’t seem to for another, get it anyway, so you have a record. And you as the parent have to figure out how to put it together in a cohesive, compelling format to make your case, and get it to the best person (whether it’s a packet designed to receive accommodations, or one designed to showcase academic potential without disclosure). My daughter still struggles with her disabilities, but at least she sees a reason to continue the struggle – the rewards for her are worth it. I keep asking her why she doesn’t just choose easier classes, an easier future college major(s), but she has a drive she can’t stop and she doesn’t care if she has less time to goof off.

    • Gene, what absolutely terrific news! This made my day, beyond a doubt!

      May I share your story of success on the Crushing Tall Poppies Facebook page? It can be so encouraging and your advice is extremely valuable to others who are following behind you!

      Thank you, thank you, thank you, Gene, for sharing this with us!

      • Sure! Because I know what it’s like to have no one in your life who understands, and it’s tough to get advice and information. Because you know, if your kid is so smart, why does she need accommodations? And, if your kid needs help/accommodations, why is she taking such difficult coursework? (I don’t know, maybe this family is just nuts or wants more frustration in their lives)

        I used to think grades, awards, and accommodations didn’t matter for a homeschooled kid. But for this particular academically oriented teen, they do, because they are the only way she can get to where she wants to go in STEM. Applying for awards or doing well in a competition matters too. They lead to more opportunities.

        Another piece of advice is ask more than once. Try to be nice about it, but you have to make the gatekeepers listen to you and not blow you off.

  2. The problem is though, that even if you are a high achieving student, like myself supposedly, and you get “good” grades; You don’t have to put in 80% effort to get them, you don’t need to revise for months in advance, You don’t have the leeway to be creative.
    You just do enough to do “Well” but not exceptionally well, and that is fine.

    Its not really a true measure of knowledge. I don’t read up on topics I like (usually) if they aren’t in the syllabus, because ultimately, however impressive it is, it won’t lead me anywhere and nobody will be interested (but myself.)

    When I’m older, I’d like to have a job disproving scientific theory’s and do art, but I don’t know if there are grades you can get for that. Also, people might dislike me but they’d probably have nothing better to do.

    • Just remember, knowledge, skills and information are for your success–it’s what you know and how you use what you know. Grades are only for a school’s benefit to be able to document your educational progress and are often a very poor indicator of your knowledge, mastery and progress.

      It’s all about finding a balance. Good luck and thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

  3. Wish I could just attach the darn IQ report instead of an ACT!

  4. About trying to finagle a way for a 2E kid to get a second consideration for a program: If the whole application is over the top great except for a standardized test score due to the disability, I’m going to have to decide if I should disclose the disability right off the bat to explain the score. I will also have to apply to many more programs than I would otherwise in the hopes one would take her! It’s a tough choice, because I was hoping the rest of the application would be enough to make up for a single score without disclosure. Maybe I should add to the application a letter of rec even if they don’t ask for it. I think unless we get accommodations or she learns to compensate for the disability, we’ll have to apply $$ to more colleges, or maybe consider the transfer route.

    • You are right about disclosure of a disability and adding a letter of recommendation. All to say that as parents of gifted children we need to do all this finagling because so many educators don’t understand that not all of our gifted children are the stereotypical straight-A, conscientious student. Thanks again, Gene!

  5. Sadly the gifted and talented are underserved across the boards. I was in a great gifted and talented program as a kid, until we moved when I was in the 8th grade. There was nothing for me in my new school. There was no challenge no trust, and nothing for me to latch on to. I became a disciplinary problem. There was no challenge in attending class, but trying to get away with leaving campus with my 10 best friends and going to the beach for the day, now THAT was a challenge. So, the school that refused to create programming for gIfted kids (and I wasn’t the only one) and tried not to spend money on us or deal with us, instead ended up dealing with us on a nearly daily basis. I pulled my daughter of school when she was in third grade, after I saw the same total lack of gifted programming. She spent a good deal of time in class with her head on the desk ( because she had finished first). It became clear early on that I would have keep the school in the loop as far as my daughter was concerned. I wasn’t going to have her miss out playing an instrument in the band, or taking AP classes. So I worked a deal with the school system that she could take up to 3 classes at the school each year. They fought hard against her “taking up a space” in honors or AP classes “that another child had earned” and my daughter said “fine, I’ll buy my own book, and bring my own chair if I have to” – and she did, twice. She got A+ in both classes, and for one ofthe classes the highest SAT Subject test the teacher had ever seen. They didn’t argue with her after that. Sometimes you have push hard to get what you need. Call whoever is in charge of the group, find out what else they would accept (SAT Subject Test scores? AP tests? PSATs? SATs? A test that proves they are gifted?). If they are accepting students from different school districts they know very well that an “A” at one school is not necessarily equal to an “A” at another school. Find out if private school students are included. Private school grades vary even more from public school grades, and in some states don’t even have to provide grades. Any group that would accept private schoolers, would have very little argument against letting in homeschoolers.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and advice!

      I was told as a parent at the beginning of this gifted journey that there is always a back door, but with this particular program that I referenced, I didn’t even know about beforehand, yet my son was part of the targeted population–identified gifted high school students.

      I’ve challenged a few programs that exclusively use test scores for enrollment asking how they accommodate gifted 2E or other gifted students who may not do well on tests–“nope, sorry, we are only set up to use test scores.”

      I voiced my disagreement in this article not just for my child, but for all children who struggle to be successful in school when grades and test scores are the only achievement measure used. This affects children’s self-esteem and their confidence to be successful. Some of these children have no voice and fall through the cracks.

      I really appreciate you sharing with all of us how your advocacy for your daughter was successful. Your experience benefits all of us! Many thanks!

  6. I taught first year university courses for many years, and some of my colleagues still do. Over the course of a decade the students entering university programs have more and more been unwilling to enter into dialogues about critical subjects like humanities, history, and social sciences. If we go off test facts in lecture they become extremely nervous and pan us for it in professor evaluations. It’s a self-selecting, fact regurgitating group for sure. This is our next generation of leaders, apparently. Or maybe the dropouts will inherit the earth in this generation like they did in ours. Likely.

    • Erika, your comment is invaluable information for us. We all need to see the negative consequences of our current hyper-focus on grades and test scores. As so many keep saying, but those who make the educational decisions keep ignoring, we are teaching our kids what to think, not HOW to think.

      Thank you so very much for sharing this!

  7. Thanks for this. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately, as the parent of a 2E son. I was struggling for some reason, this morning, to decide how I would characterize his 2nd grade experience now that the year is coming to a close. Would I say he was successful in 2nd grade? Would his teachers characterize him as being “successful” in 2nd grade? What to tell the 3rd grade teacher? What to expect? It’s a challenge. If I look solely at his grades, he’s had a pretty successful year, but if I look at what I think he’s capable of, I would say the grades and traditional assessment methods don’t reflect that. And why do I care? Because I know it matters to everyone else. We’ve been fortunate to be able to provide him with much of what he needs to fuel him in a wonderful community music program where his gifts are nurtured and he’s treated with seriousness and acceleration that make him feel competent, but what if they were looking at his grades before offering him opportunities? And what of the families who don’t have, or can’t afford, programs like the one we’ve found for him? So complicated. So important. I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking about it.

    • Brianne, you bring up so many important points!

      It is important to consider the many ways grades are determined and what do they really reflect. Do they reflect real, authentic learning which the child will retain? And then what are the grades used for? Honor Roll? academic awards? honors classes?

      I’ve thought a lot about this too. Grades, which are often not an accurate reflection of what a child knows or what he is capable of, are often used exclusively in school to measure success. I read a few weeks ago on a math teacher’s blog where she was proud to “count off for crappy grammar or spelling” (that is a direct quote from her blog) on her students’ math work. So now a student’s math grade will also reflect his spelling and grammar skills. If he is gifted in math, but weak in spelling, his math grades will no longer reflect his math achievement.

      So many variables: impoverished children who can’t focus on school because of their family life, a child with poor executive functioning skills who keeps getting poor grades because he forgets to turn in his homework, and like you said, a child who makes good grades but could be working at a much higher level.

      There is a LOT of we determine from grades even though we see grades can be a pretty inaccurate measurement!

      Thanks for getting me back on my soapbox, Brianne! 🙂

  8. Just curious, what would you suggest as an “alternate form of criteria”?

    I am a parent to a public school high-schooler who is part of the school’s GT program. Unfortunately, my child does not have access to these programs because they don’t exist here. Our GT program consists of one or two field trips a year to local events like a leadership seminar which is actually open to any high school student who wants to attend, our school just provides transportation and an excused absence from school. We live in Texas which ranks near last in the nation in per-student spending. I’m told that most of the state’s GT funds are spent for high school dual-credit and AP classes, which means younger students’ GT experiences are minimal also. High school students do have to have certain standardized test scores for the dual-credit classes, I’m not sure for the AP classes. So, anyway, there are many forms of being left out, sad to say.

    • We used to live in a state where gifted programming was a few hours a week in grades 3rd through 5th only. I understand about the almost nonexistence of gifted programming, Now my family lives in an area where there is sufficient gifted programming in all grades.

      Great question! As far as alternate forms of criteria: As a former public school teacher, I was trained to offer students other alternatives to paper and pencil tests because not all students can best demonstrate their knowledge in one particular way. Likewise, not all students deserving of any specific educational program can demonstrate their worthiness through one specific mode. Other than grades or test scores, alternate forms such as teacher recommendations, other forms of achievement such as awards, recognitions and examples of accomplishments, a student portfolio, recommendations by other professionals, an essay written by the student, a personal interview with the student–can all be used.

      Yes, there are many forms of being left out. Absolutely. And it is sad when it can be easily prevented.

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts!

      • Thanks for your response. Those are great ideas. I would prefer not relying too heavily on teacher recommendations or on awards (which are often based on teacher opinion). I have two high-schoolers, one in public school and one who couldn’t tolerate public school and is now in private school. My kids were both so quiet that teachers often overlooked them. I think some teachers assume that a gifted child will constantly be raising their hand or shouting out answers. As you’ve noted, some GT kids don’t think that kind of thing is important. Also, low-income students are more easily overlooked. At our local schools, often it is the athletic and wealthy students who get the awards and recognition (based more on favoritism than the student’s achievement). But it all goes back to what you have said about teachers being trained on giftedness. Also, giving teachers time to know their students. The emphasis on standardized testing may be what is taking that time away.

        I don’t want it to sound like all of our local public school teachers play favorites. My kids have had some good teachers, but others didn’t have the time to know their students and judged students based on their status in sports or on their family’s status in the community. This included recommending students for awards, recognition, and the GT program.

        • Fran, again, what you said is all very true. There is favMost teachers are good and are doing everything they possibly can within this era of unnecessarily heavy standardized testing. Also, because of all the increasing demands on their time, alternate forms of testing take up too much of their time. Education for all children is a bigger problem than what is happening in the classroom and at the local and state level.

          Alternate forms of criteria are not perfect either, and there are probably more than the list I gave. But for awards or recognitions, I had in mind those that are received outside of school like art contests, volunteer recognition, Boy Scouts–any extracurricular areas. And sadly, this is another area where low-income students probably lose out because their families can’t afford extracurriculars.

          Teacher training is so important. It is clear that many, many teachers do not understand giftedness and all of its non-stereotypical traits. My experience is that, yes, many teachers are looking for the high-achieving, teacher-pleasing student and would peg those as gifted.

          Thanks for all of your great insight, Fran!

          • Thanks for your insight too, and for your clarification on awards! My kids usually have just one activity each, and choose to spend the rest of their time with friends or at home. Luckily, they have friends that do the same. Unfortunately, this puts them behind when having to compete for awards or recognition like the ones you were talking about. The same would be true for low-income kids and for homeschoolers (for whom it’s hard to join band, choir, two or three sports, student council, pep club, and science bowl all in the same year). The overextended overachieving kids are the ones who look good on the applications. Those are usually the middle-class and upper-class kids with stay-at-home “soccer moms” who can support all those activities with time as well as money. It’s not so impressive to delve deeply into one thing, like GT kids sometimes do. I would think that one advantage of home-schooling is that you don’t have to move at the frantic pace of public school, but I see how that could be a disadvantage when applying for programs that have the public-school mentality.

          • Homeschooling does have its advantages and disadvantages, but that is definitely affected by where one lives. We are in a school district who supports their homeschoolers, allows them to take classes and extracurriculars at the public schools, and provides a transcript for college. They even offer gifted services for homeschoolers, but gifted programs such as the one I spoke about in my article are not always hosted by public schools; this one was offered through a university. It is a give and take and nothing is perfect and some things need to be drastically improved 🙂

            Thanks again, Fran!

  9. I don’t consider this a pity party at all! My hope is that as homeschooling becomes more prevalent, particularly for gifted students, that these programs will develop alternative qualifying criteria. Perhaps not soon enough for your son, but it seems critical mass can’t be too far in the future.

    That’s quite an impressive painting for a seven year old!!

    • It is my hope that homeschoolers will be more accepted into these programs, too, but homeschoolers will always lack credible grades.

      I loved his painting–I gave him an A in art! 😉

  10. Same. I know they have to sort the kids somehow, and it doesn’t always work right. All of my kids have been homeschooled. Two have the grades and the scores and get the outside program benefits, scholarships, and kudos they deserve (fewer than schooled kids, of course). Third kid is actually acknowledged by the rest of the family as being the smartest, but has issues that cause only above-average test scores, with mostly A’s in outside classes (kid has to work hard for these A’s). Getting denied all over the place because of the test scores. Just heartbreaking for this kid, feels stupid, low self-esteem (why can’t I learn like everyone else), yet so obviously makes leaps and connections no one else can. Programs applied to were absolutely perfect for this kid – would have very likely shined in them, and would probably have been such a boost. Just loves learning, and would love to be with like-minded kids. 🙁

    • Yes, Gene, I absolutely empathize with you!

      I agree, it is difficult to sort the kids and it doesn’t always work right, but then again, when the only criteria is grades or test scores instead of having an alternate form of criteria as well, it then seems a careless disregard for kids who can benefit from and deserve to be in these programs. Not every child can demonstrate their knowledge through a test. And I hurt for those kids!

      My heart goes out to you, Gene!

  11. All I can say is that I love you! You are amazing ! You hit the nail on the head with every single newsletter! We are blessed with an amazing, incredibly bright son who excels at so many amazing things but cannot find success taking exams. Its all about the grades! Its all about the scores. I say look at the individual and see their strenghts, their gifts.

    Thank you for all that you do to advocate for our gifted children. Mary

    • Thank you for such sweet words, Mary <3. I was so afraid to post this "pity party" story, but grades hold back more than just gifted children. Grades hold back typical students from being rewarded when they don't make Honor Roll, or college-ready teens are held back when their ACT or SAT scores are not high enough to get into college or get a much-needed scholarship. You are right, we should look at the individual and see their strengths and gifts which can't be measured by ace-ing a test. Love you too, Mary!

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