How the Honor Roll Cheats Students and Divides Schools

How the Honor Roll Cheats Students and Divides Schools

How the Honor Roll Cheats Students and Divides Schools

The honor roll is an indefensible obstacle to student progress.


My little sister texted me during school recently requesting a “serious polemic” against the honor roll. (She knows I like to write polemics.) Why? “Because the honor roll’s demeaning to little children!” she fired back. I put it in the back of my mind and went on with my day, which came to prove her point.

Midway through my Government class, I was pulled out to talk to my administrator. I chatted with a few kids in the waiting room, trying to find out why we were all there. As people shuffled in and out, we heard snippets of conversations about “getting that D up” and “graduating on time” and “getting one last chance.”

Uh-oh. I chastised myself for not knowing immediately, for letting schooling’s be-all and end-all temporarily slip under my radar. Of course, we were there to talk about grades. What else? We were all borderline cases thrown together for last-minute lectures and discipline.

It turns out that my administrator had actually called me in to help plan the school’s voter registration drive, but to the best of my knowledge, everyone else was in that waiting room because of inadequate report cards. And that freaked me out. At the time, I suddenly felt that I was caught in the basement of the meritocracy, and I couldn’t bear to think that everyone there saw me as an academic lightweight, a flake, a do-nothing. I almost felt like an innocent suspect of a crime, sitting in a cell with other accused offenders, simply waiting to be exonerated and released from my false detention.

The crime, in this case, was the serious transgression of bad grades, an offense dirtier than academic cheating, which students know is pervasive across America and basically accepted by everyone, from Ivy League deans to ambitious school superintendents to stressed-out teachers to depressed students. For a moment, I felt degraded by mere association with the kids getting Ds and Fs, the ones who couldn’t even cheat their way to safety.

Then, I snapped back to reality. I remembered that our grim situation was not the fault of the “low achievers,” but of the grading system itself. Grades today are more than letters. They are a comprehensive lifestyle. They mold your identity and self-perception in school. They tell you how “smart” others think you are and dictate the amount of teachers’ acclaim you receive. They determine which classes you take, honors or normal, which in turn determine how security guards and passers-by treat you in the hallway. They shape your post-high school life far more than is appropriate, ethical, or logical. They put you in a class, literally and figuratively, that perpetuates its own types of socializing, fraternizing and schmoozing. Once removed from your comfort zone, you become slightly unsure of how to carry yourself. You become graded and class-bound.

So, let me be the first to say it on the off-chance that nobody else yet has: the honor roll is a shoddy excuse for schooling, a purveyor of tawdry “education,” and an indefensible obstacle to student progress. And that’s being polite.

My junior year of high school, I started getting straight As. When I saw that first report card, I cried. Really. It was monumental. It was probably the first time since the age of nine that grades had made me cry.

I used to not get straight A’s. In seventh grade, I wasn’t on the honor roll. School administrators exploit people like me who ascend the GPA ladder, using us as poster children for their “rags to riches” pedagogy.  Not me though—I know what grades really are, what they mean, and whom they help, and if you think for a second that I’d let honor-roll-apologists use my name to propagate that garbage about “working your way up to the honor roll like that guy did,” then you’re out of your mind. That’s because the honor roll’s a joke, a tool, a compilation of hustlers and cheaters, of over-worked disciples, sycophants and snide academic snobs, of miserable minions prepared to regurgitate whatever their educators “teach” them, and of lovely adolescents, like many I know, who desperately avoid the wrath of their high-strung parents by copying off a friend during a math test.

My middle school hosted “Straight A parties” with pizza and games for the “highest achievers.” Hah. I wonder just how many of these students, at the end of the school day, returned to neighborhoods with gangs lining their streets or to homes in which inebriated parents pummeled the living daylights out of each other. About 10 million children witness domestic violence every year, and somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of violent partners also abuse their children. Does anyone honestly believe that many of these victims make it onto their schools’ honor rolls, that all-out domestic brawls are conducive to the “stable study spaces” needed for academic success?

Of course not, but domestic violence victims—just like kids with disabilities, kids with sick parents, kids who are bullied, kids who are gay, kids without parents, kids without homes, kids in poverty, kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods, kids without educated parents, kids too poor for tutors, and kids in fear of deportation—are screwed anyway. That’s our mentality. Valorize society’s achievers, throw them parties and plaster their names on the blackboard. Show them off to potential donors and lavish them with perks. Tell them how brilliant they are and how everyone else ought to be like them. Make them their own class, an exclusive conglomerate of kids who were smart enough to have been born into good families without hardship. Forget about everyone else.

Once, while debating a good friend and terrific Teach for America educator about whether America’s obsessive new testing dogma is good for education, I was pressed to concede the following point: that student subcultures are drastically different, and the fact that I get stressed about the honor roll doesn’t mean that all students do, since they may have other things to worry about. In fact, it was argued that I am probably more critical of the exclusionary honor roll than are all the students who are routinely excluded from it.

I demonstrated that the teacher’s latter claim is false, as I have many friends with mediocre grades who are totally bummed whenever the honor roll goes up and disenchanted with the educational system. But the claim that there are different student subcultures is certainly true. Some students don’t care about being left off of the honor roll as much as they care about the tyranny of athleticism or attractiveness and good looks or drug dealing and gang violence or anti-intellectualism.

But the presence of all these other worries does not excuse the injuries of the honor roll; it compounds them. If students faced no external strife, many more would try to do well academically, and I might be prepared to reconsider my opposition to honor roll. But, with so many students facing so many serious assaults to their well-being, the honor roll just adds aggressive official insult to the injuries of social life. Whether or not students are deeply offended by it, not being on the honor roll counts as a strike against them in the combative academic and economic competition that our country has structured.

I have gone to some of the country’s most diverse schools my entire life, so I have seen how the honor roll affects different student communities. If the benefits of good grades incentivize kids to study, it’s generally just for students in the 2.5 to 4.0 GPA stratosphere. When these children are put under pressure to succeed, many rely on cheating during tests to achieve high marks. More than 70 percent of college students today admit to having cheated as teenagers. The whole country is waking up to the way that the dubious tyranny of testing has generated a dubious resistance of cheating, and often times it is the test-givers who promote cheating to make themselves look like school turn-around heroes.

To kids with low GPAs, roughly 2.4 points or below, the perks of the honor roll operate as disincentives to academic study; instead of losing a game they know they can’t win against students with highly educated parents and stable family backgrounds, the low achievers simply refuse to play. Practically speaking, that means such students drop out or pay minimal attention to their studies.

Saying that honor roll perks are academic incentives for profoundly disadvantaged students is like saying that an extra big parade, as a prize, will incentivize a novice runner to “try harder” and “actually win” a marathon. What hogwash. If anything, the promised parade will only scare away the novice who, anticipating a loss, will wish to save himself the humiliation of witnessing the parade participants chanting someone else’s name when it is all over. In fact, the novice’s incentive to save face might even get him to convince himself he hates running.

I don’t know why school has to be designed like a competition. But if it is going to be, the way we get everyone in the race is by making it fair, by actually training the novice, by bringing the novice “up to speed” with the other runners. Until such parity exists, the race will be fixed and cruel. Until all students enter school with the domestic stability and resources needed to concentrate academically, no honor roll system can be justified, and any existing honor roll system will only further stimulate anti-academic sentiments among low-achieving students.

School could be a haven of pure learning for children who, in the outside world, are on the bottom of social hierarchies. Instead, the school system chooses to reinforce hierarchical distinctions, pitting kids against each other, enabling some students to use outside resources (i.e., knowledgeable parents, secure homes, SAT review classes) to their decisive advantage. And, at the end of it all, these lucky few get their names posted in the front hallway to remind everyone that they’re society’s winners and that the non-included students are, well, implicitly, losers.

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