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The Game of Grades

The Game of Grades
Published on Apr 10, 2023.

Grades are the first time we see people being separated by intellectual ability. We see them getting ranked, one above the other, in very clear, objective seeming ways.

Of course, we’re not told that’s what’s happening. We’re being measured on “our performance,” we’re told. It’s up to us to do better. We just need to put in more of an effort.

But we already know that’s not the truth. Many kids put in a lot of effort, but their minds just aren’t ready yet to handle all the material that’s being thrown at them, at least not in that way. Maybe they never will be. They know already that it’s not a matter of effort. They know it doesn’t matter how hard they try. They just can’t.

If we can’t, but someone else can, what does that mean? It obviously means there’s something different between us. There’s something that other kid has, the one who gets the good grades and the gold stickers that we don’t. We’re being asked to jump and touch a 10 foot hoop. No matter how hard we try, we can’t. We can run the court faster than the other kid, we can shoot more baskets, but that’s not what’s being asked of us. We’re being asked to reach the hoop, the other kid can do it, and we cannot. Everything else we can do doesn’t matter, if we can’t do what’s asked of us.

What else can we do but accept our fate? We slump our shoulders, we sit in the back, we stay quiet, and we stop trying. There’s no point.

This is how at such a young age, we already start separating into the front-row kids and the back-row kids. This is a phrase I picked up from Chris Arnade, who quit a 10-year career at investment banks in New York to take pictures of real Americans instead. He travels the country, going to the places the elite he was once part of routinely ignore. Places under freeway overpasses in the Bronx, and McDonald’s, lots and lots of McDonald’s, across fly-over country. Places where the losers live.

What he finds there are the back-row kids, the ones who could never do anything “right” in school, all grown up. They’re far away from their front-row peers in the bougie sanctums of fancy cities. They are literally out of sight, so they can remain out of mind. Their failures from way back then have haunted them, dogging them through life, wearing not just on their possibilities but on their very mentality.

The worst part of the meritocratic hierarchy that we teach our kids is how they internalize it to themselves.

It’s not just bad on the losers. It’s bad on the winners too, in ways that aren’t so obvious but have dramatic consequences that ripple through our society.

What grades do in the mind of the winners – what they did to me – was to plant the seed of a dangerous idea. The idea that I deserved the rewards I got. That I deserved the attention, the recognition, the sense of superiority. That I had earned it. Later in life, this rationalization will encompass not just recognition but our superior jobs, our more comfortable lives, the influence of our decisions, the reach of our power. All of this we will tell ourselves we have because we deserve it.

It all starts here, with a simple game that we take as seriously as a judgement on our souls. What this game is, and how it is played, is the crux of elite power. It is a core pillar of the lie that upholds our system, and it begins right here in school.

To remember the beginning of this game – and we all do – think back to how it was decided who the smarter kids were and who the dumb ones. Ho do we determine who gets the gold star and who the sad face? What exactly is it that the back-row kids didn’t get “right”?

Think back to tests. We’ve all encountered them, in one form or another. They are, at this point, a universal human experience, as common to the educational experience as a teacher and books. We have draped tests with the holy armor of objectivity. In them, we see a reflection of the scientific method which has shaped our modern world. We see truth and clarity and measurement.

This is not what I saw when I first started seeing tests. I saw a game. The prize of which was that recognition and attention from the teachers and parents and other kids that I was getting more and more hooked onto. To get that prize, I had to do really well on the tests. I had to win the game.

The first step is knowing what’s going to be on the test. I remember as early as 6th grade, kids studying for some science quiz. We had a textbook and a separate workbook that we used to do problems together in class. Our teacher told us there would be a quiz coming up, and we needed to prepare for it by studying the weather cycle.

I asked on of my friends how he planned to study – this was one of the first tests I ever took – and he told me he was going to read the science book. That’s what the test was on, after all.

That struck me as a silly way to do things. There was so much in the textbook, and I knew I couldn’t hold it all in my head. And why should I? Not all of it was going to be on the test anyway. All I needed to know to get the prize I wanted – the gold stars and the good grades and the recognition and the attention – were the answers to the sort of questions that would be on the quiz.

We had that right in front of us. Awe had the workbook. It was full of questions, to fill in a diagram or fill in the blanks in a phrase. And – this was the kicker – it was made by the same people who made the quiz.

I already had the inkling that would become one of my greatest assets in taking tests. I approached them like a game than a test of knowledge. A game, where there was a player on the other side. Their job was to ask me questions, and my job was to give them the answers they expected. And I already knew, based on my experiences hearing lots of questions from lots of adults, that certain people tended to ask certain types of questions.

There were the kind of questions my mom would ask about what happened in school that day, and the kind my dad asked. When she picked up from school, she’d want to know if I ate my lunch. When my dad came home that evening, he’d ask me what I learned.

Tests weren’t that different. They were just another adult, someone I hadn’t met, but they had certain types of questions they liked to ask. I just had to figure out which ones.

The workbook was like a secret cheat sheet right under our noses. It was like someone took all the types of questions my mom and dad would ask and put them in a book, so I could look them up at any time. There was a book for mom, a book for dad, and now, in my hands, a book for the Testmaker.

Of course, I didn’t think of this in so many words the first time. I was still working my way through a vague understanding that school was a game, with social recognition as the prize. I knew a thing or two about games. One of them was that you don’t get good at them by reading the manual, and imagining all the things that could happen in the game. You get good at them by playing them over and over so you know the things that actually happen. And if you couldn’t play them – because you didn’t have enough money for the arcade – the second-best thing to do was watch people play. Just don’t waste time reading the manual.

While my friend wasted time reading the textbook, I watched people play – in the workbook. I studied the kind of questions the Testmaker liked to ask. And I remember that what I saw in page after page were diagrams we had to label. A diagram of the water cycle. A diagram of the oxygen cycle. A diagram of different types of clouds. The textbook had a whole host of other information – about how oxygen was different than carbon monoxide, and how tributaries formed into rivers – but we didn’t need all of that to label the diagrams.

My strategy paid off. When the quiz came around, it was – surprise, surprise – full of diagrams. My friend, who had tried to stockpile a textbook’s worth of information in his brain, struggled to remember exactly what he needed and apply it to the problem of diagrams. Because I’d started the other way around, by figuring out what the questions were going to be, instead of all the possible answers, I was able to breeze through it and finish well ahead of time.

It felt like I’d gotten a sneak peek at the quiz, like I’d gotten to know the Testmaker, and it turned out to be pretty much what I thought it would be. It felt a little bit like I’d cheated. Except I hadn’t. I’d won the game just by being smarter in how I played it, not more knowledgeable necessary about the water cycle.

Over the years, this idea of the Testmaker became one of my core academic strategies. I would imagine him – usually a him for math & science, a her for English – almost obsessively. What does he have for breakfast in the morning? Shredded Wheat, of course. What does he war to work? Horn-rimmed spectacles and a black tie. What does his desk look like? A pile of blank sheets on one side and written tests on the other.

I was most probably wrong in how tests actually get written – there are probably committees and review processes and legal regulations – but I was right in believing that the group who create a test have a personality. And if they have a personality, they can be predicted.

You might think this was a neat thing for a kid at the age of 11 to figure out. Hell, I’m still kind of proud of it. You might even think it’s a sign of real intelligence – the kind that counts in the “real world” – to be able to see past the test and see the game. Sure. I don’t think it’s intelligence, but it is useful. But here’s my question then: is this really how we should be deciding the fate of lives? Is this neat little trick really how we determine who gets the comfortable life which a nice job in California, and who has to slave away at a grueling job, 70 hours a week, to try and pay a mortgage on a house they can barely afford, while trying to keep together a marriage that’s gone through years of financial hardship? On the basis of a neat trick? On a game?