The tall student at the Whitney M. Young magnet high school in Chicago was serious about her grades. Her typing teacher said marks would be determined by speed. At the end of the course, her words-per-minute score was at the A level, but the teacher suddenly revealed she just did not give A’s.
That did not go down well with the student, whose name was Michelle Robinson, later changed to Michelle Obama. “She badgered and badgered that teacher,” her mother said, as reported by my former Washington Post colleague Peter Slevin in his new, vivid biography of the first lady, “Michelle Obama: A Life.” Her mother called the teacher and said, “Michelle is not going to let this go.”
I was also a grade grubber, not an uncommon affliction. During my first term of high school, I complained to my counselor that my Latin teacher had not given me the A that I fiercely believed I deserved. The teacher told the counselor that I was a “millimeter bandit,” which was true.
There is an argument for encouraging students who want to compete for high grades. The standard exhortation from American parents — “You can be anything you want to be” — includes becoming a valedictorian, a member of Phi Beta Kappa or a Rhodes Scholar.
But these days, I favor trends that are making grades less important. Many high schools no longer name a single senior as valedictorian. Instead, they recognize at graduation all of the students who earned at least a 4.0 grade-point average, which at some schools is a large group. No longer are there arguments, or lawsuits, over someone being declared No. 1 by a hundredth of a grade point.
I like teachers who give credit for good effort, even though that violates grading rules in many districts. Former Prince George’s County social studies teacher Ken Bernstein, who won the Post’s top teacher award, said, “If they do all the work I assign, pay attention and ask for help when they don’t understand, they cannot get a grade lower than a C.”
Schools would be better if they resisted the current obsession for test security for the classroom exams on which grades are based. Students are being told that they can’t take graded exams home. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to study their mistakes and show their parents where they need help?
Nationally, we are cutting back on standardized state tests, but there are always going to be some. Parents, taxpayers and voters want an independent assessment of how public schools are doing. Support also remains strong for the SAT, the ACT and Advanced Placement, because they are closely tied to getting into college.
In some ways, those standardized exams are more reliable than traditional classroom grades in showing what children have, or have not, learned. If we can be more relaxed about report cards, teachers such as Bernstein can grade in ways they find useful, and students like me can devote their energies to pursuits healthier than harassing instructors.
It is hard to have a broad perspective in high school. When my daughter was a junior, she and I had a furious argument over her view that getting an A-minus rather than an A was an academic disaster. I told her then that she would be laughing about that someday. She gave me a small smile when I pointed this out 12 years later, as she graduated from law school and got a good job as a public defender.
Slevin does not reveal whether Obama ever got the A in typing. But her skills earned her much-needed income as a typist for three summers at the Chicago headquarters of the American Association of Medical Assistants.
My Latin studies improved my English vocabulary and enhanced my enjoyment of classically educated novelists such as the marvelous Patrick O’Brian. That is more than enough for me. Most of us grade grubbers eventually grow up.