Competition and comparison on campus: Beneficial or detrimental?

Dani Steinberg

“There is something about a Redwood student and the stress load they seem to hold — it seems really heavy compared to some of the other schools and students in the district,” Dr. Fiona Allan, an English and Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition teacher, said.

Redwood High School holds a 98 percent graduation rate. While this number showcases the success of students, it fails to acknowledge the mental strength necessary to endure the pressure and stress required to complete the full four years of high school. 

While stress can come in many forms and from different sources, the constant stressor on campus seems to be grades. Grades are the first thing many students look for when handed back an assessment. Not only do students look at their grades first, but they also talk to peers about what they received. In the November Bark survey, 75 percent of students have noticed students comparing grades, which can be harmful to someone who may not have performed well on an assignment.  

Senior Lauren Duncan, who is currently taking six AP classes, has noticed that grades are a central topic of conversation between students and has experienced the negative effects of this.

Focusing on their assignments, students work hard to succeed in classes.

“[The competitiveness] has affected me. I try not to share my own grades — I did freshman year and it did not help. I don’t think grades are a great representation of how smart you are, so I try not to engage,” Duncan said.

Similar to Duncan, psychotherapist Shannon Weisberg, has also observed the results of competition in students and has seen the detrimental effects it has on students’ mental health. 

“I see [stress] in teens [who feel]like their schedule is so booked. There is a pressure to perform at a high level and not a lot of time for rest, sleep and fun which leads to things like anxiety and depression because people are overly stressed,” Weisberg said. 

Junior Jackson Bramlette is taking four AP classes and two Honors classes and says that healthy competition can be beneficial and push others to work harder, but only to a certain extent. 

“[Competition] is not good when people get judged or you start to doubt yourself,” Bramlette said. “In life, I don’t think we should view everything as a competition. In some ways, with college, it feels like a competition because only a certain number of spots can be filled … [so], you feel pressured to defeat your peers. I don’t think that’s how the world should work.” 

Allan has seen the importance a single grade holds to a Redwood student and the negative effects a poor grade can have. Regardless of what she instructs her students to do, she regularly notices the need for students to compete.

“The students put a tremendous amount of stress on themselves. As soon as I hand back a paper, even when I emphasize, ‘please don’t talk about your grades right now,’ they still do it. It’s like they can’t help it,” Allan said.

Although stress and competition are the nature of Redwood, according to Allan, stress seems less prevalent at Tamalpais High School (Tam). 

“My son at Tam takes two AP [classes], two honors [classes] and is a varsity water polo player and does not seem to have the burden and course load stress that a lot of my junior students have,” Allan said.

Allan constantly notices the pressure her students experience when attempting to receive top grades. 

“It breaks my heart to see how broken some kids can be by the burden they carry around with grades and stress. I just don’t think it’s necessary,” Allan said. 

As high school progresses, Bramlette has felt an increase in academic pressure. As a result, his decision to fill his schedule with rigorous classes was not made based on his interests. 

“I wanted to try and get the best [grade point average (GPA)] possible … A big part of [taking a rigorous schedule] is wanting to get into a good college and possibly be the valedictorian of the class,” Bramlette said.

Bramlette claims the competition that surrounds Redwood is in part due to the community.

“A big part of [competition at Redwood] is parental pressure. We live in an area that is generally affluent, so there’s the idea that you should get into the best college possible since you have a lot of opportunities and you need to take [advantage of] them,” Bramlette said. 

The pressure to receive all A’s or please parents and guardians can lead students to practice unhealthy habits in order to be successful. Bramlette has noticed he has begun to partake in these habits this year in an attempt to do well in his classes.

Filling the walls of the Redwood entrance, successful alumni photos are displayed for students to see.

“I have gotten a lot less sleep this year than ever before,” Bramlette said. “I have done a lot of cramming and I bet there are things I learned in August or September that I don’t know now because I just wanted to get an A.”

According to the November Bark survey, 65 percent of students believe that the competition pushes them to work harder. Like others, Bramlette has felt the desire to surpass his friends and receive higher grades on assignments due to the amount of work he puts into each class.

“I have a friend who might have a higher GPA than me by the end of all four years, and I can’t lie, I felt a little jealous when I [made that realization],” Bramlette said. “I felt like I was working hard, and I wasn’t going to win. That’s silly and in the long run, does not matter.”

Weisberg believes that focusing on a single grade is not beneficial, but also understands letter grades is the current measurement of knowledge. 

“We have been taught that [a grade] is the metric that shows how well we are doing. I take issue with that because it is so narrowly defined and very often misleading, but I think because it is the system that is in place right now… it’s pretty much all we have,” Weisberg said. “Do I think there could be a better way for understanding how much a student is taking in the material and the depth they are understanding? Absolutely.”

Illustration by Calla McBride

The concept of only paying attention to a letter grade one receives is known to be a harmful practice. There have been many proposed solutions to this problem, each with benefits and difficulties. The idea of removing grades altogether and implementing standard based grading has become a viable solution and could be implemented at Redwood. Standard based grading measures the students’ understanding and how effective a teacher was at providing instruction.

According to an EduTopia article produced by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, “Teachers are able to use ongoing formative assessments as a way to guide classroom instruction. Students are able to practice their mastery of standards without the penalty of receiving a poor grade in the grade book. The process of reteaching creates an opportunity for both teachers and students to learn from their mistakes.” 

While standard based grading is a viable solution, one difficulty would be teachers having to re-adjust their curriculum to allow for more time to work with students. However, if teachers were able to adjust their lesson plans, standard based grading would allow students to re-learn topics they struggled with because their teacher would offer support or re-teach the unit depending on how many students were struggling. By implementing this new grading system students would experience less pressure to receive an A and instead completely focus on the information being taught. 

Throughout her extensive time at Redwood, Allan recognizes the competition between students is a problem not only for their mental health but also for the future. 

“[At Redwood] we almost pit students against each other, and I don’t think that’s healthy for our community or students’ well-being… We need to be able to work together, not compete against each other,” Allan said.