Joseph Maraska
Wakefield School
The Plains, Virginia
11th Grade
First Place Winner

“Learning is an active process. We learn by doing. Only knowledge that is used sticks in your mind.” -

Dale Carnegie

When I was younger, receiving my test back and seeing that sweet, satisfying A plus circled by a

delightful, thick red stroke of a Sharpie was the second greatest feeling in the world. It trailed only closely

behind the smiles and appreciation that my mom and dad would give me after I ran home telling about

the perfect score that I earned on a silly test in elementary school. It is funny how a little number can

affect your day, your mood, and even your life.

As I progressed through each grade level, the tests got increasingly harder. Occasionally I'd bring home a

grade that wasn't the top score and the smiles on my parents' faces would quickly transform into dismal

frowns followed by downcast stares and quick remarks like “Why the low grade?” or, “You can do better.”

I soon realized that whenever I performed poorly on an assignment, my parents would be disappointed,

thus causing me to never want to underperform on any test or quiz again.

Growing older meant that classes began to become more demanding, assignments more challenging,

and, consequently, stress promptly entered my daily life. The work required to earn that beloved A plus

quickly became more strenuous and exhausting. Ultimately, I began focusing more on the grade rather

than striving for more knowledge. I thought maintaining a high GPA was what I should devote my efforts

towards. This was the ultimate goal. After all, weren’t good grades what colleges were looking for?

Weren’t they how my teachers were assessing my learning and comparing me to my classmates?

As the difficult process of applying to college is now upon me, it seems, the importance of grades has

skyrocketed, causing me to often subjugate what truly matters in school: learning the material and

preparing myself for the experiences that life will bring.

Today, I realize how important that little score is towards my future, and I have also noticed how much

stress students experience in order to make their own score increase by just a point or two. My

classmates are often advised not to worry about the grade. However, in reality, our GPA plays a massive

role in our future as it defines who we are when we are applying to colleges. Colleges either cut or select

applicants based on a mere GPA acquired in high school without ever having a conversation with them to

gain knowledge of their personalities or garner an idea of who they really are.

In reality, a number on a piece of paper can either promote someone or ruin a future and dreams. And, if

success does not come, this perceived failure, unfortunately, does not serve as a learning experience; it

doesn’t allow for personal growth or improvement. So, consequently, my high school educational

experience has poorly prepared me for my future. We, the students, strive for the A and for the 100%,

but upon graduating, we realize that life has no grades. As Steve Blank puts it, “Schools reward their

students for a combination of intelligence, perseverance, and hard work - in the classroom and on the

playing fields. But these metrics don't help kids understand that great grades are not a pass for a great

life.” Even though life will present us with test after test, life does not hand out a grade. In life, there are

no annual report cards assessing performance, intelligence, or learning ability.

Therefore, I feel a number should not determine who I am throughout my academic career. Instead, I

should be evaluated by the choices I make, the actions I perform, and the experiences that I encounter. I

believe my high school should adopt a new and improved system of assessment in which students like

me are put into real-life situations and are evaluated on how we use the information we learned to

actually accomplish the tasks at hand. We should be taught how to use relevant information when fixing

specific problems, critiquing us not on memorizing specific material but on how well we incorporate the

knowledge and skills, we have obtained throughout school, into situations that are more relevant to the

careers and conditions we will experience as adults.

Why not develop portfolios that serve as records of how well we demonstrate the application of the skills

we have been taught? By providing real-life exposure to different fields of interest and providing

opportunities to apply relevant information and skills in a real-life situation, schools would actually allow

students to better exhibit their understanding of information. This would be much more relevant to life

than a grade on a test where the material is often just memorized.

Additionally, assessments could be based on the evaluation of a student's ability to adjust to change as

well as the application of one’s knowledge. Numerical grades would be replaced with real-life learning

through courses and opportunities that afford authentic, real-world learning for the students. For

instance, instead of taking a statistics test, I could work with the athletic department at my high school in

order to be exposed to different situations that are connected with the sports analytics field. This would

provide me with an opportunity to put my statistical learning into place. It could provide an experience

for learning from the fast pace of a sports’ season with continually changing elements requiring me to

adjust and make decisions that impact those relying on my work. My performance in this area would be

more relevant to my understanding of the material; it would demonstrate to my teacher how well I truly

understand concepts; it would allow me to have a practical experience that is more meaningful and


Elementary and middle school should continue to be places where we learn and are graded on our

knowledge about and understanding of different subjects. However, instead of continuing the same

procedure in high school, we should be evaluated on understanding the impact of our actions on our

lives. In high school, we should not be receiving grades in a grade book, but rather, we should be

creating a portfolio that assesses and demonstrates how we can adjust to complicated challenges and

apply our knowledge in real-life scenarios. Instead of being graded and pitted against our fellow students

for the top spot in our class, we should be evaluated on our ability to adapt to the curve balls that life

throws at us.

High school can teach us how to use critical problem-solving skills to assess the given situation and to

utilize our past experiences as a way of guidance to formulate a thoughtful solution. Through our

experiences, we will make mistakes, but through these mistakes, we will learn new paths and techniques

to use in order to become successful. It isn’t the grade that matters but the experience we have and

what we learn from it.