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Losing rigor?: The case for more challenge

Staff Illustrator Yasmine 21

Somebody had to say it: Marlborough is not as rigorous as it used to be. Before everyone gets defensive, hear me out. I don’t think “less rigorous” necessarily means that the learning process has been uprooted. However, I do think the way that Marlborough has implemented its more flexible approach is impeding learning, specifically in the Upper School. During COVID-19, classes became more “flexible”; with open note tests, the late work policy, the pass/fail policies, less pages of reading during class and less literal class hours. To preface, there are helpful learning tools that have been implemented during the pandemic like more reassessments that help to actually assess knowledge and are better measures of learning. The qualm I have is with the overall less rigor within the classes; test retakes should not mean the content becomes easier. I also understand the pandemic required more accommodations than a typical school year, but many of these practices do not seem to be changing for the upcoming school year amid community days, more prioritization of flexibility and conversations reevaluating APs. 

These “flexible” policies try to target the stress that a myriad of students report on surveys and evaluations. While there are students experiencing real, unhealthy stress, many other students use these forms as a way of actively trying to make classes easier. The culture of stress at Marlborough only perpetuates a world where students feel they must be feeling stressed since everyone else claims to be. Yet, there is a significant portion of students who disagree with the “flexible” policies that are often silenced due to agreement culture. Moreover, mild forms of stress are good. Feeling a little pressure to complete an assignment can be a motivator. 

Furthermore, the reason that the school wants to alleviate stress is because it is a key contributor to mental health crises. However, with less challenge and less homework, students spend more time on social media, which is increasingly the largest contributor to nearly every single mental health crisis—eating disorders, depression and suicide. With some days with virtually no homework, students have nearly an entire evening to spend their time scrolling through social media, worrying about their body weight or engaging in disinformation or feeling insecure about their own life, rather than engaging in something actually productive like learning. With teenagers averaging seven hours of screen time per day excluding school work, there is a much higher risk social media use will lead to mental health issues than a few additional hours of math homework and reading. 

In addition, the college preparatory branding of Marlborough has to be mentioned. I am far from an advocate for education’s sole purpose being to prepare students for university, but the vast majority of students who matriculate into Marlborough plan to attend college, usually highly selective institutions. However, the lack of rigor at Marlborough could leave students feeling underprepared. Without midterms and finals, students have a harder time knowing how to study for AP exams, and later semester exams in college, which are still common. Secondly, the jump from the cushy Marlborough environment where deadlines are basically non-existent to institutions with hard deadlines and grade penalties will be striking for students. What will happen in a world where we don’t have infinite retakes, open note tests and corrections? Furthermore, many universities are forced to rely more on standardized tests when schools have grade inflation, and these tests are racist, classist, and poorer indicators than GPA for how students will actually perform in university. 

Additionally, most of the research behind these policies, like late work and pass/fail policies, stem from research in institutions unlike Marlborough that struggle to keep students dedicated and enrolled in school. While there are some policies like reassessments that can be applicable universally and are conducive to learning, many do not target issues that are pertinent at Marlborough, such as keeping children in school to prevent incarceration, making the policies superfluous and unnecessarily detrimental. 

In my vision of an ideal world for Marlborough, we do not abolish all of these policies. Rather we use the honors, AP, accelerated, etc. designations as a way of actually indicating the rigor of classes. For students who genuinely benefit from open note tests and less reading, these policies should still be available to them, just in the regular designation. Currently, with A’s generally attainable in even the most notoriously difficult classes, GPAs have become a contest of who took more honors classes to get the extra weighted point, rather than who is actually learning (our average GPA is typically over a 4.0). The problem is that there is little room to go up but seemingly endless room to go down. When you’re a junior or senior and taking 4-6 honors classes it still may not feel challenging enough, but there is little room to add additional classes. If we structure rigor according to class designation, we can both prioritize mental health and the learning process. 

While it is easy to blame the administration for giving into the pressure to create more ease, the catalyst for a lot of these policies is admittingly the students. In a school that’s student-centered, feedback about insane stress levels and regular crying are taken seriously. In retrospect, there are students who experience unhealthy stress issues that ought to be taken seriously, but there are also the students who simply exaggerate. And to those students, I urge you to really recalibrate your own perceptions of your stress. Are you really that stressed, do you genuinely want to learn and are you truly prioritizing your mental health? Or is it a way for you to justify easier classes and less work? I know that there are students who truthfully lean the former, but I also am certain that there is a significant portion of students who lean the latter. For the students who feel the way I do, I urge you to have the courage to speak out and not give into the agreement culture. With COVID-19 days (hopefully) behind us, I urge everyone to not lose sight of your own learning. An education at Marlborough is worth $45,000, and unnecessarily pleading to reduce rigor and dismissing learning prevents you from maximizing its value.