When is a B an F? How high academic expectations skew perceptions of success

November 26, 2018 — by Manasi Garg and Christine Zhang

When sophomore Aileen Liao received her geometry test back in eighth grade, all she could think about was how dismayed she was. She had received a B, but she felt disappointed with herself for not meeting her expectation of an A.

“I felt really upset,” Liao said. “I had to try really hard to raise my grade, and it made me study harder.”

Similar disappointments play out almost daily here. Academic success is heavily prioritized and praised, and students in a community like Saratoga hold themselves to abnormally high standards of achievement in comparison to many other communities across the country.

These high standards are translated into tangible measures of academic success. According to Saratoga High’s school profile, last year, its mean composite ACT score for the class of 2018 was 30.6 out of 36, whereas the national mean composite was 20.8.

As of Nov. 14, registrar Robert Wise said that the school has 416 students — approximately 31 percent of the school — with a total weighted GPA of 4.0 or higher.

In order to technically pass a class with full credit at the school, students need a D-, and the minimum grade colleges accept for college preparatory courses is a C-. Yet according to a Facebook survey of 119 Saratoga High students, 77 said that they considered a B a “failing” grade, and seven students said the same thing about an A-.

The survey hints at the reasons for high-pressure academic environment. Over time students internalize the sentiment that anything less than an A isn’t good enough.

On a deeper level, however, the pressure students at here feel may be originate at home. Most are children of Asian American immigrants. With them, their parents bring values that they instill in their children, particularly a higher emphasis on education than is traditionally found in many other cultures, and the belief that through hard work, upward mobility can be achieved.

“The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” a book published in 2015 by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, attributes the importance on education in part to American immigration policies that favor people with more professional skills.

A 2016 census report found that 54 percent of Asians in America had bachelor’s degrees, while whites, the next highest group, had 37 percent. Additionally, 22 percent of Asians had advanced degrees, in comparison to 14 percent of whites.

Another factor contributing to children of immigrants feeling more pressure to succeed is that their parents have given up so much to establish a stable life here.

These internalized cultural expectations, combined with the ever-present academic pressure of peers, can lead to greatly increased levels of stress in students.  

CASSY, the on-campus therapy service, reported that 62 percent of their services in the 2017-2018 school year were for referrals related to academic stress.

CASSY therapist Kaitlin Eastland puts some of the blame on the pressure to take AP and Honors classes at the school.

“I think there is this perception about grades and college that makes it hard for students to see any other path except the best of the best colleges,” Eastland said. “That puts a lot of pressure on students, and along with the expectations they place on themselves, it actually ends up harder to concentrate and focus.”

For Liao, grades are the No. 1 priority.

“That’s just what you do as a student,” she said. “Your job really is just to do well in class and try your best. Then, if you can handle more after that, [you can take on extracurriculars].”

In addition to achieving high scores in her classes, Liao is the president of the UNICEF club and plays oboe as an accomplished member of the California Youth Symphony off campus.

In certain circumstances, sophomore Rohan Kumar feels that an A- is a failing grade. He associates failure with the feeling of “I could’ve done better” rather than sadness, and he said that if he receives an A- instead of an A, it is “probably just me not trying hard enough.”

Kumar said that his standards are self-imposed. Instead of monitoring his grades, his parents are the ones who usually comfort him when he doesn’t live up to his own high expectations.

He also said he likes the competitive nature of the school.

“I think it’s great because it encourages you do to better,” he said. “If Saratoga wasn't so competitive, I wouldn't do half the things I do, and I end up enjoying everything I do.”

Kumar is a member of the school’s speech and debate, Science Bowl, Quiz Bowl and robotics teams. Additionally, he was the only Saratoga High qualifier for the semifinals of the U.S. Biology Olympiad last year, and also qualified for the American Invitational Mathematics Exam in both his eighth grade and freshman years.

Freshman Nikhil Kapasi admits to having high self-imposed expectations, but he thinks that the academic pressures at the school stem from both parents and peers.  

“If one of your classmates is doing really well in the class and you’re not, you’re like, ‘I need to get this better grade,’” Kapasi said. “I think that’s another part of the community here. There’s always someone who’s doing more than you, so you feel like you need to beat them.”

Kapasi also noted that the competitiveness extends beyond just grades; it is ingrained in the other activities students partake in.

“I not only need grades, I also need all this other stuff that other people are doing,” he said. “I think that in the community we have, everyone just pushes each other, which can be a good and a bad thing.”

Out of 102 student responses from a Facebook survey, 64 said that they spend 10 or more hours on extracurricular activities per week, and 52 said that they regularly participate in community service.

In the 18 years he has been teaching here, Spanish teacher Bret Yeilding said that the culture has always been similarly competitive.

He recalled many instances in which students emailed him at unreasonable hours in the morning and begged him to raise test scores by as little as one point. He said that at the end of the day, there are 700 points possible in the entire semester, and questioned the borderline obsessiveness over miniscule grades he has seen many students embody.

“There is way too much emphasis on grades instead of actually trying to learn something,” Yeilding said. “I don’t blame the students for that at all. Our entire culture in the Bay Area is if you don’t go to Harvard or Stanford, you are a big fat loser, and you’ll never do anything but work at a fast-food restaurant.”

Yeilding also noted that Saratoga is unusual because of the large numbers of students who have this mentality — it is the majority of the school. In comparison to Leigh High School in San Jose, where he used to teach, Yeilding said that the competitive environment and fear of failure at Saratoga High is “so, so much worse.”

“Leigh High School might as well have been on a different planet,” he said.

However, even in the midst of this environment where the majority of seniors attend a four-year college, some students choose to go down alternate paths.  

Senior Eveliina Niva will attend De Anza College next year, and she plans on transferring to another college afterwards. Because of the negative stigma surrounding community colleges here, Niva initially did not feel comfortable with her choice.

“It took me a while to accept the fact that I’m going to community college,” she said. “I didn’t really want to tell anyone at first.”

Niva said that some of the competitive culture at the school comes from the students’ mindsets, while other people may have more pressure from their parents. Either way, she said that everyone “needs to learn a bit of failure sometimes.”

Eastland, the CASSY counselor, said that there is nothing wrong with students attending community colleges or taking a gap year to figure out their interests.

“There’s so many ways to be successful later in life,” Eastland said. “I just think it’s hard to really see that when you’re here in this school.”

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