Examining the school’s academic culture: despite efforts to decrease workload, students’ grade-based stress is on the rise


Amira Dossani/Art Director

Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

“There are plenty of times when you have no choice but to spend what feels like every spare minute doing work,” Meenakshi Vora (9) said. 

This testing week, that senti- ment was echoed by students across school — slumped over their desks trying to catch a few minutes of rest, cramming last-minute in the library, relaying scores in the halls. Over the years, school administra- tors and faculty have made efforts to decrease workload. Yet, based faculty and students report rising stress levels about grades.

Emily Wang/Staff Photographer

61% of faculty say workload has decreased (to a Record poll with 37 respondents); only 40% students are aware of changes (according a Record poll with 132 respondents) 

In recent years, the school has taken steps to reduce competition and eradicate the grade-oriented approach to learning, Head of the Upper Division (UD) Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. These changes include the switch from trimesters to semesters, no final exams, no grade point average (GPA)-based distinc- tion (like subject-based honors or valedictorian, now based on student votes), reduced homework during testing weeks, testing week schedules, the 15-minute break period between B and C periods, and a cap on the number of full-credit classes students can take. 

Some teachers at the school also implemented small- er-scale changes such as ungraded assignments, chances to correct work for a revised grade, and the option to drop students’ lowest test or quiz grade, Levenstein said.

A variety of factors contributed to the school’s reform efforts, UD Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “It was observations on the part of the administration and faculty about how students were managing or not managing the requirements and stresses that were placed on them,” he said. “It also stemmed from a shift nationwide to recognize the importance of paying attention to mental health and being really aware of the stresses placed on students.” 

Prior to the elimination of final exams, UD English Teacher Dr. Adam Casdin observed that they caused more stress than they were worth. “It was clear that final exams were not furthering the goals of the courses,” he said. “Scores on those exams were often not correlating to the work the student had done over the course of the term.”

Since the school only has short- term assessments, Hanna Hornfeld ‘22 was scared about taking her first final at college this year. However, the school’s work-oriented environ- ment prepared her for an academically rigorous college experience, Hornfeld said. “At HM I had a lot of practice and experience learning test-taking techniques, even if it wasn’t specifically for finals.”

Sophia Paley (11) is grateful for these changes, she said. “I am very glad that final exams have been eliminated and the awarding of valedictorian is now not only based on GPA,” she said. “Those reforms seem to promote a culture that is less frantically grade-oriented and encourages teamwork instead of competition among students.”

Still, “hell weeks” before break and at the end of the semester can be overwhelming, Paley said. She had three assessments last week and two this week. “I still have been staying up until 1am studying each night.”

Each of the academic departments has made an effort to reduce workload for students. To reduce stress for students during tough weeks, the school introduced rigid testing week schedules, which stagger assessments and mandate reduced homework, Levenstein said. “I believe [the testing week schedules] have worked to an extent, but I also know that students find testing stressful no matter what modifications we implement,” she said. “Trying to regulate the number of assessments a student might have on a given day can reduce stress.” 

The school is also becoming more attentive to students’ mental health, Dalo said. “That was not really anything that was kind of a subject of conversation or dialogue when I first started here,” he said. “That attention to mental health has been a huge change.”


73% of faculty say student anxiety has increased

While Levenstein believes the changes have been beneficial, she acknowledges they do not fully eradicate stress from the student body. “We hope students learn how to manage their anxiety around assessments, without allowing that anxiety to overwhelm them or become the only indication of the value of what they are learning,” she said.

Dalo has witnessed a similar trend. “Despite our efforts to bring down the stress level, which have been somewhat successful, I have definitely seen an increase in stress or anxiety in the students.”

As the college landscape becomes increasingly competitive, with acceptance rates decreasing and applicant pools growing, student stress levels have risen as well. Executive Director of College Counseling (CoCo) Canh Oxelson believes that much of students’ anxiety around grades stems from the inherent uncertainty of the college process, he said. “Because students don’t always know how and why colleges are making specific decisions they resort to looking at the things that they can see and understand, and you can see and understand grades.”


80% of student respondents say they care about their grades “a lot”; 70% of students cite college as reason

The inability to control many facets of the college process motivates some of Paley’s grade-related stress, she said. “Given that we cannot control how admissions committees view our application, it makes sense to try as hard as possible with grades, which we have some control over,” she said. “Then, no matter how it turns out, you know you learned a lot and did your best.”

Dwindling acceptance rates at selective colleges have caused students to become increasingly competitive with one another over a perception that there are limited spots at the universities that students are applying to. This perception increases anxiety about grades, as it leads them to believe that one mistake grade-wise will spell doom, Senior Associate Director of CoCo Kaitlin Howrigan said. 

Conversations about college admissions around school have become more pervasive due to decreasing acceptance rates, Paley said. “I hear a lot of people talking about what specific admissions rates colleges have year by year and how they have changed,” she said. “I think it ultimately increases pressure on students.”

However, the perception that there is no room for error is unfounded, Howrigan said. Prior to working at the school, Howrigan read New York City undergraduate applications for Harvard University. “Kids will come in and say ‘I heard that if I have one B+, I shouldn’t bother applying,’” she said. “But, if we [at Harvard] saw someone that we thought was really great, the idea that you have to be perfect across the board grade-wise wouldn’t have prevented us from admitting someone.” 

Oxelson believes that students’ anxiety has been exacerbated by test-optional policies, he said. “Now you can’t rely on test scores to help you know why or why not a person was admitted to a particular college,” he said. “Because testing has gone away, it puts more of an emphasis on the other thing that we think we can control, which is grades.” 


78% of students expect A range grades

Levenstein has noticed a negative pattern in the language that students use when discussing their grades, she said. Students often say ‘I have to get this grade,’ she said. “The language feels like [these students] cannot possibly admit the option of not meeting the goal that they had set for themselves,” Levenstein said. “And I think we are finding more and more students who seem to lack the kind of emotional resilience to experience that disappointment.”

While a grade-oriented culture has long existed at the school, Levenstein has noticed an upward trend in the number of students who have trouble “managing disappointment” when they receive a grade lower than they had hoped for, she said. “Where we used to have two or three kids in a grade who we knew would fall apart if they didn’t get the grades they wanted, we now have that in larger numbers.”

However, while students tend to view success in terms of grades and college admissions, faculty tends to evaluate students’ success with a long term lens, Casdin said. “[Faculty] think of students’ achievements in the long term — where are you when you’re 25, and how has a Horace Mann education helped you in your life?” he said. “But when you’re 16 or 17, it’s hard to see that — it seems like it is all about prestige and connections, rather than the actual thinking.”

UD Psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil has also noted a prevalence of grade-oriented mindsets, which can have detrimental effects on students’ mental and physical health, he said. “People become adherent to the idea that if I can get a certain grade or if I can do something in a particular way, then my future will be guaranteed,” he said. “[This] attitude, and others, can lead to negative impacts on our mental health in a multitude of ways – anxiety, anger, sadness, denial, and distortions among them.”

An obsession with grades can pervade students’ lives and cause them to forget that education is a blessing, Lenny Lane (11) said. “Students at HM are receiving one of the best educations in the world, and that is something that we sometimes forget because we’re so focused on the letter that we get back,” he said.

Amira Dossani/Art Director


How has student anxiety changed over your time teaching? (Anonymous faculty responses to Record poll)

  • HM has the most anxious student body I’ve ever worked with in my career.
  • I have had fewer and fewer conversations about grade stress from advisees and students as the years progress. Although it’s still an issue, I think the culture is moving to a better place overall.
  • The stress is a result of grade inflation. If the majority of our students are desperate to get an A- or an A, they are more likely to flip out when the grades have the letter B in them. We would be better off mandating a real range of grades to reflect the work we actually see. If students could earn B’s and even C’s and believe that those are acceptable, anxiety might decrease.
  • I’ve been seeing an incoherent combination of apa- thy in regard to in-class participation and homework completion paired with high anxiety around grades. I hope that students can see the clear connection between possibly lowering anxiety around grades and assessments by using class time to actively test their understanding. Asking questions and taking risks in class recreates could be compared to a low-stakes assessment: abundant and instantaneous feedback with no downside whatsoever.
  • I have seen a major uptick in students craving one- on-one meetings with teachers all the while not us- ing class time to ask the questions that they do have. Teachers are always here to support our students, but this inclination to want questions answered privately when the student has already had access to an open Q&A session during class isn’t a healthy learning practice and seems to be a symptom of high anxiety rather than rooted in a genuine sense of inquiry.
  • Students are CONSTANTLY talking and thinking about grades, how they are calculated and weighted.
  • Both students and parents don’t seem to interpret grades as a way to reflect on how a student could improve but rather see good grades as something they are entitled to that has been taken away from them.

— all 37 responses accessible here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1VIgxuUGbpnWD8V5p2jmo_B-C5dCDgIDLmrywebgjnKw/edit?usp=sharing  

Emily Wang/Staff Photographer


How would you describe the school’s academic stress? (Anonymous student responses to Record poll)

  • There’s nothing they are going to be able to do, I think. It’s unfortunate from a mental health perspective, but it’s true. For part of the student body (including myself, probably), the pressure is entirely self inflicted- the kind of people HM attracts are those who push themselves.
  • I have seen no changes in the overall workload or academic stress. It seems to me as teachers and the school just consider the immense amounts of students stress as normal and expect them to get over it while students are crying in the halls and skipping class.
  • Testing weeks increase stress because have up to 6 assessments in one week is more stressful than having them spread out. This is because it causes a lot of cramming, most students do not have the time to be studying for weeks up until testing weeks.
  • I expect to receive anything above an A-. An A- or below is not acceptable by my standard.
  • I’ve come to base a lot of my self worth and self confidence off my grades as they start to matter more for college.
  • There is a lot of social stigma with grades. Feeling as if you need to level up to everyone else can be stressful.
  • Regrettably, I tolerate only excellent grades, in the A range, which often translates to an unsustainable amount of work and effort put into letters on a sheet of paper.
  • I am OK with a B+ but I still feel subpar when that happens. I start to stress and calculate the next grade I need to raise my average.
  • Focusing on the grades rather than the process of getting there defeats the purpose of school, so I see grades as a way to assess whether I’m putting my true effort into the work.
  • Last Saturday, I sat down at 7am to study. My mom brought me lunch and dinner. When I needed to use the bathroom I put that thought aside till I finished the next sentence, then the next and the next. I studied without moving till 2, took a short bathroom break, then resumed till 11 when I passed out. This is not a one weekend thing but a vicious cycle that I am trapped in.

— all 132 responses accessible here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1AUQwLawSifx7fcuxQfDgMDo1B8EUxwTIDgmz0blJV40/edit?usp=sharing