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Achieving High Goals: The Impact of Contract Grading on High School Students' Academic Performance, Avoidance Orientation, and Social Comparison

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This article examines American high school students’ (N=439) self-worth protection behaviors, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and academic performance under a contract grading system, which has been understudied in contemporary secondary classrooms. The quantitative analysis revealed that under the contract grading system, 97% (n=421) earned a passing grade (i.e., A, B, or C) on the assessment and 90% (n=390) fulfilled the contract by reaching mastery (A) or proficiency (B). Compared to the previous year, students with prior experience were 19% more likely to earn an A and 16% more likely to earn a B under the grading contract despite increased workload demands. The qualitative analysis of 40 semi-structured interviews revealed that performance improved as a result of the contract’s clarity of purpose, which limited task avoidance and facilitated task-oriented effort toward a desirable goal. Students enrolled in regular courses experienced the most significant grade improvement due to clear expectations that helped them place their effort on the right tasks. The findings of this study lead to a call to action for teachers to implement contract grading in high school classrooms to clarify work expectations, improve task-oriented effort, and help students set and achieve high goals.

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