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Same Grades, Different GPA

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There's an AP story posted today that pretty much sums up my frustrations as a high school student in a high-performing, affluent school district. Here's the basic gist of it:

"In most of the [Washington, D.C. area], a score of 90 or higher will earn a student the top mark. But in Fairfax County, (Va.) it takes a score of at least 94."

It's this kind of discrepancy that really irrated me when I was a student. Although I did not attend school in Fairfax County, my school district used the same grading scale as the one described in the article. Even between schools in the same district, it seemed to me that grading scales fluctuated significantly. It didn't seem fair that so much of my grade-point average depended on factors over which I had little control--what school I attended, what classes I took, and which teachers I had.

I wish I could have taken the advice of Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College, and just "chill[ed] out about grades," but I still feel that's a hard request when you are one of hundreds of hard-working students in a county where almost everyone goes to college, competing for a limited number of spots at a state university.

But there's an interesting take on this in a similar article in the Washington Post, which says that grades are actually a better indicator of success in college than standardized tests. Also, grades are "much less closely correlated with student socioeconomic characteristics than standardized tests," say two researchers. I have to admit, reading that point of view has made me question my stance on grades in school. After all, it's much easier to point a finger at the system than to ask myself whether I should have worked a little harder or studied a little bit more.

What do you think? Do the discrepancies in grading scales between districts put some students at a disadvantage when they're applying for scholarships or vying for spots in colleges? Or is it a good indicator of student effort and achievement? Do the differences in the scales effectively account for varying economic and environmental factors? Or do they simply give some students an unfair advantage?

12 Comments

Grades are relative to the quality and expectations of a given school or teacher. Students who get good grades in a low income, low performing school, but who are unable to do well on an SAT, MCAT, LSAT, GRE must struggle harder and longer to achieve what a student who is equally motivated but better prepared can achieve. Neither is it better in the long run to have teachers who give good grades for nothing. Students who think they are getting over because of the kindness of their grade inflating, slacker teacher has nothing but a set of good grades that obscure a need for remediation.

Ultimately, although it doesn't feel so when your goal is always the next roadstop or milestone, it's not the grades that matter, but the content.
That is why an SAT is still relevant. Although grades indicate (as a representation of your motivation relative to other students available for scale), a low SAT score also indicates, as a representation of your knowledge relative to all other students.

A telling example of why this is so would be my friend from a low income school system in the deep south and college graduate of a mediocre college program. She was valedictorian of her high school, top of her class, relative to her classmates. She had every reason to believe she was prepared and capable. However, when it came time for her to take the tests (whatever they are) to get into an MBA program, she couldn't pass them... not the first time, not the 6th time. Even with tutoring and a lot of sweat and tears on her part, she didn't pass the test until her 7th time taking it.

I don't know if her problem was preparedness or ability. It was certain that she had drive, but drive isn't always enough. I'm sure she's a VP somewhere now and I'm fine with that, although I'm not sure I'd like her to be in charge of my pension plan. And in some fields, it's an absolute no go. Who wants to go under with a surgeon or anesthiologist that needed 7 swipes at their MCATS?

Wonderful points made above. There really is no question here for anyone who really looks carefully at the practice of grading. When you step back and look at school, district, state and nation-wide practices, the whole grading process starts to look pretty arbitrary.


Furthermore, the traditional grading system is one of several misguided aspects of our educational system that is contributing to the overall failure of our public school system.


Briefly stated, the system is designed to stratify, label, and assign relative worth to our students from early on. Then we ask ourselves why kids are not engaged; why are they dropping out in record numbers.


The real world isn't asking for grades. Employers clearly want to know what knowledge, skills, and understandings their potential recruits possess. And they are telling us that the talents they need are in short supply.


Educate For A Change proposes the development of "Proficiency Profiles" in the place of report cards. These would report each individual's progress through the Standards in each educational discipline and would give a clear picture of true abilities.


The Proficiency Profile is only one component of Educate For A Change's proposal for significant changes in public education.

I am graduate of Fairfax County Public schools which is also the district where I currently teach high school. I have very mixed feelings on this issue. I agree with the comment that traditional grades ultimately produce more harm than good, and most of my students -- the vast majority of whom are high-achieving and college-bound -- primarily care about grades so they can get into a prestigious university and keep their parents happy. As a student I mostly cared about grades for the sake of getting into a competitive college as well, so I understand the students' perspectives. As a teacher, I would love to completely throw grades out the window, not for the purpose of reducing my workload, but rather to make the learning process more meaningful. I have made adjustments to how I handle grades in my class by deemphasizing grades and using as many valuable assessments as possible to evaluate my students. I don't simply reduce my students to a number, but because I work within this system I must ultimately label my students as "A's" and as "B+'s" and so on.

Unfortunately, I think we're a long way from completely revamping the system and no longer having traditional grades. As long as we operate under this system, it makes sense for competitive counties such as Fairfax to change its grading scale to be more in line with the surrounding districts. I think students and parents think this will be a bigger change than most teachers would consider it to be, so I don't see why we should fear changing this when all grading systems are arbitrary. As long as we use traditional grades and generally more traditional means of assessment, it doesn't matter if an A is a 94 or a 90 or 92. If most other school districts, particularly those in our area, are assigning a 90 percent an A designation, then our failure to do so makes our students feel unjustly penalized when applying to college.

The best system of grading I've worked in was at an elite boarding school where teachers had extremely small classes -- no more than 12 high school students in a class -- and teachers did portfolio assessments of the students' work. The teachers then assigned students a grade of pass, pass advanced, honors, etc. and the grade report students and parents received included a thorough teacher narrative. We'd spend about 20-30 minutes per student narrative, and the narrative is ultimately more telling than any grade designation can ever be. Of course, in Fairfax County just as in most public school systems throughout the country, middle and high school teachers teach between 120 and 150 students every year, so lengthy teacher narratives are a pretty unrealistic expectation. Until teachers are given a manageable number of students, I can't see our school systems making any significant changes to the traditional grading system.

Don't the colleges' admissions committees rework your GPA based on their own criteria once you apply? I thought that was why the grading scale is included in the transcript.

Clearly it does make a difference in ability and achievement if you're getting straight A's on a 93-100% scale and taking all AP classes or if you're getting straight A's on a 90-100% scale and taking no honors or AP level classes at all. The Admissions Committees know this. This is why I've never understood why people will take a lesser quality class to "keep up their GPA." Who do they think they're fooling?

This is a continually provocative subject! I will comment on just one of the issues indirectly raised: Integrating a standards-linked, rubric-based system with traditional grading in which 90 (or 94) to 100 = A, etc. This is challenging, to say the least. A number-based system presumes equal distance between an A and a B and a B and a C, etc. A qualitative rubric is not intended to be an equal-interval scale like the grade scale mentioned-- hence, translating ratings of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 to A, B, C, D, and F is not appropriate-- something I have seen done on more than one occasion. That technical problem aside, I would vote for a system of student assessment that doesn't result in a reductive label.

The issue of inconsistency of grades and teachers' grading practices is not just a high school concern, but extends to the elementary level as well. As an elementary school principal and doctoral student, I have learned that frequently it is neither the grading system used, nor teachers' lack of training and knowledge in best practice for assessment and measurement of student achievement that causes the greatest difficulty. Rather, the larger issue may be the discrepancy between teachers' belief's about grades (that grades should be an objective measure of student achievement and progress), and teachers' practice (grades frequently include non-achievement factors, such as effort, persistence, and ability). Consequently the grades given, regardless of the system used, may not accurately reflect what a student knows and is able to do. In this era of high-stakes tests and accountability under NCLB, I believe its time for educators to change this practice of assigning students grades based anything other than achievement. When we do so, we fail to provide our students with an education that truly reflects learning and ultimately may fail to prepare them to be literate critical thinkers, capable of solving the problems of our global society.

We often find that the non-achievement factors are the things that potential employers and even the next educational level is interested in (see the SCANS skills), in addition to achievement. The one most important goal of standards-based grading should be to separate and report BOTH achievement grades and "learner responsibility" grades, and make both count for measures of accountability.

I teach and I am an administrative assistant at a small "American" school in Mexico, to Americans and Canadians. We are debating a change of our grading scale, but I would like more data. Can anyone point to a bibliographical or Web link to a study that compares SATs, GPAs and grading schools from a significant number of schools?

Yes students have a disadvantage when they have a 6 point grading scale. When applying to colleges I believe students have a disadvatage because our transcripts only have a letter grade. Its not the A's as much as the 80's. An 80 on a 6 point is a low C when on a ten point it is still a B. Colleges say they look at the grading scales but I do not believe they do. There are too many applications coming in at one time. I am a senior in High School and I do believe that we are being put at a disadvatage with a 6 point grading scale.

Fairfax County Public Schools puts its grading scale right on the transcripts it sends to colleges. When I have talked to college admissions personnel, they tell me that they are quite aware of how hard our schools are, and how hard our grading scale is, and they take them into consideration. As I recall, 96% of Fairfax County Public School students go on to college. How does that compare with other counties? The real problem currently is the baby boomette, and colleges simply don't have enough space to admit all of the qualified students.

In response to your question about discrepancies in grading scales among different districts affecting the students when they have to have those grades compared, I think an A is not an A everywhere therefore when students go into college and their grades are reviewed they are not compared equally. I recently read a blog post of a parent that has an elementary student in a district where the school adopt the policy to take off a point for every misspelling, grammatical error, or poor sample of handwriting. Her son got a C on assignment that was content wise completely right, but due to the poor language ability was marked lower. This is an example of a situation where if that parent moved from that district to another district that child’s grades would not truly show his intellectual ability instead it would show a poor policy on the part of a school district. I am a fourth grade teacher and I can say with complete certainty that the grading practices we use differ so vastly that we are doing our students a disservice and unfairly assessing their knowledge of the content.

In response to your question about discrepancies in grading scales among different districts affecting the students when they have to have those grades compared, I think an A is not an A everywhere therefore when students go into college and their grades are reviewed they are not compared equally. I recently read a blog post of a parent that has an elementary student in a district where the school adopt the policy to take off a point for every misspelling, grammatical error, or poor sample of handwriting. Her son got a C on assignment that was content wise completely right, but due to the poor language ability was marked lower. This is an example of a situation where if that parent moved from that district to another district that child’s grades would not truly show his intellectual ability instead it would show a poor policy on the part of a school district. I am a fourth grade teacher and I can say with complete certainty that the grading practices we use differ so vastly that we are doing our students a disservice and unfairly assessing their knowledge of the content.

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