In high schools, a 'B' is new 'C'

Higher grades not matched by higher test scores

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At high schools across the country, more and more students are graduating with grade-point averages of A, including some whose averages are well above the traditional 4.0 for an A.

Grades -- some weighted with extra points or fractions of points for taking harder courses -- are getting so high that a solid B is becoming the new C, which years ago was considered average.

Consider these examples:

Seniors at Pine-Richland High School who have a weighted grade point average below 3.3 -- a B -- are in the bottom half of the class.

At Mt. Lebanon High School, roughly 20 percent of the senior class of about 470 students have weighted grade point averages of 4.6 or higher, and averages occasionally reach as high as 5.2.

Over a decade at Allegheny College, the number of applicants with grade point averages greater than 4.0 grew from 1 in 10 in 1996 to nearly 1 in 5 in 2006. In that time, the average grade point average of applicants rose from 4.04 to 4.18.

There's no one reason grades have gone up. Educators point to a host of factors, including grade inflation, competition for college admissions and the growth of Advanced Plancement and other weighted courses.

But whatever the reason, three national reports this year agreed high school grades are higher than they used to be.

A college freshman survey -- released in April by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA -- said that the trend of grade inflation has continued "unabated" since 1987, noting that nearly half of freshmen reported high school grade point averages of A- or higher in 2006, compared with 19.4 percent in 1966.

A report on members of the Class of 2006 who took the SAT college entrance exam noted that grades have gone up even though SAT scores haven't increased as much or have even dropped.

And a study of high school transcripts and the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- known as the Nation's Report Card -- shows grades have risen without a similar boost in national test scores.

"I don't think there's any doubt there's tremendous grade inflation in various communities," said Kolia O'Connor, head of school at Sewickley Academy, which has a reputation for harder grading.

"We do students a disservice if we suggest their performance is at a certain level when obviously it may not be at that level," said Mr. O'Connor.

High school grades have become so difficult to decipher that some colleges throw out the high school's calculations and compute their own grade point averages. Washington & Jefferson's formula considers only core academic courses and does not weight them.

"With thousands and thousands of applications coming in from high schools all over the country, we've got to find some way to standardize the comparison," said Alton Newell, vice president of enrollment at W&J.

Changing the system
Some school districts are taking another look at how they grade students and weight grades, including Pine-Richland, where Superintendent James Manley said students work hard to earn the grades, "but perhaps we as educators could raise the bar a little bit and make them stretch more for that A."

Deer Lakes Superintendent Mark King said educators there noticed that some students' grades were higher than would be expected from the scores on their math and reading scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

So the district two years ago took two steps to bring the grades in line: Extra credit work was banned, and teachers -- some of whom had awarded as much as 40 percent of the grade based on homework -- were limited to applying homework to no more than 15 percent of the grade.

"We're trying to make sure we reflect the true ability of the students when you give grades," said Mr. King.

"The PSSA is now holding us more accountable. If they're given an A, they deserve an A," he said.

About five years ago, Deer Lakes used a system of letter grades. But now it puts straight percentages on the transcript although it considers 92 and above an A. With weighting, a student's average has gone at least as high as 102, said Angelo Furiga, director of technology.

Beaver Area High School is in the second year of a grading study that will continue next school year.

"A lot of our grading is teacher-pleasing behavior -- anything done on time, in the right format," said Beaver Area High School principal Daniel Taormina. "We're moving more and more toward grading for content and understanding, which is what it should be."

He said extra credit has been eliminated. "The kids that needed the extra credit weren't doing the regular credit. We don't need to bail them out. They need to do the work in the course."

He also is discouraging certain types of assignments. "Should a senior be doing a collage [in academic classes]? I think no. I think if we're sending 90 percent of our kids to college, you're not going to see too many collages in college."

He said that as teachers discuss the issues, there are "subtle changes, not concrete. They are grading differently. They are more aware, and they're asking questions: Is this really what I want out of this assignment?"

Grades were standardized about two years ago at 97 to 100 for an A+, 93 to 96 for an A and 90 to 92 for an A-. The letter grades, along with pluses and minuses, are used for grade point averages. The highest possible weighted average is 4.28.

At Penn Hills High School where the median GPA is a 2.6 building wide, Principal Nancy Hines said she expects grades to be tied to the curriculum and recommends teachers allot no more than 1 percent of the grade toward extra credit.

College admission questions
Some school officials worry that tough grading standards could hurt their students when competing for college admissions or scholarships.

But Mr. O'Connor said that Sewickley Academy's reputation for lower grades hasn't hurt its candidates. Its grade distribution is not publicly available, but only one of 76 seniors has an unweighted grade point average of 4.0. Three have weighted averages above 4.0, the highest of which is 4.16.

An academy survey showed that even most in the bottom half of the class were accepted by colleges and universities with higher reported grade point averages than Sewickley's.

Mick Zomnir, of Bell Acres, a senior at Sewickley Academy, appreciates tough grading. His 3.73 unweighted grade point average was good enough for him to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I think it's a definite plus in distinguishing Sewickley Academy in a positive way. I think it's a tremendous advantage for college."

He sees friends from other schools getting A's and B's with less effort. "Virtually all of them have higher grade point averages than me at their schools, 4.2, 4.3."

The procedure for weighting grade point averages varies widely from school to school.

In Mt. Lebanon, an A or a B in an Advanced Placement course adds 1.5 points, but there are no extra points for a C. Honors courses give an extra point for an A or B. Once the grade point average is calculated, an extra 0.05 is added for each semester the student takes six instead of the required five courses.

"We encourage students to challenge themselves," said Grant Williams, guidance supervisor.

Pine-Richland adds less weight than Mt. Lebanon. An A in an Advanced Placement course is worth an extra point, bringing the grade to a 5 instead of a 4. An A in an honors course is worth 4.5. Dr. Manley has seen some GPAs go as high as 4.6.

Seneca Valley follows a more complicated formula. For the junior and senior years, it adds up the extra weight -- 0.25 for AP or 0.125 for honors or fifth-year of a foreign language. Then it divides that number by the number of semesters in which such weights could be earned and adds that to the grade point average. The GPA can get as high as about 4.8.

The idea in Seneca Valley is to reward students who take the most challenging courses consistently and do well in them, said Matt McKinley, assistant superintendent for secondary instruction.

When some colleges recalculate such GPAs, they typically end up with lower results. But that doesn't mean the student is penalized for taking harder courses instead of going for easy A's.

"I would far rather have a kid with a 3.0 who has loaded up on advanced level courses than a student who has a 3.4 in a lower track curriculum," said Mr. Newell of W&J.

"The students I worry about are the students who have taken the less rigorous curriculum and have very, very good grades and they come in and aren't well prepared for the rigor."

Beyond any recalculations. colleges have other ways of determining whether there is grade inflation.

W&J looks at how students from particular high schools perform once they get to W&J to gauge future applicants.

Westminster College checks to see if its recomputed average is consistent with the candidate's SAT or ACT college entrance exam scores, said Brad Tokar, dean of admissions and financial aid.

Some admissions officers know schools by their reputations as ones that are generous or stingy with A's. Mr. Newell said grade point averages from Florida are generally "very, very inflated."

Class rank confusion
Whether colleges pay much attention to them or not, high schools sometimes use the weighted grades to compute class rank, name the valedictorian and salutatorian or encourage students to take challenging courses.

Some schools have abandoned class rank, including Mt. Lebanon which Mr. Williams said doesn't want to have the applications of strong students rejected simply because they are not in a top percentile.

Some others, such as Deer Lakes, do the math to four decimal places to figure out the valedictorian.

Penn Hills considers all students who earn 4.0 or higher to be valedictorians. This year, it has 16 valedictorians in a class of about 450. The highest GPA is 4.16.

One of the valedictorians, Matt Haynes, who was honored for having the highest GPA at senior awards night, said, "I do think that everybody who got 4.0 or above definitely deserves status as a valedictorian. ... If you get over a 4.0, you've obviously worked hard."


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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