Admissions, grading scales, and happy holidays

Welcome back!  I’d like to say it’s been a restful holiday while the blog was on a brief seasonal hiatus, but we’ve been very busy processing the buckets of mail that come in during the holidays (note to self – discuss moving holidays to July when not as many colleges and universities have application deadlines – who would I see about that?). 

As soon as I got I found the questions the sitting in my in box: what else did we need to know about majors?  How do these deadlines work?  What really happens when you read applications?  Are you really the most entertaining dean of admissions, or is that all just an act?  When are you going to get stuff fixed around the house like you promised you would over the break? (that last one from my wife – she wasn’t crazy about the answer that I would get right on that once I got caught up on my blog…)

My plans for the next topic were detoured by a visit yesterday from the local news.  They were covering responses to an article in the Washington Post by my close personal acquaintance Jay Matthews about differences in grading scales for high schools in the D.C. area

The local ABC affiliate, WJLA, did a follow up story including a clip of a well informed expert (me).  Unfortunately they only had room for about 30 seconds of the 20 minute long answer I provided (I can’t imagine why).  ://  In that clip leaves you begging for more, a bit more detail:

Generally, grading scales don’t have a huge impact on admissions.  According to my colleagues in the area schools, they’ve done quite a bit on study on the grading topic.  Each time they have found the same thing- grade distribution doesn’t change much by grading scale.  In other words, whether you make an a start at 89, 90, 93, or 94, the same number of A’s, B’s and the rest end up being given out.  The assumption is that teachers tend to adjust grading to whatever scale they use – but it means that overall scales are unlikely to change outcomes too much. 

There’s also the issue of weighting grades, since a number of schools will give extra points for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Honors, etc.  This can get really out of hand – I have at least one school system from which I regularly review applications where students with a 3.6 on a 4.0 scale can be expected to have a fair number of C’s and D’s on their record.  Those same schools end up with students with higher than a 6.0 on a 4.0 school – ridiculous!!!  As I said in the report, most college and university admissions officers at schools as selective as Mason get to know grading and weighting scales very well.  Even if we don’t we usually get the details on a school profile with every transcript.  As a result, schools are able to put the grades into context and minimize the admissions impact of these differences.

That being said, there are exceptions. Some colleges and universities, especially those that are less competitive, may use less sophisticated admission review processes, and in those cases it’s possible that crazy weighted grades may work to a student’s advantage (or a lack of them to another student’s disadvantage), although in my experience that is not too common, and the greater the competition, the less likely to occur.

All of that information applies largely to admissions. The issues may change dramatically when it comes to scholarships.  At some schools the scholarships process is handled just like admissions, and the top students through that process get the awards.  At many schools, however, scholarships are viewed very differently.  Bear in mind that scholarships are, in essence, taking money away from one student (by charging full tuition) and giving it to another student (in a discount through a scholarship).  The justification for that may be based on an assessment of who is most qualified, but it is even more likely to be based on a calculation of which student is the most valuable to an institution, and these may not be the same things.  Of course, an applicant may be a highly ranked debater, a skilled player of a instrument vitally needed by the band director, or have a really sweet three-point shot.  Even just on academics, however, schools are often hoping that scholarships will help the school as much as they students.  This is often about raising “profile”.  Profile raising usually refers to a school trying to improve their placement on one ranking scale or another, or at least appear to be more competitive to prospective students (and therefore, presumably, more appealing).   As a result, high grades, rank-in-class, and GPA become more desirable, regardless of whether or not they are providing good information.

For instance: A university may know perfectly well that a student from one school has heavily weighted grades and that her 6.5 GPA is just plain silly, while another student did just as well at another school (that doesn’t weight) but has just a measly 4.0.  The scholarship may very well go to the 6.5, since that is of more use to the profile.  The same goes for rank, etc.

Of course, admission to college is a really bad way to make school policy.  The unfortunate perceived escalation of the importance of these issues on the college side (“we need a higher rank!” “they only care about a higher GPA/SAT/RANK!”) leads some to an arms rance in changing grading scales or ranking or weighting systems at the high school level. This makes for an awful situation for parents, students, and educators.

I can only offer slim comfort  – in most cases the influence of grading, ranking, and weighting systems is VERY small on the admissions process, and not too terribly large on the scholarship process.  Feel better?  No?  Go have some more of those leftover holiday cookies.  Then get back to finishing your essay.  Be seeing you.


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