Just yesterday I received the following anonymous comment on my recent post:
“Since you take numbers so seriously in the decision process, How do you allow for differences in the way school systems assign numeric values to GPA? For example, is a kid from XXXX who does not test well (SAT) out of luck because their grade point system is tougher than other systems? “
I get this ALL THE TIME so let’s set the record straight about grading systems and their impact. To start with, how do grades differ? A LOT. Think about your own school, wherever you are. Are/were there some teachers that you just knew would give you good grades, pretty much no matter how dim you might be because NO-ONE gets a bad grade from that teacher? If not, I’m sure there was at least ONE teacher who you just knew, no matter how brilliant you were or how hard you worked, was going to give you a weak grade because that teacher gives EVERYONE weak grades. Now multiply that by all the teachers in all the schools, and you get the idea that comparing grades is no simple process.
Do grading scales impact that process? That depends on a) how GPA’s are calculated and b) whether the grading scale actually changes that process. When evaluating students for admission, most colleges look at your GPA on a four point scale. If your school reports it in some other scale (My least favorite is, I kid you not, a seven point scale) then we just translate using mysterious things like “math.” At most places, your grades in class are determined on a 100 point scale, which gives you a letter grade, which then gets translated to that four point scale. So your GPA then depends on how many A’s, B’s, pluses, minuses, etc. you receive and how those correspond to the school district or university’s four point scale.
Brain hurt yet? I hope not because we’re just getting started! If you followed the above, you realized that your GPA would only change if the class grading scale changes the number of A’s or B’s you get. And I hear you saying, “well of course it does!”, but here’s what I’ve learned…there’s very little data to back this up. The only studies I’ve heard of on the topic, and mind you I haven’t seen them myself, didn’t back this up. In fact, I’ve been told by several very reliable and much more math-savvy colleagues that the studies they’ve conducted for school districts found NO CHANGE in the number of A’s, B’, C’s, D’s, and F’s awarded when the class grading scale was changed. Basically, they found that over all the teachers and all the students, the grading scale was basically irrelevant – teachers were giving out about the same letter grades as before. So, the assumption goes, teachers adjust their grading to the grading scale to create similar outcomes.
So it’s at least POSSIBLE, even reasonably possible, that the grading scale in class means very very very little to your GPA – that if they changed the grading scale you’d have still gotten that C for the work you did the night before it was due (and consider yourself lucky, mister!).
A potentially larger issue is grade inflation caused by “weighting” grades in honors, AP, and IB courses. In some cases this seems fairly reasonable – it gives a bit of help to students in tough courses. In other areas it’s just nuts. I read some files from a school system this year where students with not very challenging course loads with 3.7-3.8 GPA’s were likely to have mostly C’s and D’s, and yes that’s on a four point scale. Insanity!!! So how do colleges cope with all this difference?
Most schools review files by high school, meaning the counselor or counselors read all the applications from that school, and they are responsible for understanding that school’s weighting and grading systems. At some institutions they take this so far as to recalculate every single applicant’s high school GPA. At others, they simply read the file in the context of knowing that school. We also use other data points, such as comparing GPA from the school over years with the performance of students from that school, with the standardized test scores of applicants from that school, etc. Believe me, it’s really not that hard to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.
So what does that all mean? Sure, it’s possible that grading or weighting scales MIGHT make SOME difference in the admission process, especially for colleges that focus more on numbers than perhaps they should, but I’ve found fairly few of those at the very competitive institutions. In most cases, we are doing intensive evaluations of your academic record, incorporating grading scales, weighting systems, course load and difficulty, trends in grades, and, when available, how you rank in your class.
If I said that was a numeric decision, then that’s not really accurate. What’s true is that it’s a decision based on the data we have in your application. That’s pretty complete when it comes to your academic performance. What it doesn’t, and can’t, tell us is about who you really are. Even at colleges that interview, we can’t know for sure your motivation, your energy, your dedication. Every study that’s been done on these factors finds they are at least as important, and possibly more important, than your grades or test scores. That’s what I mean when I say the decision isn’t really about YOU, but about what we can know from your application materials, and that as a result it really isn’t a personal process, even when it feels like one.
I realize, of course, that parents, students, and teachers will want to explain why the C level grades on THIS application aren’t really fair and that really the student would have an ‘A’ average at any other school district. I can’t say for sure they’re wrong, but I can tell you that colleges do everything possible to try to know enough to bear such differences in mind when evaluating your applications. As evidence, take a look at the schools with the TOUGHEST grading scales, public or private. Now take a look at their placement rate at the most competitive institutions, and compare that with some districts with obviously softer grading scales. At least for the institutions where I’ve worked and consulted, those “tougher” schools got a heck of a lot more students admitted than those that were “softer.” Even so, some students from tougher schools do get denied and some from softer schools do get admitted. What’s not clear is whether or not this is an indication that colleges and universities are unfair.
This is by no means a simple or easy topic, and I didn’t even touch on the subject of SAT’s. It’s a topic around which tempers often flare and stress runs high, so please feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll look forward to providing further insight where I can. Be seeing you.
Filed under: Admissions, Applications, College, College Admissions, Education, GPA, Grades, High School, Life, Parents, SAT, University Tagged: | Admissions, College, College Board, Education, Family, Grades, grading scale, Helicopter Parents, High School, Life, University