More (and more and more) on grading scales


A few posts back I announced that I’m on a panel with some other folks talking about the local grading scales with a moderator from USA Today. The last time I dug into the subject here on the blog I got some great feedback (including being called full of excrement). Since that kind of robust and thoughtful feedback is probably helpful in prepping for the live session, here’s basically what I’m planning to say:

1) Admissions offices, for the most part, read grades in context. At Mason, for instance, I assign staff to read specific schools from the areas where they recruit, and divide up our largest feeder schools so everyone has similar application review assignments. In addition to getting to know their schools from experience, each school sends a profile explaining their grading scale. As a result, the person bringing the application to committee usually has a very good idea how to look at that school’s grades.
2) There is little evidence that grading scales change actual grades, but also none I’ve found that they don’t. There are some who claim that with tougher grading scales students get lower letter grades, while others claim the grades normalize. In other words, teachers may (or may not, depending on who you believe) give out the same number of A’s, B’s, and C’s. I haven’t seen enough data to convince me either way. To quote a former post, “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!).”
3) Weighting, the practice of giving extra points for honors, advanced placement, or IB courses, changes grades A LOT more than grading scales. I read files from a school in New Jersey last year with students in the 7.0 and higher range – on a FOUR POINT SCALE!!! Some schools recalculate to scrub out the weighting, which then places more emphasis on the grading scale IF the grading scale changes letter grades…
4) Even if all scales were the same it still wouldn’t be equal. I hear from schools within the same system all the time that their school is harder, or that there are so many smarter kids in that school that it’s harder to do well, or that there are so few smart kids and the school is so easy that they can’t get the support to get ahead. And then I hear from students in the same school in courses with the same name that the one teacher gave everyone A’s while another was just harder or just didn’t like teaching and took it out on that one class. And let’s face it, that teacher may just hate you.

Back to an old post, “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.” That’s just your academic record, of course. The admissions officers still have to see test scores (in most cases, more on that soon), essays, recommendations, etc.
“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.” It’s not clear to me, however, that this is an argument for a different grading scale.
But on the other hand, I also wrote, “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 scholarship 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 thing. 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 help 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 test scores 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.

On the other side, I see very little harm in a school district changing its grading system (other than potential for cost, which I’m sure there is). I’ve had many counselors tell me that they believe that changing a grading scale to make it “easier” will cause colleges to think less of their schools, begin denying their students in waves, and possibly bring about the Apocalypse. Also, they don’t much want to change and things seem fine to them as they are, thank you very much…and did we mention the Apocalypse??
From where I sit (cushy overstuffed chair, thanks for asking), small changes to the grading scale are unlikely to change things much, since as I said grading scale doesn’t play that large a role. If, in fact, the grades will normalize, it’s unlikely to have any impact at all!
I do fear the race of grading and weighting scales, but I’m probably just resisting change as well. Bring it on – by the time my kid is in high school his 9.7 on a three-point scale is going to look AWESOME. Be seeing you.

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8 Responses

  1. Wow, that was an epic post.
    Thanks so much for this blog! It’s a good place to get information and a laugh.
    Can yout tell me how many AP’s a student should take to be viewed as “competitive”?

  2. That was very insightful…

    My school has a 5.5 scale, unweighted.

  3. This was a great post. It also happens to be a very hot topic right now in my school district. In our school system an A is 93 and above , a B is 85-92, etc. There are also “plusses” given i.e. 98-100 is A+, 90-92 is B+.
    Several parents want to go to a 10 point scale. My issue is that my rising senior has earned all A’s and a majority of A+’s. So in this case the A+’s earned for 98 and above would be converted to merely A’s – the same as if a 90 had been earned. ( I realize that this is a moot point as I cannot imagine the grade scale being changed in within the next few months!). Never the less, I do see the potential for harm to the very highest performers. I would like to add that approximately 10% of each graduating class earns a 4.0 or above in each of the last few years. So I do not believe that these students are being graded on an overly harsh system.

  4. MLC, our grading scale looks much the same as yours, but I don’t think there are any plans to change it. I have to agree that it does not seem too harsh, or even too soft, and our low AP weighting only evens things out, instead of skewing it.
    The top five percent of our class is within hundredths of a point of each other – and if other students don’t take AP classes, then it’s extremely unlikely that their GPA will reach that top five percent. That’s probably a good thing, or you might have people taking all academic classes with all A+’s (underachievers) who would have higher GPA’s than people taking three or four AP classes and getting, say, B+’s. Our very moderate weighting keeps things even. (An A+ in an AP class ears a 5.0 on a 4.3 scale, but I don’t think it’s even possible to earn a 5.0 GPA overall.)
    But some of these overly weighted AP and IB scales are ridiculous!

  5. Correction, I meant a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale.

  6. Oh, dang, sorry for the third post, but what I really meant is that an A+ on our “supposedly” 4.0 scale is a 4.3 – an A+ in an AP class is a 5.0.

  7. I forgot to mention that our AP classes are weighted with an additional 0.7 ( on a 4 point scale). I am fairly
    certain that the top achievers take several AP classes
    (all of them that I know do).

  8. I was wondering, since you are the dean of admissions at GMU, what is the average GPA of a enrolled freshmen at George Mason.

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