Inflating grades, deflating self-esteem

Amelia Feiner, Staff Writer

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How do you stand out? What makes you special? Who do you want to be?

These are questions I am beginning to hear over and over again. It’s my junior year, and I can feel the college process looming in my not-so-distant future, but I have no idea sometimes I wonder what makes me different than the other 180 students in my grade. I like school. I’m decently smart. I get good grades. But as I look to my left and my right, I’m realizing that the hard work I’ve put into my classes in the past two years is not enough to distinguish me.

Before I transferred to Horace Mann, I went to a public middle school in New Jersey where almost everyone got A’s. If students wanted to stand out, they needed to get straight A+’s. A difference of 1-2% on a test could be the difference between a top student and an average one. I spent the whole year agonizing over this seemingly miniscule distinction. When I applied to Horace Mann, I thought it would be different. It was supposed to be the hardest school in the tri-state area, and I thought for sure this meant that many less students did so well. many students did poorly.

However, this is simply not the case.

According to data regarding the class of 2016, almost 70% of the class graduated with a GPA of or higher than 3.33. That means that less than a third of students averaged below a B+.  More recently, the average grade at Horace Mann crept up to an A-. In the 1990’s this grade was closer to a B-/C+. Horace Mann has fallen into a the pattern of inflating students’ grades, essentially making fantastic grades an expectation rather than a distinction.

This grade inflation almost renders grades meaningless. If all students receive A’s, then an A loses its value. In the late 20th century, A’s were saved for exceptional students. An A showed that a student went above and beyond in a class. Now, most students are upset if they don’t receive an A range grade. In fact, teachers at our school really only hand out the same 4 or 5 grades over and over again. This lack of variety in grading is dangerous for many reasons. Here are a few:

Grade inflation places increased importance on standardized tests. If 68% of the class of 2016 graduated Horace Mann with a B+ average or above, standardized tests contribute more to differentiating between students. This heightens the toxic pressure that students already feel when taking these tests.

Grade inflation increases stress surrounding testing in classrooms. When a difference of 1-2% separates an average student from a student in the bottom quarter of the class, students tend to pore over and focus more on every point taken off on every test. When our range of grades is so compressed, every point matters more.

Grade inflation makes extensive extra-curricular activities and outside of school awards more crucial to the college process. Since it is now much more difficult for students to distinguish themselves within the classroom, they are forced to find ways to spend their time outside of the classroom building up impressive resumés.

Most personally, the grade inflation at our school has discouraged me from taking more difficult classes. This year, when I was deciding what classes I would take, I almost stopped myself from taking some of the difficult courses that interested me because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to maintain the high grades that my peers were receiving if I took multiple honors courses. Even my parents were worried that I would fall to the bottom of my class if my average dropped half a letter grade because of the rigorous courses I wanted to take. Within the current system, a student with straight B+’s in all honors classes would rank near the bottom quarter of the class, while a student with straight A-’s in all regular classes would rank near the top quarter. The school does not “weight” honors classes or provides any insight into the levels of classes that students take besides listing the names on the transcript.

TheThis current system seems broken to me, especially since as a community we pride ourselves on the life of the mind. As an intellectual community, we need to ask ourselves, when did improving our grades by half a letter become more important than being stimulated and challenged in the classroom?

Obviously, our school community needs to work towards a solution for this problem. While grade inflation does run rampant here, Horace Mann is not the only school that is subject to this dilemma. In fact, grade inflation is a nationwide trend. In a study conducted by The College Board and the University of Georgia, investigators found that 47% of high schoolers in America had an A average.  This means that 47% of students are at the top of their respective classes, meaning that there is no top of the class. To make big changes, there needs to be a nation-wide movement, but our school can definitely try to solve the problem within our community.

First, we could deflate grades. This entails giving the teachers a quota for the grades they assign to students’ work. For example, only the top 15% of students receive A’s, no matter what the quality of the work throughout the class was. I don’t like this idea, because it creates more competition amongst students in classes, and also fails to account for situations in which many kids actually submitted A level work.

Second, we could just get rid of grades. I know this sounds crazy, especially at a rigorous preparatory school like Horace Mann, but many believe that comprehensive reports written on students are much more useful in determining the students’ academic capabilities than a letter grade. I really like this idea, but I’m not sure how well the HM community would accept it.

Third, we could list the median grade in a class next to students’ grades on their report card. This would show where the student lies not just in the individual class, but also among students in other classes in the grade. There’s a big difference between getting an A- in a class where the median was a B and getting an A- in a class where the median was an A-. However, this is not currently reflected in a student’s transcript. Not only will this solution help to quell grade inflation, but it will also help to even out the disparities between different teachers’ grading and create a fairer grading system across grades. To me, this seems like the best and simplest solution.

As I approach the halfway mark of junior year, I have begun to focus more on who I am inside and outside of the classroom. I am asking myself these same questions over and over again, but I’ve realized, high school is a place to form interests and passions, not a place to agonize over a 2% difference in your semester grade. That being said, addressing grade inflation will by no means end HM students’ concern about their grades, but it will create a fairer and more even scale on which to measure academic success.