Imagining a Grade Inflated Paradise: What Do A’s Mean Now?
by Logan Troy on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Logan Troy ’17
Middle school essayists love to begin with the Webster Dictionary’s definition of some common word. By high school, however, teachers generally beat this habit out of their pupils; “clichés,” they say, “have no place in writing.” So, when some friends of mine spied this unwelcome hook tacked to an essay draft lounging about in the Student Center, they began ridiculing it and its writer. “Listen to this!” one student exclaims before proceeding to trudge through a stretch of muddy analysis. The surrounding students stifle giggles at the author’s grammatical mistakes, but their side glances expose self-consciousness about that botched freshman grammar test, the scattered, 2 A.M. paper, or the rushed in-class essay. Nonetheless, the naiveté of the writing overwhelms their humility and turns it to cocky posturing.
Then, the group arrived at the end of the paper… only to find the draft wasn’t a draft! It was graded and, even more shockingly to one student, it got an A-/B+. His short fuse burnt down: “How the f*** is this an A-/B+?! And what does the slash even mean? It’s either an A- or it’s a B+, there’s no gray area!” His outrage might stem from his having a particularly difficult grader, but the point stands; this grade did not fit the essay. And, on a broader scale, Milton’s grading system might not fit its students.
This one little anecdote serves to raise several of the big questions facing Milton Academy and its grading policies. For example, have grades reached a point where they can hardly compress anymore? Last year, 57% of Class II grades fell in the A range. For classes that qualify as electives, that percentage rose to 74%. At first glance, these figures seem just plain wrong. How can a B-range grade, once a respectable achievement, become below average? This inflationary trend persists outside of Milton (Nobles and Greenough’s percentage of A-range grades has risen 11% in the last five years), but the pros and cons of grade compression still aren’t immediately clear.
It is hardly a well-kept secret that the pressure of college permeates all spheres of life at Milton. Several articles, including Gabrielle Fernandopulle’s article in The Milton Paper, and editorials in the school’s publications have named several contributing factors to the general, yet unquantifiable, environment of anxiety disorders and depression. And though many stressors contribute to this atmosphere, none do so more than grades. Milton’s official grading system “works on a letter grade system, A+ through E (failure)” according to its student handbook. In practice, however, teachers operate on an A through B scale — 88% of junior year grades fell in this range for the Class of 2017.
Elina Thadhani, my grade’s resident genius and the Class II Cum Laude inductee, pondered this trend and its significance in a whirlwind interview. She needed to go do work soon. As I tested my phone to make sure it could pick up her voice in the noisy, post-athletics student center, I recalled that she had playfully mocked my half-point lower grade on an organic chemistry worksheet earlier that day. She hardly bruised my feelings — Elina and my competitive academic relationship dates back to 5th grade — but I still had to consider the absurdity of such extreme focus on grades. (The irony that the author of an article on grades is pointing out the exaggerated importance of grades is not lost on me.)
Before I lose total focus, Elina brings me back to the present with a strong critique of how “laughably different the difficulties of some courses are.” I wasn’t expecting such strong language from so careful a person; it’s clear the topic of grades touches a raw nerve for her. Even her. She does admit that she’s always been pleased with her grades — they were best in the grade after all. However, she immediately counters this meek assertion of self-confidence with a confession that she “didn’t deserve the good grade [she] got” in some classes.
Donning the blue sweatshirt of the “Wolfpack” — Milton’s girls’ varsity soccer team — Elina stops leaning against the wall and starts pacing around. She makes it clear that, in her knowledgeable and logical opinion, a single grade simply can’t sum up an entire year of learning. Add in the criteria for grades to do so fairly? Forget about it. Some teachers give A’s out like candy, others require you to teach them something new.
Beyond that unfairness though, “So much competition and pressure stems from the grading system.” Since grade compression means that students will probabilistically achieve somewhere between an A and B, the razor’s edge between an A- and B+, between above and below average, becomes the students’ battleground. No wonder one student despised the slash in the A-/B+ grade so much; it means you’re simultaneously above and below average.
My closing question asks Elina to ideate on the stress around grades, but she just throws her head back and laughs. “That answer would take too long. I need to go now.” And with that goodbye, she heads to the library and begins that history essay due the next day. Later that night, I begin my own history essay.
After hastily writing about the Cherokee Removal, I try to imagine a grading system that treats students fairly while exerting less pressure. Maybe a standardized grade distribution for every teacher would help distinguish top students and deflate grades… but it would most likely increase stress levels. Or maybe a removal of plusses and minuses would help de-emphasize grades… but then the A-/B+ divide would grow even larger. I realize in a short while that no perfect system exists — there must be tradeoffs.
In essence, grades serve to motivate students, provide feedback on student progress, and compare students in the college process. Given these goals, grade inflation certainly seems to be an “epidemic,” as a recent PBS Newshour column described it. A compressed grading scale fails to differentiate between students and leaves a void that the vulturous College Board has happily filled with standardized tests — which many educators argue are irrelevant and serve only to advantage the higher scoring wealthy population. Furthermore, students can now skate through a class completely unaware of how to improve. Surely the 35 Class II students who earned A’s in English last year are not yet perfect writers; but yet the A grade typically lacks sufficient feedback for improvement. And lastly, several studies have suggested that grades, even the uninflated version, are a poor motivator that promote competition over curiosity. So it would seem that inflation renders a grading system inefficient in all three major goals.
If grade inflation truly strips away some of the effectiveness of grades, how did it become so prevalent? Throughout my research, I encountered several convincing theories. The Vietnam war is the most widely accepted catalyst for grade inflation. Not only did the percent of A-range college grades rise 15% from 1963 to 1973, according to gradeinflation.com, but the logic behind this theory makes perfect sense; during the war, attending college likely meant deferral from military service via the draft. Consequently, students worked harder to stay in school and conscientious professors graded more leniently.
The percent of A-range grades plateaued for a decade or so before beginning to rise again. This spike, which continues to this day, is named the “Student as a Consumer” era. As Stuart Rojstaczer, an expert on grade inflation and its history, writes, “Students were no longer thought of as acolytes searching for knowledge. Instead they were customers.” Colleges produced what the consumer wants: good grades. Milton Academy — an institution that charges college-like tuition, offers a college-like campus, and treats students’ parents as college-like consumers — has experienced college-like grade inflation as well.
Yet, the Milton bubble hasn’t imploded. Students still do their work (for the most part), learn a lot, and move on to stellar colleges. If you discount the stressed out student body as a byproduct of its own ambition — a fair argument given the over-representation of Type A personalities — then the school has survived inflation swimmingly.
Academic Dean Ms. Bonenfant certainly believes so: “Frankly, I think it would be great if everyone got A’s. I really do.” I had arrived to her office a few minutes early only to find a handful of teachers laughing with Ms. Bonenfant over some funny joke. Although I felt like a nuisance as the teachers scattered to the wind, Ms. Bonenfant eased my discomfort with a warm smile. “Please, sit down.” She was eager to begin.
When you picture a typical high school administrator — gruff, perpetually overworked, perhaps a bit power-hungry — you do not picture Ms. Bonenfant. Sporting wire-rimmed glasses and short, grey hair, she comes across much more community service junkie than wrangler of teenage spirits. I briefly wonder whether she remembers sending that class cut notification when I skipped physics last week, but I decide to simply hope she doesn’t judge me for it.
I stumble through my first question, but she seems to know exactly what I meant to say, rather than what I did say. “I guess what’s important is for us to actually look beyond the grades,” she postulates. As Academic Dean, she looks over all grades every term and often wonders, “What’s the story behind the grade? Comments are sometimes helpful [to understanding the story]. But, to be honest, they aren’t always.” She’s referring to Milton’s stipulation that teachers write a paragraph describing how every student they teach has fared in that class. In theory, comments give students a metaphorical treasure trove of feedback. However, as Ms. Bonenfant noted, the time-intensive process of writing comments sometimes squeezes cookie-cutter comments out of teachers. Such comments provide little help for the students hankering to master the material… or, more realistically, bring their grades up.
Because Milton is a grade-focused, maybe even obsessive, place. Sitting against the backdrop of a Milton Academy “Dare to be True” blanket draped over the back of the couch, Ms. Bonenfant assures me, “I just wish we would figure out a way to change that.”
I’ve heard a rumor going around that Milton will — far from combatting grade inflation — do away with grades for the first semester of freshman year. I ask Ms. Bonenfant how likely that policy shift is, but she seems genuinely unsure whether the school will implement such measures. She does add, however, that “we’re really crushing [freshmen] here. And I don’t want kids to feel crushed. I want them to feel hopeful!” So while she does “think we need to do something different,” she’s “not sure grades are going to go away.”
Grades might never forsake Milton’s campus, but Ms. Braithwaite, in her own class last year, tested a new manner of assessing students. By creating “learning targets” that students could “achieve, approach, or develop” mastery in, she hoped to emphasize learning over the school-mandated letter grade that came at the end of the term. Furthermore, she discussed these grades with students who completed their own self-assessment prior to the meeting.
I join Ms. Braithwaite in her classroom after lunch and she asks if I mind her eating apple strudel during the interview. I tell her I don’t, but she doesn’t take a bite the entire time anyways. Strewn across her Harkness table are several slips of paper, and I catch the title of a New York Times article (“The End of Identity Liberalism”) partially covered by a Toys R Us order confirmation. The wonderful intersection of pragmatism and intellectual curiosity, a hallmark of Milton teachers, doesn’t surprise me.
I lob the first question right over the plate: “How has your unique grading system worked, and what motivated you to implement it?” It’s a question that colleagues and administrators must have asked her several times but if the question bores her, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she describes to me that her constantly evolving system intends to wean students off of letter grades. Punctuated with confident hand gestures, her sentences glide out with a sincere undertone.
I fear that I’ve tipped my hand by referencing grade inflation as a component of my article; she thinks she has to convince me of her system’s validity when I’m really just curious to learn more about it. I swallow my rookie mistake and jot down the skeleton of her old system: no grades on assignments and individual conversations about the term grades. She’s adjusted the system to account for “real tension” between her students and other teachers’ students by defining “learning targets” that students can demonstrate varying levels of proficiency in.
Although she believes that “everyone in my class can get an A,” she still found out that, in the old system, the students all wanted to give themselves an A — regardless of the quality of their work, learning, mastery of the material, or whatever other metric a class might use. Maybe they’re so accustomed to inflated grades that lower grades don’t even cross their minds. But it seems that even Ms. Braithwaite has a cap on the number of A’s she will give out.
I read off some grade statistics about Milton, but she has already heard them. She has settled into a pattern of looking off into space, feeling her way around a point, and then looking me in the eye and articulating it clearly. However, my question about what we can or should do to fight grade inflation takes her straight to the articulate conclusion; she doesn’t believe grades need to follow a normal, bell curve distribution.
“The way I approach grading is I want to know that all my students are learning. So if you want to use grades for ranking, they probably wouldn’t be using my grading system. If you think about grades as ranking, then yeah, we’re worried about grade inflation. But if we think of grades as a reflection of learning, then….” She trails off laughing and fiddling with her very stylish bracelets.
By “ranking” I think she’s referencing the competitive nature of admission to selective colleges. As a senior applying to college, I’d assumed all along that the college process drives substantial conversation around grades. It’s all I hear about: college this, college that. But hearing that thought echoed from someone far removed from her own college process reaffirmed my instincts. The college process has not driven me to insanity (yet).
In college applications, students attempt to market themselves as a product no university could do without. Long before applicants begin their personal essays or supplements, they stress about grades. Urban legends abound and, soon enough, freshman are scared into hyper-focussing on grades by the fable of a senior who didn’t get into Harvard because of that one A- in Class IV English. From then on, grades constantly remind students of the looming storm off in the distance; it hasn’t hit yet, but that shouldn’t keep you from preparing as best you can.
The idea that your Class IV English grade represents the applicant the same as Class II English grades do is ridiculous though. I remember my college counselor, Mr. Skinner, finding exception with the GPA metric for this very reason — it’s a “lump sum”; it doesn’t accurately characterize a student. I decide that as a college counselor, former teacher, and Milton alum, Mr. Skinner likely has much more to say on the subject. After scouring my college supplements together, I ask if I could interview him. Busy as he is (students line up outside Straus library to find a time slot to meet with him), his generosity gets the better of him and he agrees to talk for the next 20 minutes.
Mr. Skinner’s office always settles me down — the extreme clutter reminds me of my home. In lieu of a nameplate, a New Yorker cartoon depicting rescuers searching for a man buried underneath a hellscape of loose papers emblazons the door. The familiar phrase “I have a system” captions the cartoon in a characteristic display of Mr. Skinner’s humor and self-awareness. His confidence is even more striking in person; he wields the type of presence that overpowers the room. Such intensity could easily unnerve a student in one-on-one meetings if not for the wry smile he breaks out just often enough to remind you of his kindness. On this particular afternoon, he finds himself reclined in his desk chair with hands clasped above his head. “What’re you writing about?” he begins.
Right off the bat, he declares that grades should “indicate depth and breadth of knowledge…” in an ideal world, that is. Of course, working in the college office doesn’t afford him much naiveté; his next words expose the complexity of grades. In college, one of Mr. Skinner’s professors “did a great thing, which is he gave us two grades. He gave us a grade for public consumption, the one that went on the transcript, and another one for pure understanding of the material.” The genius of Mr. Skinner’s professor might have made my jaw drop. The dual-grade system seemed to deftly harness the best of both worlds: providing feedback with the private grade and alleviating stress with the public, inflated grade. I felt so excited about how to push for this beautiful system at Milton that I almost missed the flaw in this supposed panacea.
After Mr. Skinner extolled the virtues of the good ol’ days when he was at Milton (days before grade compression) he described the current situation as a grade “crunch.” And, of course, “The problem is the more you crunch it, the more you just get a muddy middle.” Two separate grades wouldn’t pull us out of that “muddy middle” because the public grades would still be inflated. Even the most genius of plans has a fatal flaw.
Disappointed and desperate for a new schema, I bring up the notion of student “narratives” about which Ms. Braithwaite had first educated me. She had promised that, if she were queen for a day, she’d “throw grades right out.” An exaggerated hand motion that resembled an umpire’s “out” call at home plate accompanied the bold proposition. The leading idea for replacement? “A little booklet about yourself at the end of the semester. A narrative.”
Mr. Skinner chuckles and I realize she must’ve talked to him about this idea before. He betrays his position as a prep school insider and references a New York school that uses the “narrative.” “It’s wonderful, wonderful wonderful.” His repetition seems to denote condescension, but I can’t be sure. “And they’ve been doing it for a long time so they have their niche and that’s good. But I can tell you that a college looking at 30,000 applications does not want to look at 30,000 portfolios. They don’t.” Always attuned to the pulse of college admissions, he is, of course, right. Last year, for example, the University of Michigan received 55,500 applicants. Even with a staggering 100 or so application readers, the narrative would disadvantage Milton students. Consequently, Mr. Skinner believes that “there’s going to have to be some kind of numerology connected to it,” whatever “it” turns out to be.
Milton’s peer schools offer plenty of enticing alternatives to the current grade scale. Andover uses a six-point scale, Hotchkiss a 12 point one, Deerfield the full 100-point scale, and Choate an adjusted GPA where A+’s count more than A’s. Each school still quantifies grades in some way, although some opt for letters over the colder and more unforgiving numbers. And yet, all these schools hover around Milton’s grade inflationary levels (60% of grades in the A range) when you convert back to the letter grade system. The pressure for high grades might actually transcend the grading systems.
Alternatively, human resistance to any substantial change might hinder new systems in the grading world. Class I student Henry Claudy took Ms. Braithwaite’s class last year and actually volunteered to talk to me about his experience. We sat down in the fourth floor Warren hallway — a surprisingly noisy place — and began talking. In a resigned tone, he relayed how his attempts to fight for an A in the class had been defeated by Ms. Braithwaite, who reportedly told him that he was a “B student.” Yet I remembered, in my interview, her soft ridicule of students who characterize themselves as an “A student.” Unable to see the difference between calling yourself an A or B student, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the conflict between Henry and Ms. Braithwaite.
I suspect the apparent hypocrisy was truthfully a communication error; something got lost in translation to or from Ms. Braithwaite’s parallel, grade-free universe. Nonetheless, the conversations about grades inhibited Henry’s enjoyment of the class so much that he “would have much, much rather had traditional grades.” I can tell he’s conscious of appearing oppositional, and so he hunches his shoulders and speaks in a hushed voice. Henry seems like he would rather be talking about anything, anything at all. In a strange way, the attempt to emphasize learning over grades backfired and caused more grade frustration than ever — even in students who don’t hyper-focus on them already.
Milton formed a Curriculum Committee for this year and tasked it with examining how teachers teach and assess students. Ms. Braithwaite serves on the committee and Mr. Skinner heads it. While grades might not be the focus of the group, they certainly fall within the purview. It is this group that has explored the option of removing freshman year grades, for example. Ms. Bonenfant knows that something needs to change, and the Curriculum Committee must explore what to change.
However, providing further evidence for the natural resistance people have to change, Mr. Skinner conceded that the Curriculum Committee might just become “exhausted by the whole thing and stick with what we’ve got.” Try as reformers like Ms. Braithwaite might, institutions tend to be fairly inert. But, even if Milton keeps the current grading system, analyzing grades and the role they play could still prove a valuable exercise.
Beyond the nuts and bolts, grades and, more precisely, our collective embrace of their value highlight an interesting part of our culture’s psychology. The lust for a “good” grade drives students across the country to extremes of cheating, sleep deprivation, and caffeine addiction. Yet, at the same time, our culture is ripping itself away from the typical fixed-mindset and single intelligence philosophy; rather, educators recognize the validity of growth-mindsets and multiple intelligences (including spatial, linguistic, and intrapersonal) in a school setting. Those same educators are often the ones advocating an abandonment of grades altogether. However, they meet resistance from the other faction: standardized test junkies. In direct response to grade inflation, standardized tests grew in popularity as a viable alternative that maintained the remarkably informative normal distribution. In 1995, about 200,000 students took the SAT compared to about 1.7 million last year. As Mr. Skinner pointed out to me though, “There are so, so many things wrong with those tests” — problems that include a strong advantage for higher income and white test takers.
At the end of the day, no blend of grades and standardized tests, of inflation and standardization will ever be entirely fair. As I found out when I ran a few ideas, such as the narrative system or the dual-grade system, by my friends, everyone will think about how the system disadvantages them; every change will meet resistance in addition to being inherently unfair. So, should the system change? As a senior who will move on to other things next year, I’d hope for more conversations around grades rather than a new system. Through dialog, students might come to understand their teachers in a new light. Likewise, teachers might come closer to consensus as to what an “A” English paper, lab report, or problem set looks like. Sure, as Ms. Braithwaite said, “We’re all a story. We’re not a letter grade.” But I know that I have focused much more on my grades than my story while at Milton. I suspect I am not alone.
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