Prep ≠ Prep

In independent schools today, grade inflation is more prevalent than ever. So, how well are “college preparatory” high schools actually preparing students for higher education?

Hanna Masri and Dare Fitzpatrick

Think about your grades right now. How much of your grade in a given class is representative of mastery of material? 

In the education system today, much of our composite grade in each class comes from completion and participation points, rather than formative assessments. 

An A doesn’t necessarily translate to mastery of 90% or more of the material; rather, it could be representative of extra credit and homework completion. 

Opinions on what a grade should represent vary, which is part of the reason why there are differences between the grading systems of teachers and classes. 

“When you look at schools in general—public, private, parochial— the administration has so much authority over almost everything that occurs in a school, and the reason grading tends to be the perennial sore-spot of a school is because that tends to be a place where there is teacher autonomy,” said Head of Upper School Melissa Alkire. 

“Teachers have to hit certain benchmarks in every other part of their practice, that grading tends to be universally a place of autonomy— that doesn’t necessarily mean there should be or shouldn’t be but that’s why there is a lot of dialogue about it.” 

However, these disparities in earning grades can result in grade inflation, a problem which is common in independent schools today. 

According to an Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz, grade inflation is more common in independent schools compared to private religious schools, suburban public schools, and urban public schools. 

The motivation for the inflation can be, in part, attributed to anxious parents who expect high grades from their children in order to be accepted to selective colleges. 

This inaccurate reflection of achievement can ultimately leave students unprepared for the material they will experience in college. 

Grade inflation is a phenomenon in which students receive grades which are unrepresentative and usually skewed higher. 

A telltale sign of grade inflation is when a school has an average GPA of 3.0 or higher, translating to an average grade of a B or higher on a 4.0 scale. 

Independent schools are notorious, since the 90s, for allowing grade inflation to persist. 

We’re not graduating biologists from here. We’re not graduating doctors. We’re graduating students, and part of being a student is having some space for mistakes and not having mistakes be something that crucifies you.”

— Melissa Alkire

According to Gewertz, because of the exponential rise in college tuition in the United States, beginning in the 1990s, the price of independent high schools rose in direct response to this rise. 

This is reflected by the increases in GPA over the past 30 years. Gewertz cites a College Board study by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee from University of Georgia who found that from 1998 to 2016 independent schools saw a higher rate of GPA increase than public schools with an 8% vs. a 0.6% increase, respectively. 

Although this drastic jump in average GPAs could be, in part, due to different education systems, the large gap between the two suggest a confounding factor that is driving up GPAs in independent schools: grade inflation. 

Laguna is no exception in terms of grade inflation. Classes have different policies for grades as the grading system is not strictly regulated. 

“Currently there is not, at this school, a mandate that grades be made up of particular kinds of systems or protocols,” Alkire said. 

“What is mandated is that [teachers] use a grade book, have consistent and clear policies that are communicated to their students, and that there are accurate calculations [of grades].” 

This means that the point distributions for homework, tests, participation, in-class assignments, etc. are not the same in every department. 

“At my previous school, there were common rubrics within departments—within there, there was still teacher autonomy,” Alkire said. 

As point distributions are essentially unregulated, points for skills like participation, completion, and timeliness being applied liberally brings up the question of what grades actually represent. 

“On the one hand [grades] tell the student where they are based on the expectations of the class in terms of content mastery to fulfilling base-level obligations,” math and science teacher Erik Faust said. 

“I’m a big proponent that students should have the opportunity to master a subject,” Alkire said.

However, “Is content mastery all that matters? If you are a great teacher who never comes to school, can you be evaluated as a ‘great teacher?’ Grade tends to reflect not only mastery but also soft skills,” Faust said. 

With these disparities in terms of what a grade “should” represent and what a grade does represent, how do colleges recognize grades? 

A point of common consensus seems to be that grades aren’t completely accurate. “Grades, in and of themselves, try to do too much,” Alkire said,

Faust said, “Grades are usually the shorthand version of evaluation.” 

The standards for getting into more challenging classes, like AP classes, are getting lower. 

Students and parents often complain about not being placed in the course they want being a more challenging class because it will look better on their transcript. 

They complain and get placed in a more challenging class that may not fit their academic capabilities. 

“I would say 90% of kids are there [in his classes] for college, they don’t want to be there,“ Faust said. 

As standards for college get higher, the standards for harder high school classes that will get you into college get lower. 

Grade inflation is a difficult problem to solve; some suggest that in addition to a list of letter grades on a transcript, a normal distribution with the percentiles each student is in within his/her class should be included so that colleges may see where in the population a certain student is in terms of grades. 

“The best way to evaluate kids would be a written evaluation that has probably two pages worth of required metrics of labeling every student in your class one to 12—who’s the best at this, who’s the second best—and that for every single thing. For progress, every skill, every content area,” Faust said. 

However, this method might cause a divisive and overly competitive environment. 

College admissions should assume a more holistic approach, considering each student based on a variety of factors. 

“We’re not graduating biologists from here. We’re not graduating doctors. We’re graduating students, and part of being a student is having some space for mistakes and not having mistakes be something that crucifies you,” Alkire said.