Grading scales cause concern for parents and competitive students

By Julie Woon

Bar Graph of Chicago Public High Schools' Grading Scales during 2009.
Bar Graph of Chicago Public High Schools’ Grading Scales during 2009.

Parents at Pritzker Elementary School in Wicker Park complained last fall that their children were at a disadvantage when competing against other students for educational opportunities.

The culprit: the school’s choice of grading scale. The elementary school was using a 7-point scale where students earned an “A” for scores of 93 and above. But now, an “A” is any score of a 90 and higher, on a 10-point scale, which is what the parents wanted.

Joenile Albert-Reese, the principal of Pritzker Elementary, said that the school administration had considered making the change for some time. “There are several other regional gifted schools that are on the 10-point scale,” said Reese, “This means that, for our children, earning an ‘A’ was more difficult.”

But experts’ opinions are mixed as to whether or not the modification will really help students to get into better high schools and colleges. Some warn that it might make students less motivated to work for a better grade.

Pritzker decided to make the change to benefit students applying to gifted high schools, such as Whitney Young Magnet School and Payton College Prep. However, Reese had other concerns. “I was hesitant to do it because I think that the higher grading scale produces a better prepared student.” But while it is still too early to know if the switch will make a difference, Reese is expecting to have a higher number of students be eligible to apply to regional gifted schools.

“It’s really about leveling the playing field,” said Danette Fulton, a Pritzker Elementary school parent. Most schools in the Chicago area use this 10-point scale. After researching regional gifted schools and other competing elementary schools in close proximity to Pritzker, Fulton said she believes that the change is “key to applying to a selective enrollment school.” Fulton’s daughter will be applying for regional gifted schools next year and she wants to make sure that her daughter has just as good a chance as students at other schools.

Meanwhile, others working in the education system say that this issue misses the real problem altogether.

“The larger issue around the decision table is the impact of weighted GPA’s,” says Elaine Vincent, an independent educational consultant from My College Planning Team, a consultant agency for parents getting ready to send their children to college, and a former enrollment vice president at Shimer College.

To find the grade-point average, each letter grade is given a numerical value. For example, an “A” is equal to four points, a “B” is worth 3 points and so on. The grade value for each class a student has taken are added together. Then, the total is divided by the number of classes to find the average.

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But, middle schools and high schools that offer honors or advanced-placement classes may choose to use a weighted grade-point average system. This means that grades received in these higher-level classes receive more points than the same grade in a lower-level class. This is where a student’s chances of getting into a higher-level educational program could be affected.

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But when it comes to getting into a better college or university, the weighted grade-point average is taken into consideration before choosing to admit one student over another, in addition to the grading scale used.

“Most schools review files by high school,” says Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for student enrollment at Brandeis University, “meaning the counselor or counselors read all of the applications from that school, and they are responsible for understanding that school’s weighting and grading system.”

“At some institutions they take this so far as to recalculate every single applicant’s high school GPA,” said Flagel, “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.”

So in the end, it should not matter what grading scale was used, what school a student attended, or if the institution used a weighted grading scale, Flagel said. Students who have good grades, no matter what the background, presumably have an equal chance at getting into a better school.

Studies, like those by the National Council on Measurement in Education, show that there is concern about increased grade inflation over the years, due to changing grading scales. This issue comes back around to the apprehension that students are losing motivation to work for higher grades or that they are beginning to believe that they deserve higher grades for a lower quality of work. Unfortunately, while studies show grade inflation exists, they do not have any concrete solutions to the problem.

In Chicago, parents have proposed a universal grading scale be set by Chicago Public Schools. However, the board has not moved to make any changes.