Grade Expectations

in Editorials | May 10, 2024

          Discussing the role of grades in our education system and their importance in our overall life seems rather unnecessary and futile at first glance, as the answer seems rather rudimentary: On the surface, grades are nothing more than a representation of a student’s performance in the classroom. Your GPA is the sum of every single assignment you have completed in high school, conveniently distilled into one scaled numerical value. Grades—and especially the feedback that comes with them—are necessary for students to quantify their own academic performances and find new ways to improve. Why, then, are GPAs such a large source of stress in students nowadays? What could be so divisive about such an objective way to measure a student's academic prowess? 

          The problem is that grades are no longer an accurate representation of our academic performance.
Recent studies have shown that teachers have been inflating the grades of their students across the country: The average national GPA has risen over recent years, from 3.27 in the late ’90s to 3.38 now. While we would all like to believe that America’s students have simply become smarter, such an assumption is not supported by the average SAT scores over the same time frame, which have dropped  from 1026 to 1002. The evidence points to one conclusion: students’ grades—which, unlike the standardized SATs, are up to teachers’ discretion—are being artificially bumped.

          There is much for Lawrentians to celebrate about grade inflation—for one, it might actually level the playing field. For a number to which we apply so much value, a GPA fails to portray many key components of a students’ academic performance. A numerical average can’t take into account differences in students’ learning processes, such as the speed at which they grasp new information and the amount of effort they are willing to put in. In prior years, before grade inflation became a common practice, a student who may have initially struggled to understand a certain concept, but later gained a comprehensive understanding of it through continued effort, the only thing their transcript would have shown was the initial roadbumps the student encountered on their path to understanding the material. We should not treat our classrooms a racecourses; if a student achieves the same level of mastery of a concept, albeit a bit later than their peers, why should they be penalized? Perhaps this recent trend of grade inflation stems from teachers deciding to reward their students for their hard work and dedication in the classroom, which will result in our Perhaps an “inflated” GPA serves as a better indicator of overall academic performance than the previous system did.

          But grade inflation can potentially cause deter students from putting in the effort that it seeks to reward: Coming from personal experience, nothing will send a student to a teacher’s consultation quicker than a poor grade on a major assignment, but how often do we get true wake-up-calls instead of a hard test “curved up” to soaring heights? The desire to improve comes from disparities between the level of mastery we currently have has and the level that we wish to achieve. Our previous “deflated” grading system excelled at sparking this motivation in students: a B test grade serves as a great wake up call for a student who aspires to end the term with an A- in that specific class. 

          But now that artificially inflated grades mean less informed understandings of subject material can still earn students “satisfactory” marks,  the biggest incentive for students to improve is all but removed entirely. This in turn breeds complacency in classrooms across America, if a student is aware of the quality of work required to achieve a certain score they deem as desirable, there is no reason for them to work beyond that. At the end of the day, a sufficient score is all that matters.

          Such is the impact of grade inflation on the way that we view grades. What was once considered impressive has now become the status quo. As is true in all walks of life, it is difficult to stand out when surrounded by excellence: grade inflation has shifted the definition of a  “good grade” so high that true distinctive work is difficult to distinguish than what is just above-average, or even average—all three might receive an A. Conversely, now that the floor has been raised, subpar grades hurt much more than before. In a school where a large portion of the student body is achieving A’s, a B- sticks out like a sore thumb and paints a damning picture in regards to that student’s academic ability.

          We feel the effects of grade inflation most palpably in the college admissions process. While personal essays and teacher recommendations do play a part when applying to college, grades are the most important thing on a student’s application, which in and of itself makes total sense: High-prestige colleges will only accept the students who they believe equipped to handle the academic rigor of their institution, and a student’s grades are the best way to measure that. However, with the already-low acceptance rates of many high-end universities decreasing over recent years, getting into a prestigious school seems almost impossible. Because sky-high grades are the new norm, a near-perfect high school resume doesn’t make you a strong contender for high-end colleges in the same way it might have done a decade ago, it merely puts you in consideration amongst the thousands of other students who boast GPAs above a 4.0. In a world where the grade range has shifted to the extreme, one bad term where your grades are less than perfect for whatever reason can effectively end your aspirations of admission to your dream school. In the wake of grade inflation, our transcripts have only become more direct indicators of how bright our futures are allowed to be.

          Our everyday interactions buckle under the weight we place on grades  at Lawrenceville, whose students pride themselves on their achievements in the classroom, a GPA defines one’s identity as much as the sport one plays or their status as a musician. This is not to say that students have never taken pride in their grades, or that they don’t do so now, but rather we use our GPA’s as a proxy to inform our sense of self worth. As a result, in assessing the characters and intellect of others, we fail to differentiate between  “a person of high intellect” and “someone who gets good grades,” Students whose grades aren’t as high end up viewing themselves as lesser than their counterparts with better transcripts than them, and at a time where seemingly everyone is walking around toting a 3.8 or higher, students with lower scores can feel even more inadequate compared to their peers. Grade inflation and its consequences have permeated into all walks of life, both in and outside of the classroom. 

          Is there any hope for us Lawrentians in our fight against the importance of grades that has so directly impacted our lives for the worst? Of course there is, all we have to do is rid ourselves of  any preconceived notions that we might form about each other based on our grades, in addition to forming a campus-wide agreement to simply chill and never feel any stress in regards to grades ever again for the end of time.
The absurdity of that statement should speak for itself.

          Truthfully, students ultimately suffer from the side effects of a multi-decade-long culture shift, addressing these issues at their source is simply beyond our own capabilities. 

          We do however, have an obligation to mitigate the few effects of grade inflation that we have control over. Even if evidence points to the contrary, grades are not everything. We can’t become complacent in the classroom just because the A- we might have gotten on our most recent test is good enough to maintain our GPA. Additionally, schools are more than just a collection of classrooms and professors, the hobbies that we enjoy and the extracurricular activities we partake in outside of the school day are just as integral to our identities as students and warrant the same amount of respect that we have assigned to the letters on our transcript. By putting it on ourselves to deflate the importance of our grades when and where we can, we might be able to mitigate the control that they have over us.