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Grade inflation makes all kids above average, college officials find
from The Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 21, 2000

Remember how you used to scrape for grades in high school? When getting an A or maintaining a 4.0 average was something that set you apart from most of the class?

Nowadays, A students have a lot of company. And a 4.0 pales in comparison to the 4.4s, even 4.8s. some students earn. Does that mean today's kids are higher achievers? Not likely. Scores on college entrance exams have stayed the same over the last three decades. Yet grades keep getting better.

An annual survey by the University of California at Los Angeles and the American Council on Education shows the number of incoming college freshmen who claim to be A students has increased steadily.

The low mark in the survey for straight-A students was 1969; when 12.5 percent of the freshmen were A students. This year's freshmen class has topped all. others, at 34.1 percent.

"I've been in some schools where a 3.0 grade average put you in the top 25 of a class five years ago. Now you are barely in the top half," said Kip Howard, director of admissions at Ohio University. The main reason for the soaring marks is grade inflation. The result is that an A is not what it used to be.

Grade inflation has been evolutionary, but the practices has taken off like the bullish stock market in the recent years.

It is driven by the students, parents and administrators who demand that teachers give high grades so that students can get into better colleges, land more scholarship money and allow districts to look better when compared to others. Grade inflation has so jumbled the value of point averages that colleges are relying less on them as they assess applicants.

"It is hard to believe there is not some of it going on," said Carl Gerbaski, vice president for enrollment management at Ashland University. Gerbaski said 9 percent of the 1988 freshman class had an A average. The number has shot up to 31 percent with this year's freshmen.

Lee Sommers, who is a retiring as dean of admissions at Malone College in Canton, said he noticed the trend pickup in the last 8 years.

"It has a lot to do with a greater percentage of students planning to go to college," he said. "It's grade proliferation. There is nothing else you can call it."

Higher grades, same scores

As the numbers of A's rise, along with grade-point averages, mean scores on ACT and SAT college admissions tests have moved little. The disparity has caused admissions offices to increase the significance of standardized test scores, even though the exams have been attacked as being biased against minorities.

"Its only national norm we have," said James McCoy, associate vice president for enrollment services at Miami University in Oxford.

More and more parents believe their children must attend college to succeed. And the better the school, they reason, the better the kids' chances. Many families need help paying the costs. Tuition, room and board at a state school is about $8,000 a year. The bill at a private school is often twice as high. Parents have become more demanding that their children get good grades.

"Families put more of a premium on performance because you need the grades to get into college," said Stanley Henderson, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Cincinnati. "We say to our kids, ‘It's not a choice, You have to go to college.' "

"There is more to gain now by having a higher grade-point average," said Paula Compton, senior director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Toledo. High expectations can cause problems in the high schools. Teachers are compromised as students, parents, administrators and the community at large push for higher marks. Grade inflation follows.

"I think there is a lot of pressure" said John Gladstone, dean of admissions and financial aid at John Carroll University and a former principal at Walsh Jesuit High School. Every school wants its students to be presented in the most favorable light, he said.

Teachers acquiesce

"The root cause is the pressure put on teachers, starting with individual students and mostly from parents," said Catharine Hart, a retired science and math teacher in the Copley-Fairlawn schools.

Hart said that when not enough kids are getting high grades, administrators suggest that teachers change their grading systems.

"After three to five years, everybody just gets tired of hearing it, and teachers go along," Hart said.

It happens in urban schools, too.

"There definitely is grade inflation. No doubt about it," said Louis E. Filippelli, who teaches at Glenville High School in Cleveland.

Filippelli contends it has been going on for 20 years and is done not just to make a B student an A student. "There's a lot of pressure on ‘I. teachers not to flunk kids. , Teachers are evaluated on grades. If you are a teacher with high standards and kids won't do the work or can't do the work, they are going to come down on you," he said. "One thing I have found out. Most parents don't give a hoot about standards. Most only care about the grade."

Mahogany Gaynor, a freshman at the University of Akron, said she thought a lot of grades received by her classmates at Collinwood High School in Cleveland were higher than they should have been.

"Some teachers pass you just to pass you, to cover them selves," she said.

Gaynor said she didn't do any work in her last English class. Still, she got a B.

Then Gaynor, who said she had a 3.5 average at Collinwood and was ranked in the top 20 of her class, was placed in a remedial English class at Akron.

"It wasn't a shock," she said. "I probably needed it."

Certainly not all students believe there is grade inflation. Art Toth, also an Akron freshman, said he saw no evidence of it at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. Toth's 3.4 average put him in the top fourth of his class.

"I think the grades reflect a student's knowledge of the material at Hoban," the Norton native said.

Honors inflation

Other factors driving up grade-point averages are honors programs and advanced placement courses that allow high school students to earn college credit. Students in an honors class generally earn an extra half point, meaning an A would be good for 4.5 points on the traditional 4.0 grading scale. The bonus can be 1 point in an advanced placement class.

"Many of our kids will have a 4.4 and 4.3 averages," said Dennis Allen, the Rocky River schools superintendent who also has led the North Olmsted and Hudson systems. "In Rocky River, more than half of our kids are in an honors track."

Grade inflation is talked about within professional organizations, but there is no move contemplated to stop it.

"I'm not seeing it as a hot topic in Ohio," said Patricia Jorgensen, president of the Ohio Association of College Admission Counselors.

Jorgensen works at Centerville High School, near Dayton. The school sends 95 percent of its graduates on to some kind of higher education. She said the GPAs of the school's top-rated students are in the range of 4.6- 4.8 on a 4.0 scale. She said the averages could be defended.

"When you look at their transcripts, they've got all those honors courses," she said.

But the higher grades posted by students don't jibe with the relative flat line on standardized ACT and SAT scores. The average national ACT score only began rising in 1990, when the test was reconfigured. The ACT range of score is l-36. The SAT range is 200-800 for each of its two sections.

"We have dumped more and more money into education, but the proof of the testing is, we haven't gotten any better," Sommers said.

The disparity of the numbers caused ACT Inc. in Iowa City, Iowa, to explore the notion of grade inflation.

"There was never really a lot of hard-core information out ‘there. We figured, let's look and see how bad it is, or is it an urban myth?" said Robert L. Ziomek, director of research services.

"To our amazement, not only did we find there was grade inflation, but the shocking matter was the difference in grade patterns coming from various schools."

"A" students who are average

Ziomek said A students from under performing schools were getting the equivalent of a C+ in the ACT.

"Parents value having a National Honor Society kid and one with a 3.5 average, but along comes the ACT and they get a 14 to 16. If you want more rigor and more honesty, then an A better mean an A," he said.

Wayne Camara, executive director of research for the College Board, which administers the SAT, said A+ students in 1989 scored an average of 623 on the verbal part of the test and 631 in math. In 1999, the numbers were 613 in verbal and 627 in math.

"Schools that 20 years ago sent 20 percent of their kids to college now are sending 75 percent," Camara said. "It is somewhat natural that teachers make sure kids get admitted. Schools take pride in that."

Camara said more kids are taking calculus and physics. and knowledge gleaned from those subjects is not necessarily measured in the SAT.

"I personally believe students are being pushed to higher standards today, being challenged more than previously, but in basic ability and reasoning skills, they are about the same," he said.