If You Want Good High School Grades, Move to Texas

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007 9:35 AM

Ten years ago, I had the good fortune to win the confidence of two energetic teachers, Cliff Gill and Don Phillips at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y. They told me exactly how they assessed their students.

Gill, a math teacher, was tough. If a student missed two homework assignments, five points were subtracted from the student's 100-point report card grade. A third missed assignment meant another five points off. Everyone at that school knew how hard it was to get an A in Mr. Gill's class.

Phillips, a social studies teacher, was easy. He called himself the Great Grade Inflator. If a student with poor writing skills did his best on a paper, Phillips was inclined to give the student just as high a grade as a top student who turned in college-quality work. About 90 percent of the grades in Phillips's history courses were 90 or above on that 100-point scale.

No one asked Phillips to raise his standards. No one asked Gill to ease up. Grading at Mamaroneck High, as at most of the public high schools I have visited, is considered the teacher's prerogative, a matter of academic freedom. A teacher who gives many F's may be pressured to raise some of those grades to keep parents happy, but that is about as far as principals will go in interfering with teachers' assessment decisions.

Robert M. Hartranft, a retired nuclear engineer in Simsbury, Conn., does not like this at all. He cannot understand why public school administrators, who so often declare their commitment to equal treatment of every student, put up with such outrageous and inexplicable variation in what remains the most important assessments their students get--grades on report cards.

Self-appointed education pundits like me spend much of our time talking about the standardized tests that are the basis for rating of schools under the No Child Left Behind law. But those test scores arguably have little impact on student lives. The scores don't count on their report cards.

Report card grades, on the other hand, can bring real pain. One of my friends has a child who last year passed the state tests for his grade with ease, but was told he had to repeat the year because his report card was so bad. SAT and ACT test scores have an impact on the college chances of students who apply to the most selective colleges, but 90 percent of colleges judge their applicants largely by classroom grades.

Hartranft, using College Board data, has produced some fascinating charts showing that grading standards not only vary from one classroom to the next, but among states. According to College Board surveys of members of the 2007 senior class who took the SAT, only 29 percent of students in Connecticut and Massachusetts had A-plus, A or A-minus averages, while 38 percent of students in New York and New Jersey, 39 percent in Virginia, 40 percent in California, 42 percent in Florida and a breath-taking 49 percent in Texas had grade point averages that high. In the United States as a whole, 43 percent of seniors who took the SAT reported A-plus, A or A-minus averages.

Remember, this is NOT the percentage of A students among ALL seniors, just those applying for college and taking the SAT. Most of the studies I have seen show that far more high school students have B averages than A averages, but there is no question that average grades have climbed in the last few decades and that consistency in grading is hard to find. A College Board spokeswoman agreed that grade inflation is real, but cautioned that Hartranft's data needs more analysis because he is comparing states with different SAT-taking rates.

"Because there are no effective standards," Hartranft told me, "local grades and local GPAs are a crazy-quilt of numerical values and systems, with variations by year (usually grade inflation), by school (New England schools generally grade lower than average, some much lower), by course (usually math and science low, art and music high), by track (the honors premium is always arbitrary and usually too small), by course (usually math and science low, art and music high) and by teacher (an easy-grading Mr. Y and a tough-grading Ms. X seem to teach at every school)."

He said it was vital to understand the problems these variations create. "Students may struggle with choosing between challenging courses with low grades or easy courses with high grades," he said. "Admissions officers and scholarship committee members may misunderstand the actual performance presented on the transcript, either making no adjustment at all or misestimating the appropriate adjustments. Expensive, time-consuming, standardized subject and year tests may overwhelm the full-year course grades in assessments."

Hartranft was first drawn to this issue 10 years ago, about the same time Phillips and Gill were explaining to me their yin-and-yang grading techniques. He became acquainted with other parents at Simsbury High School who determined that the school was grading its students very low when compared to other Connecticut high schools, and to American high schools in general. They complained about what this was doing to their children's chances for scholarships, regional academic honors and admission to their first-choice colleges.

When Hartranft began working on the problem in the summer of 2000, he noticed that SAT averages illumined different grading standards. For instance, Connecticut students who graduated in 2007 and reported an A-minus grade point average had an average math and reading score on the SAT of 1146. Texas students with that same grade point average had a SAT math and reading score of 1039. Why couldn't high schools that grade low add to their student transcripts and send to colleges a conversion chart showing how much higher the grades would be if they were pegged to a national standard based on SAT scores?

Simsbury High has been doing just that since 2003. But Hartranft and other people pushing the issue have had less luck persuading neighboring districts to do the same. Some of the high school educators they have approached have complained that their conversion chart is too hard to understand and might frustrate rather than impress college admissions officers.

Some researchers have been trying to educate school systems on this topic recently. Philip M. Sadler of Harvard and Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia report in the latest issue of the College and University Journal that high schools would provide a fairer and more consistent assessment of science courses--about which Sadler and Tai have a unique collection of data--if they added half of a grade point for an honors course, one point for an Advanced Placement course and two points for passing an AP exam.

Grading expert Ken O'Connor's book "A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades," published this year by the Educational Testing Service, argues for clear performance standards that each teacher and school would follow. He also recommends against grading on the curve, grading on attendance, grading on group work and several other common practices that help make report cards so confusing and so different.

Unfortunately, Sadler, Tai and O'Connor do not explain how frustrated parents such as Hartranft can persuade their schools to do any of these things. In Montgomery County, the school system attempted some grading reforms a few years ago--including reducing the influence of homework on grading decisions--and sparked a huge controversy that is likely to keep that school board from endorsing anything like Hartranft's plan any time soon.

My view is that despite these egregious inconsistencies, students' grade point averages in the end almost always reflect their high school work accurately enough to let colleges and scholarship committees reach fair decisions, particularly with SAT and ACT scores to provide national comparisons. But I share Hartranft's frustration with a system that forces students to accept assessment schemes as radically different as Gill's and Phillips's. Simsbury school district Superintendent Diane Ullman said she agrees and is working to standardize teacher grading in each subject, perhaps even having all of them give the same final exam.

Just being a teenager is enough to drive anyone over the edge. We ought to look for a way to persuade teachers to surrender some of their independence in this area in order to ease their students' psychic burdens so they can devote their energies to studying and not to figuring out how to be one kind of student in their math teacher's class and an entirely different person in social studies.

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