When Math Teacher Frank Sousa has students coming to him crying after getting an A- on a test, it only reinforces his belief of a flawed mindset surrounding grades at ASL. In his experience, students feel as if they are obligated to receive A’s “and if they don’t, they are a failure.”
In Sousa’s opinion, not only can this create a cultural fear 0f failure, but it can change the very nature of education as students no longer strive for greater depth of knowledge, but instead for the red letter written at the top of their page. “Compared to other schools I have worked for, everyone seems to be on edge all the time about the grade,” Sousa said. “It is always about the grades.”
Some 30 years ago the mentality pertaining to grades would shock many students in school today. When Solange Kidd (’85), now a Middle School Languages Teacher, was in high school at ASL, “If you got a C it was not the end of the world; a C was not regarded as something really terrible,” she said. “If you got C’s on your report card or [on assignments] it was not something you immediately needed to change.”
Since then, the balance and distribution of letter grades has changed dramatically, with scales tipping towards elevated grades, giving way to a rise in grade inflation, a phenomenon that is prevailing in outstanding institutions around the world.
Grade inflation is not a trend unique to ASL in any way; it appears to be occurring worldwide. At Harvard University in 1969, only 7 percent of students achieved a letter grade above an A-. in comparison to today, where the most common grade is an A, and the median is an A-.
While the Class of 2015 shares few similarities with Harvard students, the two share an over- arching theme of students primarily receiving A letter grades.
According to statistics gathered by Academic Advising, in the English discipline, the class had a total of 142 A’s followed by 100 B’s and four C’s. In World Languages, the grade distribution was of a similar nature with 79 A’s, 47 B’s and only one C. In all subjects not one student achieved below a C grade.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction Roberto d’Erizans, who has worked at the school for five years, has observed this phenomenon at ASL. “In the High School I first noticed it [in my first year here] because, as a new teacher and a new department head, I noticed that whenever I gave less than a B it was a monumental affair,” he said.
From the grading perspective, d’Erizans confirmed that, within ASL, grading typically leans towards the higher end of the spectrum. “We lean more toward the top grades than we do in the middle,” he said. “We tend to grade mostly A’s and B’s.”
College Counselor John Reilly believes the issue stems from rising competition to get into university. “Because more students are applying [to] a university with the same number of seats and the same number of beds they had 10 years ago, [universities are] now receiving more applications,” he said. “Therefore they are more selective and as such are the metrics by which they evaluate rigor of program, grades, test scores, essays.”
Reilly believes the rising competitive nature of the college application process could be one of the reasons for grade inflation. “You will find a C is just not satisfactory for a lot of students and a lot of families,” he said.
Kidd also recognized that when she was a student at ASL, the High School operated within more of its own microcosm. Now, she believes that it is more exposed to other preparatory schools; a possible cause of grade inflation. “I think ASL is comparing itself more to maybe stateside prep schools, very academic prep schools, and trying to be at that level,” she said.
Whereas today Kidd sees the school as quick to compare itself to other distinguished preparatory institutions, when she reflects on the ASL of her student days, she remembers it as more of a “unique entity”; thus, the grades were more internalized, determining average and excellent standards only from within.
On the other hand, some current students, including Roxy Sammons (’17), observe grade inflation not as an institution-wide issue, but on an individual basis as well.
Within each classroom, Sammons believes that the benchmarks for certain letter grades are not made clear to students, leaving teachers to create their own standards of average or excellent. Thus, “If a class gets a bad grade in general, the teacher usually boosts the grades of the class and therefore the grades that are on a lot of our transcripts don’t necessarily represent our learning accurately,” she said.
When Vishrut Nanda (’16) thinks about grade inflation, retakes are the first thing that comes to mind. “Students are given multiple opportunities to help their grade increase up to an A or a B although their performance in the class does not necessarily reflect that,” he said. “It’s made too easy for them and A’s and B’s are very achievable in those multiple attempts that they receive.”
At least three students interviewed cited the retake policies in various departments as a source of grade inflation.
Sammons also thinks teachers may experience pressure to ensure students are achieving certain letter grades. “Sometimes teachers have a lot of pressure to get students into good colleges and if the whole class fails on a test the teacher is going to do a curve,” she said. One of the issues Sammons pointed out with this system is that it can lead to students dependency on retakes to attain satisfactory grades.
Drawing on previous experience as a teacher, d’Erizans said that sometimes, there is pressure on teachers to make sure students are receiving certain grades. “When I was teaching, I felt pressure, like any teacher, but at this school less so actually than in other schools, to ensure students were getting good grades on APs and that students were getting good grades in general,” he said.
While he wouldn’t say there is direct pressure to award certain grades, Sousa feels he is compelled to give students as many chances as possible to succeed. “I don’t know that it is pressure, it’s more I have to give the student the opportunity to get a better grade if possible,” Sousa said.
While National Honor Society President Caroline Schneider (’15) agrees grade inflation could happen for a number of reasons, she also said, “I think it’s combined with the fact that ASL really does have excellent students and not only is it natural instinct and natural intelligence, [but] I think it’s also hard work.”
d’Erizans has another theory for why grade inflation may exist. He explained, “we have a [grading] system in which we mix a lot of different things. We mix effort sometimes, we mix homework sometimes… We have all of these different categories that we mix into what a grade is.”
d’Erizans wonders if the combination of all of these different components results in students with higher grades than they had in the past. With a greater emphasis placed on homework and formative exercises as opposed to summative assessments, students have more opportunities to improve their grades.
While the reasons for the development of grade inflation are ambiguous, what is more clear cut is the effect grade inflation has on students within the High School.
When grades are inflated to only show students at the upper end of the grade spectrum, the opportunity to fail and reflect can be taken away from students. “If you are constantly worried about grades and you are approaching things as ‘what can I do to get an A,’ you don’t always get that reflection as part of the process,” Reilly said.
In today’s college-driven high school experience, it is not uncommon for students to regard a C letter grade as failure. “My first thought or instinct is, ‘oh no, what is that going to look like to a college?’” Schneider said.
Kidd believes this can be especially dangerous as it can limit students the opportunity to make mistakes. “Especially teaching languages I feel that so much of learning language is about making mistakes, and about not getting it right the first time and having the confidence to then be able to keep trying and keep persevering and getting it in the end,” Kidd said.
Agreeing that the fear of failure can be particularly problematic, Assistant Principal Karen Bonthrone believes, “[issues can develop] around students being afraid to try things in case they don’t do well. If everybody is getting A’s and you’re not, then suddenly you’re a failure,” she said.
As this mentality continues to be the norm, a difficult question is facing many faculty members. For d’Erizans, it is a question of “how do we as faculty work with students on that growth mind-set, on the acceptance of failure as a learning tool?”
In Bonthrone’s opinion, many of today’s students are risk averse, valuing the grade they receive over everything else, even their education. Grade inflation is an active devaluation of learning. As Bonthrone put it, “if you’re getting everything right then you’re not learning.”