High school seniors today overwhelmingly graduate with honors, raising questions about the value of an A or a B and forcing college admissions officers to use various yardsticks to measure applicants.

There is no statewide centralized data on Maine grade point averages, but a Press Herald review of a half-dozen schools in Greater Portland buttressed the notion that Maine mirrors national findings that GPAs have soared over the last several decades.

Over the last five years at these schools, the average cumulative GPA was at least 85 percent, or a B. Well over half of the graduates had at least a B average and about one in four graduates had an A average.

That’s actually below the national average. Nationwide, almost half of graduating seniors in the Class of 2016 had an A average, and the average overall GPA is 3.4, researchers found. It’s a big change over time, and savvy college admissions officers, aware of the trend, are taking steps to adjust their evaluation of prospective students.

“Once reserved for the top performers in a typical high school classroom, A grades are now the norm rather than the exception,” wrote Michael Hurwitz, with the College Board, and Jason Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, in “Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions,” published this year by Johns Hopkins Press.

The two researchers reviewed almost 20 years of transcripts of high school graduates up to 2016 and found the average GPA increased from 3.27 to 3.38 – with 3.33 being the upper range of a B-plus. A graduate with a 3.33 or above generally graduates “with honors.”

The big concern: If everyone is getting such good grades, how do you distinguish one honors student from another? How does a student stand out for a college admissions officer – or a financial aid officer?

In an arms race with financial impact, a grading system that skews so many students so high on the most fundamental measure of achievement is not just an intellectual exercise.

“It is now harder than ever to distinguish between the academic performance of different students within the same classroom or school,” Hurwitz and Lee wrote.

WHAT PROMPTED GRADE INFLATION?

While it doesn’t pass the straight-face test to say students today are smarter, or schools that much more effective, educators say many factors play a role in increasing GPAs, not all of them negative.

Most experts trace the roots of grade inflation to the education reform movement sparked by the Reagan administration and its landmark “A Nation at Risk” report, which included dire warnings about America’s lackluster schools and uninformed high school graduates. There was a push to have students learn more, achieve more – and teachers and school districts shifted learning to be focused on that goal. Certainly that focus lifted the grades of some students. At the same time, more students were being urged to pursue college, which meant they needed the grades to get into college.

Later, as college costs soared, good grades became critical for qualifying for student aid or admission into competitive schools and programs.

Grading is inherently subjective, despite testing. Teachers decide how much of a grade is determined by tests or papers – and how much is for “class participation” or whether to allow students to improve a grade through extra credit. Students can game the system – maxing out extra credit opportunities, picking easier academic courses to ensure higher grades, or picking teachers who are known as easy graders.

Many high schools also use “weighted” grades, which gives additional credit to students taking advanced placement courses, resulting in final GPAs that exceed the traditional 4.0 system.

All of those factors result in a grading system that is inherently squishy.

“Those A’s and B’s, they don’t necessarily mean anything,” said Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who wrote “Rethinking Grading,” published in 2015. In her research she’s found “little consistency” in traditional grading systems.

“One teacher might give a lot of A’s. Or homework counts for 10 percent. One allows extra credit. Another is harsh and strict,” she said.

Pressure from parents also plays a role, she said.

“Then there’s the whole issue of parents freaking out when students don’t get A’s. They see the dollar signs in terms of college scholarships,” Vatterott said. “What I hear from teachers is that the parents are so adamant about the kids getting A’s and B’s that sometimes the teachers have intentionally changed what they are doing because the pressure from the parents is so overwhelming.”

RETIREE RESEARCHES PORTLAND HIGH

Molly Page, a junior at Portland High School, says she works hard to get good grades.

“It’s a personal choice. You have to do a lot of homework,” said Page, noting that her school offers daily study periods and extra help for students wanting to bring up their grades. “About half the class wants it, and half the class doesn’t.”

Page said she was surprised to hear how many of her classmates were getting all A’s and B’s on their transcripts. So was school board member Marnie Morrione, who learned about the high GPAs from Sam Rosenthal, a retired radar system engineer and Portland High graduate who researched the school’s honors graduation rates over time out of personal curiosity and presented his findings to the school board curriculum committee, which Morrione chairs.

“I didn’t realize it was so prevalent, not only within our own district but nationally,” Morrione said.

Rosenthal said he scoured graduation programs and newspaper clippings going back decades to put together a chart showing that for decades the percentage of students graduating with honors was between 20 and 35 percent, then spiked in the 1990s. It crested in 2001 at 87 percent.

His research could not be verified by the district, but Superintendent Xavier Botana said they did not question its validity either, “as we know that it’s true, it’s not unique to Portland and has multiple reasons, not all of them bad.”

A Press Herald review of the past five years of graduating Portland High school seniors’ data found that about 70 percent of all students graduate with honors.

That’s slightly higher than at Deering High School across town but lower than the surrounding schools such as Brunswick High School (80 percent), Greely High School in Cumberland (83 percent last year) and Cape Elizabeth High School (86 percent).

“Clearly the measure of a student’s skill set upon matriculation from high school is declining,” said Rosenthal, who volunteers several days a week in the Portland High School computer science class. And it matters, he said, because he doesn’t think the grades are a true reflection of what the students know or don’t know. And then there’s the hit on his pocketbook.

“If they are going to be increasing my taxes I would like to get a commensurate increase in the quality of education in the public school system,” Rosenthal said.

‘APPLES AND KUMQUATS RIGHT NOW’

It also matters because it can blur actual high achievement – which is critical for getting into college.

At the University of Southern Maine, where three out of four incoming students are from Maine, admissions officers rely on their local knowledge to decode transcripts. They visit all the high schools and have a good sense of what an A or a B is worth at any given school. They also analyze school profiles as well, to determine how applicants did in the context of their high school. Beyond that, students submit essays, SAT or ACT scores and other materials.

“There has been a shift,” said Nancy Griffith, the admissions head for USM. “It’s hard to measure the rigor and what the student is studying because of changes in course offerings.” One school’s basic keyboarding class might be described as an “information technology” course elsewhere.

“I think we do have apples and kumquats right now, compared to even 10 or 15 years ago,” she said. She’s noticed the increase in more graduates with honors, and at the same time high schools are increasingly not providing class rank as small numbers of top students battle over fractional differences in achievement. Some schools do not disclose class rank, because administrators want to ease competitive pressure and have students stand on their own achievements. “It’s become so controversial.”

The subjective nature of grading systems is one reason the state is moving to a proficiency-based diploma system, which takes effect statewide with the graduating class of 2021.

Under the new system, transcripts will be more explicit about what specific skills a student has mastered. Instead of a traditional transcript that notes a B-minus in statistics, a proficiency-based transcript would break down how well a student understands a half-dozen specific concepts in statistics, rating the student’s ability on each concept on a 1-to-4 scale.

“We’ll get a lot more information,” Griffith said.

‘FALSE PRECISION’ OF OLD GRADING SYSTEM

At a recent parents’ forum about the shift to proficiency-based learning and diplomas, Botana pointed out the “false precision” of the old grading system, which allowed students to boost their grades with extra credit, class participation or other factors that don’t measure raw academic knowledge.

“We’ve all had experiences in a class with somebody known as a hard grader. When we’ve been in those situations we’ve pined for the teacher that our best friend took for that same class where if you did your classwork, participated in class and you did reasonably well on your midterm and final, you got an A,” Botana said.

“Today, we educators present an image of precision around student grades that doesn’t truly reflect their level of learning,” he said. “We make what I would call monumental decisions based on that false precision. The difference between a 99 percent and a 98 percent, and the way that we arrived at those differences is much more significant than the difference in the knowledge between those two students.”

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