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Has getting straight A’s lost some of its luster? High school grades are inflating

Host of factors makes B the new C, which is no longer ‘average’

SHARE Has getting straight A’s lost some of its luster? High school grades are inflating

At high schools across the country, more and more students are graduating with grade-point averages of A, including some whose averages are well above the traditional 4.0 for an A.

Grades — some weighted with extra points or fractions of points for taking harder courses — are getting so high that a solid B is becoming the new C, which years ago was considered average.

There's no one reason grades have gone up. Educators point to a host of factors, including grade inflation, competition for college admissions and the growth of Advanced Placement and other weighted courses.

But whatever the reason, three national reports this year agreed that high-school grades are higher than they used to be.

A college freshman survey — released in April by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA — said that the trend of grade inflation has continued "unabated" since 1987, noting that nearly half of freshmen reported high-school grade-point averages of A- or higher in 2006, compared with 19.4 percent in 1966.

A report on members of the Class of 2006 who took the SAT college entrance exam noted that grades have gone up, even though SAT scores haven't increased as much or have even dropped.

And a study of high-school transcripts and the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the Nation's Report Card — shows grades have risen without a similar boost in national test scores.

"I don't think there's any doubt there's tremendous grade inflation in various communities," said Kolia O'Connor, head of school at Sewickley Academy in Sewickley, Pa. The institution, which enrolls students in prekindergarten through grade 12, has a reputation for harder grading.

"We do students a disservice if we suggest their performance is at a certain level when obviously it may not be at that level," he said.

High-school grades have become so difficult to decipher that some colleges throw out the high school's calculations and compute their own grade-point averages. Washington & Jefferson College's formula, for instance, considers only core academic courses and does not weight them. "With thousands and thousands of applications coming in from high schools all over the country, we've got to find some way to standardize the comparison," said Alton Newell, vice president of enrollment at the Washington, Pa., school.

Mark King, superintendent of the Deer Lakes School District near Pittsburgh, said educators there noticed that some students' grades were higher than would be expected from the scores on their math and reading scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

So the district two years ago took two steps to bring the grades in line: Extra-credit work was banned, and teachers — some of whom had awarded as much as 40 percent of the grade based on homework — were limited to applying homework to no more than 15 percent of the grade.

"We're trying to make sure we reflect the true ability of the students when you give grades," said King.

"The PSSA is now holding us more accountable. If they're given an A, they deserve an A."

Some school officials worry that tough grading standards could hurt their students when competing for college admissions or scholarships.

But O'Connor said that Sewickley Academy's reputation for lower grades hasn't hurt its candidates. Its grade distribution is not publicly available, but only one of 76 seniors has an unweighted grade-point average of 4.0. Three have weighted averages above 4.0, the highest of which is 4.16.

Mick Zomnir, a senior at Sewickley Academy, appreciates tough grading. His 3.73 unweighted grade-point average was good enough for him to be accepted at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I think it's a definite plus in distinguishing Sewickley Academy in a positive way. I think it's a tremendous advantage for college."

When some colleges recalculate GPAs, they typically end up with lower results. But that doesn't mean the student is penalized for taking harder courses instead of going for easy A's.

"I would far rather have a kid with a 3.0 who has loaded up on advanced-level courses than a student who has a 3.4 in a lower-track curriculum," said Newell of Washington & Jefferson College.

"The students I worry about are the students who have taken the less-rigorous curriculum and have very, very good grades, and they come in and aren't well-prepared for the rigor."