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When Everyone’s Super, No One Will Be

Cartoon by Emma Lu

Cartoon by Emma Lu

By Aren Kalash

You squirm in your seat as your teacher slowly makes her way down the aisle, handing back graded tests. Adrenaline surges through your veins, a bead of sweat forms on your temple, and your breathing quickens. Finally, your teacher pauses at your desk. She glances at your sheet for a moment, then at you, her face remaining devoid of all emotion as she hands over the exam. You slowly look down, anticipating the worst; 98 it reads. Relieved, you recline in your chair, nonchalantly displaying your test in the middle of your desk for others to gawk at. Yet as you peer over at other people’s papers you see an abundance of ‘A’s: 97, 92, 99, and even a few 100s. Then, in a moment of clarity, your pride wanes, and you realize that you’re not special.

Welcome to grade inflation. Grade inflation, defined as a rise in the average grade of students for given levels of achievement, is emerging as a widespread problem in schools across the United States. According to a 2011 study conducted by College Board, the grade point averages (GPA) of high school students across America have significantly risen over the past decade.

Grade inflation poses issues for students not only in their high school careers but also in their future pursuits. Grades serve to evaluate a student’s performance in particular subjects; hence, it should be expected that higher values reflect higher achievement. In the classroom, students who give in to the inflation-fostered facade of accomplishment expect to consistently perform well. On one hand, this sentiment may stimulate obsession over minute score differences, increasing competition and stress among students. On the other hand, this notion may encourage laziness, as students grow accustomed to receiving high marks without having to work very hard for them. Such confidence may also mislead students into believing that they are well-equipped for real world challenges, only to discover that, in actuality, they are not. A plethora of high GPAs could also complicate the college admissions process—an already difficult and stressful ordeal. An admissions officer might find it more difficult to properly select suitable candidates if GPAs are all extremely high or if a well-suited candidate has a GPA lower than a student whose school inflates grades has.

Even colleges themselves have succumbed to this scourge of superficiality. According to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University, the most commonly awarded grade among Harvard students is an A. Such inflation denounces the popular association between stringent grading and prestigious universities. This is not to say that an individual at one of these institutions, or at any school affected by grade inflation, should instead be punished for his/her hard work and brilliance, but an overvaluation of achievement skews the ratio of grades handed out, thereby benefiting less deserving individuals.

South has gradually yielded to this trend of inflation, with an observable increase in the percentage of senior GPAs in the A-A+ range over the last twelve years. According to past graduating class profiles, 22.9 percent of the GNS Class of 2004 had cumulative averages between 90-94, and 3.7 percent had GPAs of 95 and above. In contrast, 39.4 percent of this year’s graduating class have averages between 90-94 while 7.9 percent have GPAs of 95 and above. Additionally, the percentage of the senior class with averages of 79.9 and below has decreased from 25.3 to 7.2 percent from 2004 to 2016. Thus, it can be noted that inflation has indeed made a presence at South and currently affects—to some extent—the entire student body.

Some may argue that this data indicates that students have become smarter. While this notion can be neither confirmed nor denied with absolute certainty, the likelihood of grade inflation rather than augmented student intelligence is far greater. Granted, this generation does have access to a wide range of supplemental prep programs and tutoring courses, which helps individuals perform better, making them more competitive candidates for prospective schools. However, as the academic environment becomes progressively more competitive, teachers and schools may be more inclined to hand out higher grades to students as well. This elicits a perpetual question: Are all A students deserving of their As?

Although most students probably would not protest against more As on their tests and report cards, inflation should be curbed and discouraged in order to avoid its degenerative effects. However, finding and, more importantly, implementing a definitive solution to this issue are fairly difficult. Certain schools may choose to reform while other schools may not, giving students either a disadvantage or advantage in the college admissions process. Similarly, it is challenging to enforce change across various subjects with equal success. For example, English courses may base student averages largely off more subjective work, like essays, compared to math classes in which scoring may be more straightforward.

To counter grade inflation in its classrooms, Princeton University implemented a quota to limit the amount of awarded grades in the A range. Considering the competitive nature of the student body here at GNS as well as the school’s claim to academic excellence, a grade quota may only aggravate students, promoting an even greater fixation on grades.

Ultimately, lasting change cannot be forced. Teachers should be urged to revise some of their more lenient grading practices to make student averages more realistic and less misleading. Departments could implement more concrete grading policies to better differentiate A from B work. The school could report course averages alongside a student’s own scores on his/her transcript. Students themselves could also refrain from obsessing over grades as much as they are currently doing, which would in turn remove some of the pressure that catalyzes the onset of grade inflation. Ideally, a nationwide correction of grading systems might solve the issue, but the chances of successfully eliminating such a deep-seated academic construct are highly unlikely.

With no guaranteed reform in sight, students must continue to deal with the consequences of grade inflation. Hopefully, in the midst of annually rising GPAs of student bodies across the United States, particularly here at South, the coveted letter grade of an A will not come to stand for what overachievers most fear becoming—average.

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