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Grading Scales: At the Margin, It’s Got to Matter

January 3rd, 2009 . by economistmom

A front page story in today’s Washington Post focuses on the tougher grading scale that high schools in Fairfax County, VA (where my kids go to school) use:

Fairfax high school students are required to earn at least 94 percent to earn an A and at least 64 percent to pass a class. Most school systems in the country use a 10-point scale, meaning that 90 percent gets an A and 60 is a passing grade. Many already give students’ GPAs a bigger boost for more challenging courses.

It seems that the Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent, Jack Dale, wants to recommend that the school system keep its stricter standards, because a report released yesterday didn’t prove that the those tougher-to-get As hurt Fairfax County students’ chances of getting into colleges (emphasis added):

The 120-page report — the product of more than 1,800 hours of staff time, a $30,000 consultant’s fee and thousands of hours from parent volunteers — compared the GPA distribution in Fairfax to those of 35 schools using a 10-point scale and found that Fairfax students consistently had lower grades.

Parents argue that their students are earning some of the top SAT scores in the country and spending extra hours studying for college-level classes but are not getting the grade-point averages that reflect their abilities or efforts.

For those Fairfax students who scored between a 1200 and 1249 on the math and verbal sections of the SAT, only 5 percent had a GPA of 4.0 or higher, the report found. That compares with 27 percent of non-Fairfax students who scored above the straight-A mark.

“Right now, we are not even in the ballpark,” said Louise Epstein, a gifted-student advocate and one of the founding members of FAIRGRADE, the parent group that has worked to change the grading scale and give students more credit for advanced courses.

Surveys of more than 60 college admissions officers showed that GPA is only one element that admissions officers consider and that the rigor of the students’ classes and their SAT or ACT scores are also important. Admissions officers say that grades in the core classes, such as math and science, are given top consideration. But the report could not find clear evidence that students graded with 10-point scales had more success in admissions.

The study found stronger results that GPAs that reflect extra credit are a primary factor in determining who earns merit scholarships and who gains entrance into honors programs.

Now, I don’t know what kind of statistical analysis was done for the report, but just based on my fuzzy familiarity with the econometrics I once learned and practiced, and the last sentence quoted above, and the recognition that the threshold to cross into qualifying for a merit scholarship or college honors program is much higher than the threshold to get admitted, I would say this is prima facie evidence that Fairfax County’s tougher grading scale is penalizing high-achieving Fairfax County kids, at the margin.  In fact though, I think it suggests the tougher grading scale has to be mattering at the margin at the lower achievement levels and thresholds as well.  In the case of Fairfax County, I’m sure that the lower GPAs might not seem to hurt kids’ admissions so much (at first “statistical blush”), because the standardized test scores and high family incomes (and all the perhaps unmeasured benefits associated with those high incomes) tend to make up for it.  (This is what econometricians and statisticians call “simultaneity bias.”)

So while I’m glad that Superintendent Dale is considering some sort of proposal to (brute-force) adjust grades for the highest achievers (”Dale said he would propose that Fairfax students get a bump in their grade-point average when they complete honors and college-level classes to make them more competitive”), I’m not sure the report justifies his decision to keep the overall grading system the same.

I also don’t agree with this reasoning against moving to the 10-point scale:

Fairfax school officials have argued that lowering the bar could lead to grade inflation.

“Grade inflation,”as I have always understood it to mean, is subjectively lowering standards for each letter grade, like “grading on a curve”–and hence is an issue of relative, not absolute, measurement.  Grade inflation can occur under any absoulte grading scale.  If anything, the knowledge that Fairfax County’s grading scale is absolutely harder (compared with the other school districts in the state and around the country) should lead Fairfax County teachers to tend to subjectively adjust the way they assign letter grades in their individual classes to “make up for it.”  I have casual empirical evidence from the mouths of some of my children that this is informally practiced by some Fairfax County high school teachers.  In other words, grade inflation is more likely to occur when teachers feel the absolute grading system is somehow “unfair”–in other words, under the tougher, not weaker, grading standards.

And whether it’s admissions that are affected, or just qualifying for the honors programs or merit scholarships, let’s face it, it all matters at the margin, especially now with the economy as bad as it is and the cost of a college education as high as it is.  So Fairfax County Public Schools, I say lower your standards!  Our over-achieving kids are hard enough on themselves (like parent, like child) as it is!

11 Responses to “Grading Scales: At the Margin, It’s Got to Matter”

  1. comment number 1 by: Bill Greenlaw

    Interestingly, my school district struggles with a variant of this problem. Here, at the Delaware Valley School district in Milford, Pa, advanced placement (AP) classes are graded on a 5 point scale if the student takes the AP exam. In a recent board meeting it was indicated that the colleges are able to tune out the inherent grade inflation (you can graduate with an average of more than 4.0 on a 4.0 scale). The real statistical dilemma is the goal of the no child left behind act where 100% of children will soon have to be “proficient” to be in good standing. Garrison Keillor was right, “…all the children are above average.”

  2. comment number 2 by: Hmmmmm

    Thank you for posting this. Superintendent Dale is so wrong and hardheaded on this issue. I know that no matter what the report stated, he would never change the grade scale. Same thing with the High School starting times. No matter how many studies there are showing the problems of starting at 7 am, Fairfax County always conducts a study that shows otherwise or basically just ignores the recommendations of their own studies. I don’t understand what the school board could possibly be thinking on this issue. I am going to email your column as a link to them for their own information.

  3. comment number 3 by: Arne

    I think teachers should make tests harder. It should be hard for an A student to get 90 percent. If the average score is 50 percent it spreads the results to get the greatest differentiation, it lets students know there is always room for improvement, and it demonstrates that getting 90 percent is NOT meaningful in and of itself.

  4. comment number 4 by: allie

    really mom i didn’t know you were one of those people who thought it should be 90-100 because i have straight a’s with 94-100 so obviously it is not that hard. and for the end of this year i am just going for a b+ in math, so i only have to get 90-100, and i seriously do not try at all it is so easy. and i still take hard classes. i think 90-100 would definitely be grade inflation and i think that hardly anyone should be able to get straight a’s.

  5. comment number 5 by: allie

    plus all the teachers said they would make the tests harder if the grading scale was changed

  6. comment number 6 by: allie

    and so i think all the other counties should change their scale to match ours instead

  7. comment number 7 by: Bill Greenlaw

    Any scale is only relative, or useless. Class rank is a better indicator, but the difficulty of course work must be examined. This is why colleges use a combination of GPA, class rank, AP classes, AP exam scores, extracurricular activities, community involvement, SAT’s, ACT’s, letters of recommendation, letters from peers, essays, personal interviews, among other factors for admissions. There is no perfect or absolute predictor of success in college or success in life.

    The only absolute: no matter what the system it will be seen as unfair by some.

  8. comment number 8 by: Thomas Dodd

    I had a 94-100=A scale until college, worked fine. It wasn’t and even 6pt scale either, but a normal distribution st the range for a B was large and a C larger still.

    The real problem is using/converting to a 4.0 style system. The goal is not to have more kids score an A, it’s to teach them the material.

    The schools using 10point scales need to change and stop inflating their students GPAs (out of 4.0).

    Of course the teacher have a lot of control too. They can fit the scores to what ever distribution they want.

    I had several teacher that would shift the median or mean score to a given number. Other just raise all score evenly so that the highest score on the class was a middle A (so 96 or 97). I don’t remember any teacher fitting to a normal distribution though., as that would lower grades a lot of the time.

  9. comment number 9 by: Julie

    Something everyone is forgetting. Kids that normally score in the upper ranges would score there regardless of a 5 point or 10 point scale. There the average students that are squeezed out of the A’s and B’s and then there are the “No Left Behind” rules. I do believe that many students are being left behind because of the 5 and 6 point grading scales.

  10. comment number 10 by: Lois Conroy

    I liked your article on grading scales. I grew up on a 10 point scale and taught 16 years on the 93-100 scale in middle TN. Presently, my son attends the city system in west TN. He is on 95-100 scale until he reaches the county system. The county is on a 7 point scale. He is an excellent student. He maintains A’s and B’s. I feel for other students.I am looking for research on high grading scales and the effects on students achievement. My goal is to make a change. Locals and teacher attitudes are “”it’s always been this way.”
    I have been a teacher. The high scale sets elementary title one children up for failure. Here is an example. The teacher gives a 10 item quiz. He misses 1 and gets a 90 B, (88-94); misses 2 80 C,(80-87) and misses 3 70 F, (below 75).
    Could you help me find additional research. Thanks, Lois Goad Conroy

  11. comment number 11 by: southfork67

    I would like to know who has changed there grading scale. If so how did it affect all students. positives/negatives please.