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How High Are Your Grades?

An In-Depth Look at Grade Inflation in Loudoun County

By Meilan Solly

In an area where many students’ end goal is to receive an acceptance letter from top schools such as the University of Virginia, there is little question that high achievement is the norm. But when students at the top of their class have GPAs upwards of 4.5 on what was once a 4.0 scale, there are several questions which need to be asked. Most importantly, why are grades in Loudoun County so high?

According to data provided by school profiles, 33% of LCPS high school seniors in the class of 2013 had a GPA in the A-range of 3.7 to 4.3+. Comparably, a National Assessment of Educational Progress study found that in 2009, the average GPA nationwide was a 3.0, or B-equivalent, on a 4.0 scale. One explanation for LCPS’ high percentage of strong grades is grade inflation, defined by the ACT program as “an increase in students’ grades without an accompanying increase in their academic achievement.” This topic was discussed in Loudoun last year when allegations surrounding administrator misconduct at Loudoun Valley High School surfaced. According to a Leesburg Today article by Danielle Nadler, administrators were accused of bullying teachers into changing students’ grades. One teacher was even cited as saying, “The C is the new F at our school.” The issue is currently under investigation.

Opinions differ as to whether grade inflation is present not just in Loudoun County, but at Tuscarora. Principal Mrs. Pamela Paul-Jacobs said, “We go above and beyond to make sure students get fair grading practices … I don’t see any grade inflation going on here at Tuscarora High School,” while history teacher Mr. Nathan Gough said, “I think grading policies are relatively fair right now.”

In a survey conducted of 25 Tuscarora teachers, however, 88% stated that they thought grade inflation was common in Loudoun County. Of the three teachers who did not think grade inflation was common, one said they had not been teaching long enough to tell, another said they were unsure what the level of grade inflation was across the county (although they believed it was present at Tuscarora), and the third said, “The only grades we inflate are at the low end of the scale – we don’t give less than a 50% for semester grades.” As for students, most had experienced grade inflation. Junior Laura Vasquez said, “Grade inflation is everywhere in every single class.”

In interviews and responses to the teacher survey, commonly cited examples of grade inflation were GPA bumps for taking honors, dual enrollment, or AP courses; “fluff” assignments including busy work; lenient late policies; test retakes and corrections; the change from a 7-point grading scale used until the 2009-10 school year to the 10-point grading scale used today; and the grading floor which does not allow students to earn lower than a 50% except in the 4th quarter. It is important to note that these are not all county policies – in particular, test retakes and corrections are a Tuscarora policy which, according to Mrs. Jacobs, “gives students the opportunity to correct and work towards mastery as all the leading research shows is good for kids.”  

Sophomore Ryan Wilson described his experience with grade inflation by saying, “I’ve had some teachers in the past who have given … a lot of completion assignments and homework, and eventually those all add up and your grade begins to inflate, and it doesn’t accurately reflect your knowledge and performance in a class.” Vasquez had similar experiences with grade inflation and concluded, “Some may call it an incentive, but if you care about your education and learning any type of material, you shouldn’t need an incentive.”

Another way of looking at the level of grade inflation in Loudoun County is through school profiles, which show GPA distribution. While these numbers are not wholly indicative of grade inflation, they do provide a general idea of how many students have “above average” (B- and up) GPAs. At Tuscarora, 27% of the class of 2013 had GPAs in the A-range (3.7-4.3+), while 72% had GPAs in the A or B range (2.7-4.3+). The highest percentage of A’s is found at Briar Woods High School, where 50% of seniors had A-range GPAs, while the lowest is found at Park View, where 18% had A-range GPAs. Colleen Heberle, senior, describes the upward trend by saying, “When C is supposedly the benchmark for ‘average,’ this many of our students shouldn’t have above a 4.0 …The ‘average student’ no longer has a C average.”

If grade inflation is indeed present in Loudoun County, what causes it? According to senior Elishama Michel, “The underlying cause stems from the inner triangle encompassing parents, students, and teachers, where the pressure to do well is at its greatest.” One of the teachers surveyed said, “The pressure from parents is fierce! They demand late work to be counted, even 10+ weeks late, and they attempt to negotiate the grades. There is a lack of work ethic that is astounding … These students feel entitled to A’s, yet they haven’t put forth A-level work.” A 2003 CBS article entitled “High school grades hit by inflation” offered another cause, saying, “Grade inflation has been increasing because of all the pressure on teachers from students and parents to help them become more competitive for college.”

While grade inflation is largely seen as a problem (One teacher said, “It is going to be a slap in the face when students have to work, meet deadlines, study on demand and not at their ‘own pace.’ Their self-esteem will be destroyed when they realize they are average or below average.”), seniors Georgia Underhill and Heberle both see its positive side. Underhill said, “There’s nothing wrong with grade inflation because we live in a really, really competitive area, and if it’s going to help us get good grades and into a good college, why not?” Heberle added, “If Loudoun County works to ban inflation in our one county the students will suffer with admissions to college. All counties in the U.S. have grade inflation. If our one county decided to start grading realistically … we won’t receive a second look.”

On the whole, however, most individuals, particularly teachers, thought the consequences of grade inflation far outweighed the positives. Tim Strykiewicz, senior, said, “It makes a student feel like they’re a lot smarter when they have high grades and high GPA even though that doesn’t reflect intelligence at all because it’s a bunch of busy work.”  In general, students and teachers both stated that LCPS students are not prepared for college anymore; one teacher explained, “[Students] have stopped learning how to learn, how to explore, how to problem solve … because they are just chasing points to raise grades. It has little to do with actually being educated anymore. Then they get to college, without all the support from high school, and they flounder.”

College (and not just any college, but some of the top ranked nationwide) is the main goal for many high achieving students in Loudoun County. Some students believe they are prepared for college because they excelled in high school, but if grade inflation is indeed present, many are not as ready as they believe. One Tuscarora teacher shared, “I hear, consistently, from returning seniors/graduates that they are not prepared for college and they struggle.” An adjunct English professor at a major state university, who preferred to remain anonymous, reinforced this idea.

“I definitely see negative effects of grade inflation,” the professor said. “It seems to me that students don’t always take assignments seriously because they assume they’ll receive at least a C, and even if they receive a D, they’ll pass.” This may be the case in high school, but as the professor explained, policies differ greatly in college. Assignments are often weighted, meaning students cannot do the “bare minimum” homework and still earn high grades, and many instructors do not allow students to make up work at the end of the semester. However, despite these differences, the professor emphasized that succeeding in college can be simple if students take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. These can include Writing Centers and tutoring, but most important is communication. “Professors can certainly be intimidating, but I have the utmost respect for students who show their dedication to the class by coming to see me, and I will go out of my way to help,” the professor concluded.

Anna Cho, class of 2013, is currently a first year at the University of Virginia, and she offered this perspective: “Regardless of whether or not I felt grade inflation throughout my career in high school, I would say that college is a different ball game from high school. The courses are more difficult, and the professors have higher expectations … Opportunities for extra credit, test corrections, and make-up assignments are rare, unlike in high school. But a challenge is necessary.”

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