by Arnav Harve, Staff Writer, December 2021
What do letter grades mean anymore? A C grade used to be the average, while A-minus and A grades were indicative of being at the top of the class. However, the dynamic around letter grades has changed, both at Nobles and high schools everywhere—suddenly, a C has become rare, particularly for end-of-term grades, while A-minuses and As are increasingly becoming the norm. These shifts might be a symptom of grade inflation: the practice of awarding higher grades than students deserve. As semester grades begin to pile in, the question of whether grade inflation exists at Nobles is becoming all too relevant.
“I think it’s everywhere. Honestly, I think it has permeated everything [at this school],” Mathematics Faculty Tilesy Harrington said in reference to grade inflation. Harrington explained that throughout her time at Nobles, she has seen a significant change in the school’s culture. In particular, the expectation among students of getting A-minuses and As has grown significantly. She has felt that every kind of class, from math to science to English, has seen higher grades among its students.
The current grading conditions are in stark contrast with previous years, in which lower letter grades were the norm. More than 20 years ago, Harrington and retired Science Faculty Robert Kern were the Class III coordinators, responsible for proofreading final grades and comments for students. “We were going through the end-of-year grades and comments, and it struck us that the GPAs were higher than we had felt they had been even the year before. […] It was clear that the grades were creeping up back then towards the B average, and I feel like now it’s even higher than that,” Harrington said.
Social Sciences Faculty Brian Day has also seen higher grades being given in his 20 years at Nobles, and noted how the school even had to raise the standards for the “High Distinction” and “Highest Distinction” awards because so many kids were achieving them.
One particularly notable example of higher grades being given is during the first quarter of senior year, when early round applications are sent out to colleges. Nathan An (Class I) has seen the effects of grade inflation firsthand. “If you’re on the border, [teachers] will bump you up. It’s kind of an unspoken agreement,” An said, also clarifying that he has only experienced this as a senior.
Day participates in this practice of bumping up senior grades for Quarter I. “If I think a kid will be doing better at the end [of the semester] than they may be doing right now, I’ll give them the better grade now because I know those grades are going to colleges and I want them to be able to put their best foot forward,” Day said.
Is this grade inflation? Day doesn’t think so, because the quarter grades are intended to be indicators of current performance; in most cases, the semester grade is what really matters, and in Day’s class, that will reflect the grade that students have actually earned. Students are appreciative of this practice. “Seniors are really busy with college applications and extracurriculars. [During] senior fall, it’s nice to have teachers be understanding and supportive,” An said.
Harrington believes that grade inflation exists, driven by the growing influence of college admissions and a student culture that expects higher grades. She points to a shift in the way grades are calculated, from a purely quantitative approach to a more holistic one that takes into account how hard students work and how much they care about the subject. “45 years ago, when I started, [the process] was: ‘These are your numbers. This is how you are going to do.’ And that’s changed a lot.” Day explained how he incorporates this approach to student assessment: “I don’t grade on class participation, because to me it’s grading on personality. […] My biggest [factor in grading] is that I want [students] to be focused and understand what’s going on in the conversation.”
Harrington doesn’t believe that there is an easy solution to the problem, particularly because grade inflation is so pervasive among other independent schools and high-achieving public schools. “Since inflation is everywhere, [students] would be at a disadvantage if we all of a sudden decided, ‘We’re going quantitative, and that’s it.’” Harrington said.
Day is uncertain about whether grade inflation actually exists at Nobles. Day said, “I think you get into trouble if you just start saying, ‘Grades are higher, so there has to be grade inflation.’ Because you’re not taking [into account] the variable of: ‘Are kids better students today than they were previously?” In his time at Nobles, Day has seen students perform better and better from when he started teaching, and he believes that this change in quality could be a crucial factor in why grades are going up.
The origins of grade inflation are unclear, but there is no doubt that grades have trended upwards in recent decades. In the midst of hyper-competitive college admissions and growing quality of students, however, is this really a bad thing? Students are certainly not complaining about it!