What is in a Grade?

What is in a Grade?

David Wagner and Angel Zheng

Sometimes, the letter attached to the report cards can seem more important than the information being taught in a class. But what do grades really mean? Some will tell you it is a measurement of their knowledge in a particular subject, others that it is a gauge of their motivation, and others that it is their ticket into college. Students spend hours cramming just to bump an 89.4% to an 89.5%. The difference between a “B+” and an “A-” is a fraction of a percentage point, yet makes all the difference in the final grade. Some students report that their entire High School experience—every homework assignment, paper, and test—is summarized in a single number: their GPA. But how well do grades actually represent individuals as students?

As the number of applications for college dramatically increases, high school students are facing tougher competition. Many students do not know what to focus their efforts on: grades, extracurriculars, or sports? Attempting to balance them can cause burnout and create massive amounts of stress. What even is a good grade? In some classes it may seem easy to get an “A,” while in others a “C” is the norm.

This phenomenon can be partially explained by various expectations of teachers; a grade means different things to different teachers. Matthew Patton, a US history teacher at State High, described a grade as “an imperfect approximation of a student’s learning—an imperfect measurement.”

Patton explained how, to him, a grade should not necessarily exceed the expectations of the class. “In every course, it will measure different things—the priorities of the course,” said Patton. “But my personal opinion is that this is not a competition between students. Grades do not represent relative ranking.”

There have always been speculations about how fair the teachers actually grade. In response, Patton expressed that there will always be unfairness because the grading system is an imperfect way of judging performance.

English teacher Mary Lou Manhart agreed that the current grading system has flaws. “A grade is largely a reflection of the values of the teacher,” said Manhart, providing organization and timeliness as examples of teacher values. Manhart suggested the education system adopt a framework of values to help cut back on grading discrepancies between teachers.

“I’ve always felt that fairness is in the eye of the beholder,” said Dana Zuhlke, another English teacher. “I try to have a system that is fair to all students as it can be.”

For students who wish to go to more selective colleges, grades often seem to be the most important part of the college admissions progress. Senior Gopal Jayakar expressed his opinions on how colleges view grades. “Although I feel like now more and more colleges are putting less emphasis on grades and more on who you are as a person, your personal interest, hobbies, and your personality, I still think your grade is an important aspect of your transcript,” said Jayakar.

But what do colleges actually think about grades?

While there is no definitive answer to this question, colleges do consider the implications of a grade, including one’s academic ability and motivation. Dr. Christian Brady, Dean of Penn State Schreyer Honors College, explained that an “A” from one school may not necessarily be of equal weight to an “A” from another school.  “We receive from the high schools a pretty detailed description of their grading practices and what curriculum is on offer,” said Brady. “We really do a very close analysis of each transcript. So it’s not like a student from State High is competing with a student from Podunk, Texas, head to head in that respect.”

Brady went on to say a 3.6 GPA from a rigorous prep school may be impressive to admissions officers, while the same GPA from State High may not receive such attention.

Brady also expressed that students sometimes overestimate the importance of their GPAs. “You could have a 4.0 GPA, but that might be because you’ve taken eight AP courses and gotten B’s in them. So just looking abstractly at the number of 4.0, doesn’t tell us whether or not you’re really a good student.”

However, grades are not unimportant or trivial during the admissions process. Brady stressed the importance of a “balanced life.” While extracurriculars are important, they do not replace a lack of academics. “It’s not an either or,” said Brady. “We really need to see both and from the admissions side of it, that’s the reality. We need to see that full complete package.”

Students are beginning to notice this fact as well. “More and more, it looks like colleges are taking every part of an applicant’s life into account,” said Jayakar. “Everything from your classes to your activities to your personal background counts.” Jayakar also believes what the colleges looks for places an unfair amount of pressure on students to exceed in every sphere of life.

Tejas Wein, sophomore, agreed with Jayakar. “I think that it puts stress on students because there is no ‘clear path’ to the correct personal life,” he said. Wein then expressed that there were many problems that could limit students from achieving a well-rounded life outside of school. For example, some students may have less control over their personal life due to family commitments, and some cannot afford to participate in extracurriculars.

The push for a “complete package” seem to have both negative and positive aspects depending on the student. “It makes it more fair for people who are more outgoing to be considered for colleges,” said Amber Lucas, sophomore. “But for introverts, it is more difficult to get the experience and requirements colleges looks for.” Most of the activities offered in schools usually involve interaction between students. For people who are either uncomfortable or shy toward meeting other people, it can be very difficult to participate in one of those activities. 

Grades are important, but perhaps not as important as many students make them to be. Colleges often look for much more than a person’s academic performance—especially the amount that can be determined from a grade. Although they still consider the grades of students, colleges also look deeper into a student’s life within and outside of school.