The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Grade inflation at LM

Students and parents go “grade crazy” here at LM, and the pressure is only increasing.

LM students know the story all too well. Frantically reloading the PowerSchool homepage portal between classes, vigorously typing all-caps texts comparing scores, begging teachers for that one, paramount percent increase. There’s no doubt grades have a firm grip on students, often consuming their lives from September to mid-June. 

No matter how many times adults attempt to ingrain the idea that grades are not reflective of us as students, their words cannot quite overpower PowerSchool. In just a few seconds, you will know exactly how much your math grade dropped from the test—the one you barely had time to study for. You anxiously reload your English grade for days, in hopes that the last paper—which you had to crank out in two sleepless nights—will bump up that A-. 

With constant and instant access to grades, students are perfectly set up to define their academic success by the score on the screen. With such a prevalent indicator of student ability, stress around grades seems natural. As one teacher mentions, “grades are all students have that are their own,” they continue, “of course they’re worried about them.” Grades have become more than an indicator of knowledge. Hyperbolic as it might sound, they have become a part of many students’ identity.  As college admissions grow in selectivity each year, this pressure only grows. According to Forbes, though not explicitly required, there is a general consensus that Ivy League admits have a GPA of 4.0 or higher—when taking into consideration higher weighting of AP classes. This rise in pressure has seen national patterns of growth in GPA averages. According to the ACT (American College Testing), as of 2022, the average high school seniors’ GPA sits at a 3.36. This wasn’t always the case, though. In fact, in 2010, just twelve years earlier, the average GPA was 0.19 points lower at a 3.17 GPA. 

The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) High School Transcript Study (HSTS) from the The Nation’s Report Card organization corroborates ACT’s findings on this inflation. From the transcripts of a representative sample of public and private high school graduates, it was gathered that students were earning more academic credits and taking more rigorous courses, but had steadily rising GPAs. 

The hyper-competitive college environment could certainly be responsible for this spike in GPA. One could argue these numerical improvements in student performance are a result of genuine heightened student interest in school. But as the aforementioned studies by the NAEP and ACT reveal, the increase in GPAs does not correlate with higher subject-matter comprehension. The ACT found that despite a difference in GPA, metrics of classroom comprehension, such as standardized testing, have remained virtually stagnant over the same period of time. Similarly, the study run by the NAEP found that nationwide mathematics and science assessment scores remained stagnant despite GPA spikes. In fact, the 2019 standardized NAEP twelfth grade math assessments averaged out to a 184, a four-point dip compared to 2009.  This is a practical concern, as Frederick Hess, a director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, comments that “easy A’s signal to student they don’t need to work hard to succeed, give parents a false sense of how their kids are doing, and allow students to graduate without essential knowledge or skills.”

Graphic by Ilana Zahavy ’24/Staff

How could it be that students are taking more challenging classes, achieving better grades, yet retaining less? It could be that college selectivity doesn’t just pressure students to do well in school. Extracurriculars, including afterschool sports and activities, frequently suck up time for studying and completing assignments. Students are left in a predicament, needing to fulfill both high bars of academic excellence and designate time to ten different activities. Trapped between these sizable demands, the relieving factor becomes obvious: grade inflation. Artificially high grades seem idyllic to a student body laser focused on college acceptance. Not only do inflated grades clear up time in student’s schedules for extracurriculars, they allow students to pack their transcript with advanced courses. 

LM demonstrates a local example of these national trends. The Merionite reached out to LM college counselor Jared Epler but he declined to comment on the matter or provide average summary statistics of class averages and average student body GPAs. Conversations with numerous LM teachers, however, confirm the grade inflation is very much prevalent at LM; the average grade assigned is consistently a B or better.  

The question of “why?” still remains. As one teacher mentions, inflating student grades really isn’t in teachers’ best interest. It often relies on them additional time spent on grading retakes, fabricating extra credit opportunities, and, generally, undermines the rigor of their course. “When I’m in a class where there are hard deadlines and difficult grading I always work harder,” says student Lela Miller ’24. If grade inflation provides extra work for teachers and disrupts the classroom environment, it would reason that the practice to be stopped or at least limited. But this isn’t the case. The same teacher describes that in their classes of fifteen, only one student has a C and no students have below a C. In their class of 25, three students had a C and none had below a C. During our interview, however, in reference to two of the Cs, the teacher notes, “these two I’ll bring up to a B before the end of the year.” The last C, they report, belongs to a student who missed over a month of school cumulatively. 

Taking a closer look, the reason for these high grades becomes clear. Out of the fifteen person class, the one student with a C’s parents were responsible for over five lengthy email exchanges. The teacher describes these interactions as lengthy back and forths, exchanging specifics about assignments, grading policies, and late submissions. The other fourteen students, all of which had an A, warranted not one interaction between parents and the teacher. In one class of 27, five students had Cs of which the teacher had to field three in-person meetings and two similarly lengthy email exchanges. In a class of 25 with three Cs, two of three of the Cs warranted contact with parents. It should be noted that every meeting, email, and exchange was initiated by the parents. To protect the identity of the teacher, specifics of these interactions won’t be shared. But, as the teacher recounts, each one of these meetings at some point included demands for grades to be changed. These interactions, the teacher explains, “cut away at my weekends, my afternoons.” They even say that these conferences and email exchanges are “so much work that I’d rather just give [the student] a B.” And recently, they say they’ve been doing that. The teacher expressed several times that it was only due to their willingness to bump up student grades that they’ve been able to minimize parent conflict, so they do it for “student after student.”

So what? It seems easy enough for a teacher who assigns work, fabricates tests, and manages their own grading standards to merely wave away irrational parental concerns. But, as another teacher explains, it isn’t so simple. Teachers are assigned “grades” based on several categories from an overseeing principal. Each teacher is evaluated based on a rubric much like Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. Under each of the four scoring categories are a series of expectations teachers are expected to uphold. As the teacher explains, during “one-on-one meetings three times a year” with an assigned principal or during impromptu meetings that parents could call for with administration, these expectations, such as “Communication” and “Flexibility” can be called into question. “[The] teacher’s principal comes in and evaluates me…three times a year. I send [them] documents that prove that I’ve been doing this [referencing the rubric]. Usually, [they] just give me a passing grade and we move on but let’s say I have a parent with a kid who has a C, they email and say it’s not fair.” If that parent arranges a meeting, “I have to take time out of my day to have conversations with them. If a kid has a bad grade, the onus is on me to prove that I have done everything in my power to make sure they didn’t. If I don’t, I’m not doing my job” to the district’s standards. 

The effects of this are clear: “If I give a low grade, what I end up having to do is show that I’ve been doing all of this really, really well [in reference to the teacher rubric]. It becomes easier for a student to get an F than it is for me to justify giving them an F.” 

Pre-calculus and AP Calculus teacher Mr. Grugan–who was willing to share his name for the purposes of this article—describes that “a couple years ago, a parent reached out directly to the assistant principal after the school year had finished. They requested for the grade to be changed.” Grugan continues by describing that “ultimately the grade was changed—without me knowing. I didn’t think it was fair because the parent never reached out to me, nor did anyone discuss how there were two retakes during that year and that they had already benefited from both of those.”

Another teacher we spoke with says it doesn’t have to be this way. “The administrators have the most power but they don’t utilize it.” They go on to explain that according to the rules of “in loco parentis, kids leave their families, come here, and we have legal custody over [them]. So we also have the power to make decisions about the best interest of the children as much as parents do when they’re with their kids.” That concept of custody, the teacher explains, causes, especially in recent times, a lot of uncomfortability for parents. When those parents “have power to advocate because they have lawyers” or are lawyers, as a different teacher points out, “schools have just sort of let go.” 

That uncomfortable tension surrounding loco parentis, one teacher notes, has race and class implications as well. “I’ve never received negative feedback from a student’s parents who aren’t white,” the teacher reveals. With regards to the class divide, the teacher describes that “a lot of these parents went to Ivy schools and want their kids to as well.” 

Nearly every teacher we spoke with definitively stated their support for certain grading policies such as retakes and even late work. “The learning process does not have to be terminated on a particular date,” Grugan notes. Another teacher agrees, stating “one bad day shouldn’t determine your grade.” A different teacher explains that “there is a movement for retakes that allow for reflection and growth by the student.” It seems that it is the use of retakes and not their rationale that is the problem, though. “The use of retakes in LM is basically a grade cushion–that’s an LM cultural thing.” Throughout the course of one of our 25 minute teacher interviews, we were interrupted six times by students asking the teacher for a test retake.

When asked about the future, one teacher responded that “if administrators can’t stand up to parents, how can some high school teacher be asked to?” They say teachers “should share power with parents. But…they shouldn’t be so afraid to push back against parents when they’re wrong. Parents aren’t always right.” If the administration caves when parents are wrong, “then who’s going to protect children? We have a responsibility to protect kids as much as parents.”

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