Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Grade Inflation and College Admissions

There are a few journalists in the country who are pretty savvy when it comes to education issues--Debra Saunders, Linda Seebach, Jay Mathews, and one other woman whose name escapes me now. But they're good. The reporters who cover the education beat for the major Sacramento newspaper--not so much. Perhaps I expect too much.

So along comes this article, courtesy of the Associated Press, and this author is pretty dim. He can't even see his own inconsistencies.

It's not that they're bad. It's that so many of his classmates' are so good. Zalasky's GPA is nearly an A minus, and yet he ranks only about in the middle of his senior class of 543 at Edina High School outside Minneapolis...

"It's extremely difficult," he said. "I spent all summer writing my essay. We even hired a private tutor to make sure that essay was the best it can be. But even with that, it's like I'm just kind of leveling the playing field." Last year, he even considered transferring out of his highly competitive public school, to some place where his grades would look better...

Some call the phenomenon that Zalasky's fighting "grade inflation" -- implying the boost is undeserved. Others say students are truly earning their better marks. Regardless, it's a trend that's been building for years and may only be accelerating: Many students are getting very good grades.

The author's slant is--get this--that there's no such thing as grade inflation; that in fact, students are actually doing better than ever! Because that's what people have been saying about public education for years, that we're turning out a better and better product. Right.

But grade inflation doesn't exist, Mr. Author?

"We're seeing 30, 40 valedictorians at a high school because they don't want to create these distinctions between students," said Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

I'm sure that at every high school, 30 or 40 people qualify to be a valedictorian. Where and when I was in high school, there was exactly 1 valedictorian, and he had the highest GPA in the graduating class. We had no AP courses or any other GPA-boosters, either; you got what you got, and that was what you got. A 4.00 was as good as it got, too. There was no way to get anything higher.

But the author believes that students are doing so much better than they did before, despite the horrific percentages of students who get to universities (especially here in California) who have to take remedial math and/or English. I wonder how many of those students took AP courses in high school....

So with so much (non-existent) grade inflation occurring, colleges and universities are having to rely more heavily than ever on standardized test scores to make admissions decisions! Imagine the irony! In this day of the "standardized tests are evil" mantra, universities--many of whom would rather ignore such test scores so they can admit more underperforming minorities--are compelled to use such test scores to cut through all the clutter of perfect A's.

But lost in the developments is the fact that none of the most selective colleges have dropped the tests. In fact, a national survey shows overall reliance on test scores is higher in admissions than it was a decade ago.

Mr. Journalist, your first sentence there should read "none of the most selective colleges has dropped the tests." I'm just saying. And I digress.

About half-way through the article, our friendly author seems to change direction:

The average high school GPA increased from 2.68 to 2.94 between 1990 and 2000, according to a federal study. Almost 23 percent of college freshmen in 2005 reported their average grade in high school was an A or better, according to a national survey by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. In 1975, the percentage was about half that.

GPAs reported by students on surveys when they take the SAT and ACT exams have also risen -- and faster than their scores on those tests. That suggests their classroom grades aren't rising just because students are getting smarter. Not surprisingly, the test-owners say grade inflation shows why testing should be kept: It gives all students an equal chance to shine.
So which is it, Cronkite? Are these students as prepared academically as their grades would imply, or does grade inflation exist? I can't see how both can be true simultaneously.

The most interesting fact I found in the whole piece, though, was this one, which shows oh so clearly why we need some sort of standardized testing:

More than 70 percent of schools and districts analyzed by an education audit company called SchoolMatch had average GPAs significantly higher than they should have been based on their standardized test scores -- including the school systems in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, San Bernardino, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio. That raises concerns about students graduating from those schools unprepared for college. (emphasis mine--Darren)

It turns out that the kids at the school mentioned at the beginning of the article have a fairly high average SAT score, probably not unlike the school at which I currently teach. However, the information immediately above shows that such schools are the exception, not the rule, and shows yet again why standardized (consider for a moment what that word means) tests are in fact so important.


Anonymous said...

You mentioned the Bee education reporters... my least favorite is Laurel Rosenhall. According to Laurel, if the kid is failing, it is everyone else's fault but the kid's.

Anonymous said...

Actually, your journalist's grammar is fine: both "none has" and "none have" are acceptable. (Compare the similar constructions "no college has" and "no colleges have".)

Darren said...

Perhaps under the new, more relaxed rules of grammar. But not under the older, more formal rules I learned as a teen. "None" is singular. Q.E.D.

Then again, I split infinitives (intentionally) and use non-standard punctuation rules (some British)--but I know when I do these things. I'm not convinced this reporter knew. I'm more inclined to believe that if you asked hiim the subject of his sentence, he's have said "colleges"--which was actually the object of the preposition.

Mr. Ardary (RIP), I hope you're pround of me!

rightwingprof said...

You are correct. "None" always takes a singular verb (just as "all" always takes a plural verb), because in "None of the dogs," "none" is the head of the phrase and the verb agrees with the head.

"No college has" and "no colleges have" are both correct, and neither is analogous to any noun phrase with "none," because "none" is a pronoun and "no" is not a pronoun. The journalist is incorrect.

As for the article, well, what these articles never mention -- perhaps because it's behind the scenes -- is the admissions war going on at every university campus, between the "open admissions" crowd and those who want higher admissions standards. Which wins depends on the university -- hence the seemingly contradictory articles we've seen recently, one on universities giving more weight to GPAs, the other on universities giving more weight to SATs and ACTs.