Stellar students at Ferris High School had a problem: how to share the glory at commencement without putting everyone to sleep with speech after speech after speech.
Their solution? The 16 valedictorians in the 385-member Class of ‘97 - all with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages - took turns reading from “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” a children’s book by Dr. Seuss.
After 10 years of rising grades, multiple valedictorians are not uncommon.
But the increase in perfect GPAs has not been matched by an increase in real achievement as measured on national tests.
That’s called “grade inflation.”
In other words, today’s “A” isn’t your father’s “A.” These days, “B,” not “C,” is an average grade for high schoolers, education experts agree.
“I like to compare it somewhat to the emperor’s new clothes,” said education Professor Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. In that Hans Christian Andersen tale, the emperor is hoodwinked - along with most of his subjects - into believing his new clothes are the finest in the land, when in fact he is parading around in his underwear.
“Everybody’s happy, including the emperor, just as long as no one presses the truth on the matter,” he said.
The truth is:
More than 30 percent of 30,000 college freshmen studied in 1996 by UCLA reported high-school GPAs of A, A-minus or A-plus - a grade sometimes given to top students in advanced-placement classes. Students with A averages outnumbered C students by more than 2-to-1.
Ten years earlier, about 22 percent had A-level grades. Report co-author Linda Sax says there was no corresponding increase in national test scores for the 1996 group.
While test-taking students report higher grades than 10 years ago, test scores have remained flat or risen only slightly, agree officials at the New York-based College Board, which runs the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), and at the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT, which gives the American College Test.
In Washington state, students taking the SAT last year reported an average grade point of 3.39, up from 3.25 in 1987, though average test scores dropped slightly over that 10-year period.
Marla Meekhof, one of the crowd of Ferris valedictorians last spring, agrees it’s natural for people to wonder if grade inflation is behind the growing numbers of straight-A students.
“I guess I tend to take the optimistic side of the issue and ask what’s happening to our kids - the caliber also could be rising,” said Meekhof, now a student at private Whitworth College in Spokane But other factors could be pushing up those grades.
Some savvy college-bound students nag or beg teachers for higher grades so they can win college slots and scholarship money. Baby boomer parents also push teachers and students to keep grades high.
“The students get upset if they don’t do well. … They seem to be stressed,” said counselor Carolyn Keck at Capital High School in Olympia.
Rules requiring students to keep up their grades to be eligible for sports and other activities are another factor, said longtime teacher Gigi Talcott, a Republican state legislator from Tacoma.
And teaching methods have changed.
About 70 percent of high schools now grade based on mastery of the subject, so that any student who knows the material can receive a good grade, said Catherine Taylor, an education professor at the University of Washington. That prevents the problems posed by grading on a curve, with a percentage of students doomed to failure.
Texts used to train teachers offer a range of nonacademic factors - effort, citizenship, even the home situation - that may be considered along with mastery of the subject in assigning grades.
There’s a lot at stake for families facing rising college costs. A total of $653 million in scholarships based solely on academic merit were awarded nationwide in 1990, says Morton Schapiro, an economics professor at the University of Southern California. The figure does not include need-based scholarships where merit also may be considered.
The president of the state teachers union, Lee Ann Prielipp, said she did not know whether grade inflation is occurring.
Comparing declining SAT scores and rising grade averages does not provide sufficient proof because it’s just a “snapshot,” she said. A better indicator would be a district-by-district analysis of grades.
Gov. Gary Locke, who has made education a priority, “would be very disappointed at our students being in this situation” of grade inflation, said his spokeswoman Marylou Flynn.
She said higher academic standards, which Locke supports as part of the state’s education-reform effort, are one means of attacking the problem of grade inflation.
The state’s top education official, Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction, acknowledges grade inflation exists.
The reform effort is producing standards and tests for students that will lead to more objective grading, Bergeson said, though teachers will not be required to assign grades based on how well students meet the standards because “that would drive them crazy.”
“We really need more of a reflection by teachers on how they are grading kids, next to some objective standard,” Bergeson said. There are no plans to write rules governing teachers’ grading policies.
Mention grade inflation to staff at the neighborhood high school and sparks are likely to fly.
“What the kids get here on this campus they earn. Kids pay the price to get the grades,” Ferris Principal Jon Bentz said.
“If anybody thinks we’re diluting the grades, they can come here and sit in these classes and see what the kids are doing,” he said, pounding the desk.
“I’m sick and tired of this criticism.”
Last year, 167 juniors and seniors at Ferris signed up for advanced-placement, second-semester courses in eight subjects including calculus, biology and history. The classes, offered in about half the nation’s high schools, follow national standards and provide college credit for those who pass national exams.
“At the upper end (financially), the kids are well-traveled, computer-literate and when they set about doing their course work, they put their heart and soul into it and their families back them up,” Bentz said. “They do very well.”
Teacher Leann Dineen offered an example of good research. When she assigned her freshmen honors students to find information on the Kwakiutl tribe of Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands, many used home computers to obtain pages of printed material - complete with full-color pictures of tribal artifacts.
Wannabe valedictorians at Ferris use various strategies for success.
A few took every advanced-placement class available - a tough regimen.
Others chose some regular classes - A’s earned there rank the same as advanced-placement A’s - maintaining perfect scores by avoiding “four-point killers.”
Bruce Fatz, another of last spring’s valedictorians, criticized the 16-person split in an opinion-page article published by The Spokesman-Review, saying it cheated the one person who should have been valedictorian.
Now a student at Washington State University, he contends that being a Ferris valedictorian “means nothing.”
One Ferris mother said her sophomore son definitely received some “easy A’s.”
“It’s obvious, when you know your student, that the teachers are giving ‘A’ for effort,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
“It’s embarrassing” when her son fills out job applications, she confided.
“He has his own spelling system,” she said. “Even spell-check doesn’t work when you’re way out in left field.”
At the University of Washington in Seattle, admissions officer John Swiney says the average Ferris student comes in with a 3.65 high school grade-point average (GPA) but winds up freshman year with a 3.02 average - a substantial drop that can’t be entirely blamed on freshman confusion.
Swiney has charted data from all the state’s high schools, and Ferris is just about in the middle. Half the schools are tougher, and half are easier.
Admissions officers at several other Washington colleges and universities say they also are seeing better high-school GPAs among entering freshmen.
Some cited grade inflation. Others believe the caliber of students is rising.
xxxx Report card Here are some facts on rising grades among high school students nationwide: A 1996 UCLA study of 30,000 college freshmen showed 31.5 percent boasted A, A-plus or A-minus averages from high school, up from 22.5 percent in 1986. In the late 1960s, college freshmen with C averages from high school outnumbered those with A averages by better than 2-to-1. Nowadays, that situation has been reversed - there are two A-average students for every C-average student, said the study by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, American Council on Education. Co-author Linda Sax said there was no corresponding increase in national test scores. The American College Test organization, in a research report, said students reported consistently higher grade-point averages over a five-year period ending in 1994, though their composite scores on the ACTs remained essentially constant. And more grade inflation was found at the high end of the grading scale. College Board officials say students are getting higher grades in high school without corresponding increases in Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, scores. The grade average for all students taking SAT tests in 1997 was 3.22, up from 3.07 in 1987. SAT scores remained relatively constant, though girls’ math scores had risen since 1992. In Washington state, college-bound students taking the SAT last year reported an average GPA of 3.39, up from 3.25 in 1987. But SAT scores dropped slightly over that period, from an average 1051 total to 1046. The University of Washington’s entering freshmen reported an average 3.61 high school grade-point average in 1996, up from 3.48 a decade earlier. In the same period, average combined scores on the national SAT dropped from 1168 to 1141.