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Grades: Why on the Rise?

According to Academic Dean Peter Warsaw, Deerfield Academy student grade point averages are on the rise. Does this mean we have grade inflation? Recent student speculation about this upward trend and possible causes evoked my interest.

Mr. Warsaw asked me an interesting question in the midst of his analysis of the situation: What was the combined average of the six students placed on Academic Probation last spring? I thought about this for a moment and projected a seemingly appropriate number: 75%.

Mr. Warsaw responded that the combined average of the Academic Probation students was 81.3%. I was shocked. What does this mean? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? If the weakest students are rising out of the 70’s and into the 80’s, where will the top ones go? The 100’s?

Ideally, grades are increasing at Deerfield because the admission acceptance rates and the academic talent of those accepted are connected and inversely correlated. The acceptance rate at Deerfield this year will be the most competitive it has ever been. With fewer spots to fill and more applicants to choose from, it is logical to expect that the accepted pool of students will be more able and earn higher grades than ten years ago. Are students at Deerfield smarter today than they were ten years ago? Will they be smarter in ten years than they are today?

Other positive possible factors include: a more responsive Academic Standing process, students working harder than they have historically, teachers providing clearer instruction, the academy offering more proactive academic support with monitored study halls and peer tutor availability, better placement of students into appropriate levels with effective placement exams and generous deadlines for dropping levels, and wider opportunity for students to do test corrections, have extra time, or write multiple drafts in order to improve a grade on a specific assignment.

All of these factors are, in my opinion, positive, however there are potential negative contributors as well.

Unfortunately, application rates and grades are not the only things on the rise at Deerfield. Student stress is at an all-time high with the increase in pressure from external sources. The constant barrage from colleges, teachers, parents, athletic commitments and extracurricular expectations- might suggest other possible contributing factors to the rise in grade point averages.

Are teachers subconsciously raising grades in response to direct—or indirect pressure from stressed-out students or parents? Are students working for the grade rather than for the “joy of learning”? Mr. Warsaw said, “In recent years some teachers have reported having to reduce their expectations for nightly reading assignments.” Are students overreaching with their schedules to feel competitive in the college application process? These are questions that we should try to answer, or at least discuss, before assuming anything about the trend of rising grades.

Mr. Warsaw said that he would look first at the grades of younger students, the freshmen and sophomores, for signs of inflation. If freshmen and sophomore grades—earned by our least experienced students taking almost exclusively required courses—are high, then that would drive the entire scale up. But Mr. Warsaw does not think we know whether there is currently grade inflation at Deerfield. He believes in identifying and analyzing the many factors that could correlate with the increase in grades before drawing any conclusions.

Now as I embark on my final months at Deerfield I anticipate that I will worry less and less about the number that appears online for my average. Yet I cannot help but keep in mind that the cut off for Honor Roll is, as of this year, no longer an 87% but a 90%. I also keep in mind that if I were to have an 87.00% average I would fall comfortably near the top of the 5th and bottom quintile of my class. Last year this same average would have been rewarded with an email from Mr. Warsaw commending me for my achievements and for reaching Honor Roll.

Although many complain about the harshness of grade—level quintiles reported on DAinfo, the bottom line is that they help people gauge reality. Rather than complaining about them, we should continue conversation about possible factors involved in this complicated process and system. We should talk about what can be done to make our educational experience less about our class ranking or our test scores and more about how much we can learn and grow.

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