High Grades: Student Mastery or Inflation?

 by Anika Mittu ’19

The grade of “A” in a given class previously revealed mastery of content and outstanding work performed by a student. Yet, with A’s comprising 54 percent of grades earned by Sherwood students for first semester, the question is whether student performance or inflation lies behind the number of stellar grades.

In 2016, MCPS debuted a controversial grading policy that eliminated final exams, and relied solely on the two quarterly grades to determine a student’s grade in a given class. Based on a point system that assigns 4 points to an A, 3 points to a B, 2 points to a C, 1 point to a D, and no points to an E, the system numerically averages the two quarterly grades. The policy averages quarterly grades of an A and a B into a 3.5, which rounds to form a semester grade of A.

Many teachers predicted a rise in student grades due to the new system. Yet, the policy impacted two core subjects more than the others- social studies and English. In social studies courses, 42 percent of the A’s received originated from differing quarterly grades of either an A and a B or a B and an A, while 50 percent of the A’s earned in English courses occured due to the same reason.

In social studies, 41 percent of A’s received in AP courses originated from differing
quarterly grades, and 42 percent in honors courses became A’s due to the same circumstance.
Regardless of why the subject reveals a lack of difference dependent on course level, both
percentages startle Michelle Games, an AP social studies teacher who argues that the 2016
grading policy contributes to poor learning and studying habits. “[Teachers] spend so much time creating assessments that for the grades to not be reflective of student mastery is not a good
system,” said Games.

Meanwhile, English classes revealed 14-percent more of the A’s earned in AP classes resulting from an A and B as quarterly grades than in honors classes. However, Beth Petralia, a teacher of both Honors and AP English classes during first semester, found a reasonable explanation for the high number of AP English grades benefiting from the new system. In her experience with teaching AP Language, “second quarter is more difficult than first,” said Petralia. This might explain why 42% of A’s earned by students in the class occurred due to the student receiving an A for first quarter and a B for second quarter, while only 8% of A’s earned occurred due to a B for first quarter and an A for second quarter.

While she did expect more B’s for second quarter, Petralia also felt that motivation for AP Lang students continued into the latter half of the semester. “Not many students were overtly aiming for a B after receiving an A for first quarter,” said Petralia.

Petralia explained that some members of the English department did expect a lack of rigor due to the elimination of semester exams. In order to combat a lack of challenge in the AP Lang curriculum, the AP Lang team decided to add a midterm to the course that would serve as a large grade for second quarter. However, in order for the midterm to limit the number of students earning an A in the class after receiving an A for the easier first quarter, the student would have had to receive a C for second quarter. Less than one percent of AP Lang students went from a grade of A to a grade of C as quarterly grades, meaning that the majority of students who earned an A for first quarter locked in their semester grades before second quarter even began.

Despite attempts to increase course difficulty and combat a lack of challenge anticipated with the new grading system, Petralia still believes that grade inflation heavily contributed to the A’s received in core subject areas without actually reflecting student comprehension of content. “The new grading system dodges the problem [of students lacking mastery of a course],”said Petralia. “Instead, it should be fixing it.”

A’s Represent Over 50% of Grades Earned for First Semester