What is an “A,” anyway? Does it mean that a 16 year-old recognizes 96 percent of the allusions in “The Bluest Eye”? Or that she could tell you 95 percent of the reasons the Teapot Dome Scandal was so important? Or, just that she made it to most classes? Does it come from a physics teacher in the Great Smoky Mountains who bludgeons students with weekly, memory-taxing tests, or from a trigonometry teacher in Topeka who works in Taylor Swift references and allows infinite “re-tests”?
One answer is that A is now the most popular high school grade in America! Indeed, in 2016, 47 percent of high school students graduated with grades in the A–range. This means that nearly half of seniors are averaging within a few numeric points of one another.
A belt has several holes, but usually only one or two of them show any wear in the leather. Can the same really be true for the grades we give our students, with their varied efforts and their constellations of cognitive skills? A grading drop-down menu ought not to be so simple a tool as one person’s belt.
And grades have only gone up since 2016, most notably since the pandemic, most prominently in higher-income school districts. Were this a true reflection of student achievement, it would be reason to celebrate, but the metrics have it differently. From 1998 to 2016, average high school G.P.A.s rose from 3.27 to 3.38, but average SAT scores fell from 1026 to 1002. ACT scores among the class of 2023 were the worst in over three decades. Is it any wonder, then, that 65 percent of Americans feel they are smarter than average?
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