Grades inflating at Malvern  

Dan Malloy

Teachers and students say “grade grubbing” and extra help to boost grades may be part of Malvern’s culture.

According to data provided by the Counseling Department and analysis by the Friar’s Lantern, Malvern’s average GPAs have been steadily rising over the past 19 years.

The average GPA of each junior class from the 1997-1998 school year to the 2015-2016 school year has risen from 2.92 to 3.72 on a weighted 4.0 GPA scale, an average of .04 (rounded) points per year over that span.

Researchers from the College Board looked at the GPAs of high school students nationally who took the SAT between 1998 and 2016. They found that while SAT scores declined slightly, grades are on the rise across the board in the United States. They also analyzed GPAs at private independent (not religious), private religious, suburban public, and urban public schools and found that private school GPAs rose the most. Non-Catholic private schools had a GPA rise of 8%, while private Catholic schools had a rise of 6.4%.

However, Malvern’s GPA increase surpassed all of the research, with a GPA increase of 27.4% from 1998-2016.  

For each junior class since 1998, we summed all final individual grades scored across courses for that year and divided it by the total number of grades scored to calculate an average GPA for that class. For example, two A+ in British Literature would add to 8.6, and divide by 2 to get a 4.3 average GPA. We found a .8 GPA point increase over the time period.

Assistant Head of School for Academics Mr. Patrick Sillup believes there could be a whole host of reasons for this grade inflation. One of them could be a change in the student population over that span of years. “The student population looks different today than it did in 1999. That does not mean it is a bad different or a good different,” Sillup said.

However, testing data indicates that the criteria measured by the SAT have remained steady over that time. SAT data provided by the Counseling Department from each Malvern junior class from the 1997-1998 year to the 2015-2016 year (data from 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 was missing) show that the mean composite SAT scores divided by the number of sections do not change significantly over the time period.

There were three versions of the SAT from 1998 to 2016: the old 1600 version until 2005, the 2400 version from 2005 to 2015, and the new 1600 version began in March 2016. To compare across years, we averaged the mean scores in each section of each junior class from 1998 to 2016 down to one section score out of 800. We found this SAT metric does not change significantly over this time period. (Note: Data from the 2004-2005 and the 2009-2010 school years was missing.)

English teacher Mr. John Bohannon, who has been teaching at Malvern since 2000, thinks that one reason for this rise in GPAs could be that teachers are giving out fewer low grades.

“I don’t think I’m giving out more A’s and B’s,” Bohannon said. “I just feel I’m giving less lower grades, less D’s, less C’s.”

Bohannon might be onto something. According to data shared with the Friar’s Lantern by the Counseling Department, only a startling 0.5% of final grades for juniors in 2015-2016 were C’s or below—compared to 17.1% of the grades reported for juniors in 1997-1998.

The same number of juniors failed a class in 1997-1998 as the number of juniors who received a final grade of C or below in 2015-2016.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Here, people think they fail if they get a C. Really, what a ‘C’ means is average. So right there, what we are saying is that if you are average, you’re failing… Instead of the scale from A to F, we really have the scale from A to C, with some outliers.”

-Mr. John Bohannon[/perfectpullquote]

By this measure, the goalposts have clearly moved for what constitutes failure at Malvern.

“Here, people think they fail if they get a C,” Bohannon said. “Really, what a ‘C’ means is average. So right there, what we are saying is that if you are average, you’re failing… Instead of the scale from A to F, we really have the scale from A to C, with some outliers.”

Sophomore Eric Villano has never heard of a fellow student failing at Malvern, but he does not think that is necessarily a bad thing. “I feel like [teachers] shouldn’t allow [students] to fail,” Villano said. “They should try to have students not fail.”

Villano explained that teachers in his classes often give out extra credit assignments and lots of homework grades that boost his grades.

“I kind of like [grade inflation] because you don’t have to try as hard,” Villano said. “It sounds bad, but you see what I mean.”

Jimmy Dugan ’17, a freshman at the University of Virginia, said that grade inflation certainly exists at Malvern but it comes in many forms. He said it also exists in college.

“Giving someone an extra .05 to raise a B to a B+ is no different than having an easy homework assignment mid semester,” Dugan said. “Even in college right now I have some easy ten-out-of-ten assignments that raise my grade without me having to know much.”

However, Dugan sees some differences between his high school and college experiences. “What I think is better about UVA than at Malvern is that you can’t survive on those easy assignments,” he said.

Dugan thought there were different levels of difficulty across the board for his classes at Malvern.

“I’ve heard everything. There are classes that have been seen as ‘jokes,’ but there are many classes seen as quite difficult. Truthfully, the honors ceremonies are suspect, considering most kids in the grade get honors,” Dugan said. “That could have been because we had a lot of really smart kids in my grade—which we did—or because it wasn’t too difficult to get a high GPA.”

Statistics back up what Dugan said about honors assemblies.  Two-thirds of the Upper School received Distinguished Honors (4.0 GPA or higher with no B-’s or below) and First Honors (3.5 GPA or higher with no B-’s or below) for the first semester. 35.3% of the Upper School got Distinguished Honors and 31.2% got First Honors.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It was a given. You had your week before the end of the quarter and I went through [my grades] the weekend before and I was like, ‘Alright, what classes do I need a little push in?’ And I’d plan out who I would need to talk to, what exactly I was going to ask for.”

Tommy Pero ’17[/perfectpullquote]

Villano thinks Malvern is an “easier” school, but students can challenge themselves if they choose. “You can also take challenging classes,” he said. “The easy classes are a lot easier, but it is easy to take challenging classes.”

Dugan said his goal of getting into the colleges he was aiming for caused him to stress about grades while at Malvern.

“Even if you don’t know squat about a certain class, you still think you deserve a better grade. I did my fair share of grade grubbing and it sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t,” Dugan said.

Tommy Pero ’17, a freshman at the University of Notre Dame, said he was “motivated a lot by getting as high of a GPA as possible for looking good for colleges.”

Pero said grade grubbing was “absolutely” a huge part of the culture at Malvern and that most students do it.

“It was a given. You had your week before the end of the quarter and I went through [my grades] the weekend before and I was like, ‘Alright, what classes do I need a little push in?’ And I’d plan out who I would need to talk to, what exactly I was going to ask for,” Pero said.

Bohannon said that grade grubbing has been more evident in his classes over the years.

“There is a much bigger focus focus for the students on grades,” Bohannon said. “That could be because they see their grades 24/7. They always have access to what their grades are to the tenth decimal point.”

Director of College Counseling Mr. Ian Harkness thinks it is okay for teachers to help students raise their grades.

“That’s the type of place Malvern is. It’s about going the extra mile to help a student… At Malvern, we should and we can go back and let [a student] retake an exam to make sure his grade is what it should be,” he said.

Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer and researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who has studied the college admissions process, stated that private schools have raised grades over the years in order to boost their students’ college chances in response to pressure from parents.

“To be attractive to parents, [private schools] need to be able to tout how many of their students went to selective colleges. So they’re incentivized to give better grades,” Weissbourd wrote.

Harkness confirmed the theory grade inflation boosts college chances.

“The reality is for us now with grades in a place like Malvern… does grade inflation help us [in the college process]? Probably,” Harkness said.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I think there’s a fear that a bad grade will curse your college chances. I don’t think that is the case. I think in context colleges understand the C and probably would love to hear the growth and the story about that C.”

-Mr. Ian Harknesss[/perfectpullquote]

However, Harkness thinks that colleges understand Malvern is providing a good education for students regardless of grade inflation.

“Even for students who are not taking those highest-level AP or honors classes, they will be more than ready to go to college and take on all the challenges. So I think colleges understand that,” he said.

However, Harkness would like to see more C’s and D’s as learning moments for students.

“I think there’s a fear that a bad grade will curse your college chances. I don’t think that is the case,” Harkness said. “I think in context colleges understand the C and probably would love to hear the growth and the story about that C.”

Bohannon said teachers should not purposely fail students, but instead let students fail more.

“I just think you guys don’t have the opportunity to deal with [failure],” Bohannon said. “For the last five or six years, not just here but around the world, the idea of failing as the way of learning has been really popular. You need the feedback. You need to try and try again.”

Bohannon thinks grades are not an effective way of determining a student’s knowledge. “I don’t think grades are a good reflection of a student’s understanding or his learning,” he said.

Sillup said the way in which Malvern gives student feedback will change in the future, away from traditional grades.

“Let’s use big brushstrokes here—like projects or a public demonstration of learning, a presentation, a product that you’ve built, a process you’re exploring, a paper you’ve written,” he said. “I think those are conversations that teachers and we need to help create and foster so that there’s some common thinking around what those things are.”

Sillup said the Middle School will be launching a “Unifying Rubric” next year. This will allow teachers to easily assess areas like critical thinking or communication skills within a project with one rubric to use across classes.

“At each discipline, there are very similar skills being focused upon. The more common language we share about communication or collaboration or analysis or critical thinking, then the easier it is to be specific in our language and what we are seeing, and what we hope to see in our evaluation,” Sillup said.

Sillup also said annual benchmarks for all students with a focus on skills like writing, communication, and analysis skills will come next fall for students. Those evaluations will allow us to identify strengths and gaps within these skill sets and work with students accordingly.

All of these benchmarks are baby steps in the end goal of the Mastery Transcript according to Sillup.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is a “collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of crediting and transcript generation,” according to their website. In simpler terms, the Mastery Transcript will replace traditional grades on a transcript with a map of skills or knowledge that the student has mastered..

Sillup said the little steps are very important in this major academic change for the school that will come several years down the line.

“If we were in chapel after J-Term and I said, ‘Hey guys. Remember how all your stuff was fueled to a A or a B and be on a transcript? Well, all of that is gone.’ I think people would be like, ‘Huh?’” Sillup said. “I think the translation would be so tricky and really, really poor.”

Sillup and administration seek to re-evaluate the system completely for the long term. In the meantime, traditional grades are still the system at Malvern. In the wake of grade inflation, it remains to be seen how students and teachers will respond.

Dugan thinks grade inflation is not too harmful under certain circumstances.

“If you worked really hard, learned a ton, just had a bad day on a test, and just missed out on a B by like .1%, grade inflation is certainly not a crime,” Dugan said.

Harkness thinks more low grades would be a good thing because it is an opportunity to learn for students.  

“I think this is a safe place to fail,” Harkness said. “If a student is going to face a moment where he’s got to reshape how they learn and how they study, why wouldn’t it happen here?”