Are Your Grades Inflated?


Laif Kvarsten (he/him), Staff Writer

In the Wilson High School graduating class of 1964, the valedictorian, Lesley Veltman, had a 3.96 grade point average. This year, Ida B. Wells High School is on track to produce nearly 60 valedictorians, all of which have a GPA over 4. This may come as a surprise to those who assume that valedictorian is a title reserved for the student graduating with the highest GPA in their class. In Portland Public Schools, however, this designation is awarded to all graduating students who have received nothing but A’s. On the surface, this seems like just a way to honor high academic performance. But in reality, this cavalier process for determining valedictorian actually ends up hurting students. 

College admissions are more competitive than ever, in large part due to the elimination of standardized testing requirements for the vast majority of institutions, according to the Washington Post. This means that colleges now rely heavily on GPA and rank to draw conclusions about a student’s academic performance. But as Kelly Milford, college coordinator at Ida B. Wells, points out, “When you have all these 4.0 kids out there applying for college without test scores, how do you distinguish between the applicants?” When high GPAs become the norm instead of the exception, nobody is unique. And that presents a huge challenge for college admissions officers. 

Numbers from the Department of Education mirror the jumps in perceived achievement seen at Ida B. Wells: Nationwide, GPAs are rising. The average highschool GPA has jumped from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.38 in 2016. But why couldn’t this just be due to increasing academic performance? This pattern is incredibly difficult to draw any real conclusions from, but one thing is for sure: Students are “achieving” at heights never before seen. 

Winston Rivas, college coordinator at Ida B. Wells, attributes this rise in student achievement to the explosion of access to information and knowledge that began with the advent of the internet. “If you forgot the notes that were on your chalkboard, you can just go to your Canvas page. There used to just be a textbook and you’d read the chapters and have a quiz at the end,” said Rivas. Additionally, teachers are more flexible and more accessible than they were previously, due to both online and in-person opportunities to connect. 

But the improved accessibility of academic resources is not entirely responsible for the surge in GPA. Grading policies have changed dramatically in recent decades, and this change was rapidly accelerated by the pandemic. “It’s alarming how many students are in the A-B only range,” said Milford. 

In the current senior class, there are only around 60 students who’s GPA is under 3.0. And though we will never be able to clearly tell if this is the product of easy A’s or hardworking students, the ways in which teachers evaluate their students are shifting. “Grading policies have become more flexible,” said Milford, “And I think we’re at a time where we’re going to see more grade inflation than ever before…And I don’t know if it’s going to change back.”

Milford points out that while many students struggle to earn high marks, there are just as many students who lack that work ethic and still receive A’s with ease. “Because kids have it so easy in so many ways, it feels like they’re not going to work very hard. I worry about kids’ work ethic today, because I know that kids work smarter, not harder,” said Milford. 

Though this style of learning may have its benefits, for Milford it represents a shift in educational values and philosophies, the effect of which we can’t fully understand yet. “But at the end of the day,” she said, “you’re leaving highschool with your skills and what you know, and you can be successful.”