Why does the U.S. try to reduce students to their GPAs and test scores?
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A new study has shown that more high school students are getting As than any other grade, sparking a discussion on grade inflation and standardized testing.

Grade inflation

Many articles on the study suggest that these A-average GPAs are a result of grade inflation, since SAT scores have simultaneously been decreasing.

And it’s true, GPAs have been increasing at a noticeably strange rate. In 1998, 38.9 percent of seniors were graduating with A averages, but that statistic jumped to 47 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, SAT scores dropped 24 points from 1998 to 2016. ACT composite scores also dropped 0.2 points from 1998 to 2016.

Though it is unusual that grades are now significantly higher, the SAT and ACT drops aren’t big enough that they should be setting off alarm bells. It’s important to acknowledge that grades don’t always line up with standardized testing scores; some students are naturally better at testing, some are better in class and some are intelligent outside of the classroom.

Grades also are subjective; teachers can often choose how they teach and evaluate students, so a student could take the same class with two teachers and get completely different grades. That’s not an inherently bad thing — certain teaching styles work better for some students than others — but it means that grades aren’t an objective measure.

Grades also can be a bad indicator of intelligence, since students can be gifted in certain subjects and do poorly in others, throwing off their GPA.

So yes, grade inflation is definitely an issue for both high schools and colleges, but grades aren’t the most reliable indicator of success.

Standardized testing

Grade inflation is making GPA a debatable measure of intelligence, but the SAT and ACT can be even more flawed.

The SAT was established in 1926 to measure innate intelligence, but over the last 90 years, it has evolved into an expensive, time-consuming mind game. Students can manipulate their SAT and ACT scores through tutoring and prep courses, which defeats the original purpose of these tests.

If students took standardized tests with no preparation, they would be better indicators of natural intelligence, but the pressure to get good test scores forces many students to study.

When test scores hold that much weight, it just becomes a resource competition — who can afford to spend the most money and time on test prep — leaving many low-income students in the dust.

Takeaway: Students aren’t numbers

The U.S. education system seems to overlook the fact that it’s impossible to create an unbiased measure of intelligence. Grades often reflect how good a student is at memorizing and regurgitating information, or how good they are at playing the system, but that doesn’t directly translate to intelligence. Standardized testing is also skewed; it really only indicates whether students are good or bad at testing and how much preparation they could afford. I’m not saying we should throw out our entire system — grades and tests can be good ways to measure progress — but these measures can’t be given this much weight.

And this isn’t coming from a place of resentment; I have done exceedingly well on paper, and I appreciate that my GPA has opened doors for me, but that’s what makes it so frustrating. I know many people who have the same capability and drive that I do to succeed, but their opportunities have been hindered by their grades and test scores.

Some companies have already caught onto this: a few years ago, Google’s senior vice president said that “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.” There are many brilliant people who succeed outside of school environments, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Grades and test scores don’t always correlate with real-world success, and many students can testify to that.

Our education system tries to fit people into neat boxes, summing them up with an all-telling list of numbers, but many students don’t fit that mold. Institutions of higher education have partially addressed this, taking extracurriculars and personal essays into account, but college admissions are still a numbers game.

Unconventional students face stigma that discourages them from pursuing higher education; it’s hard for many of them to succeed in school, but it’s also hard for them to pursue their interests without a degree. There are different forms of intelligence that manifest in and out of conventional learning environments, and society shouldn’t punish people for being divergent thinkers.

Our education system is too rigid to encourage true learning and growth in many respects, and that’s a bigger issue than grade inflation or dropping test scores.

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Header image: Adobe Stock

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Posted 07.27.2017 - 11:32 am EST