“Hugely Inflated”: Are Pandemic-Era Grading Policies Doing More Harm Than Good?
The login page of the DCPS Aspen grades portal / Credits: Sara Weinrod
Mask mandates are long gone. International trips have resumed. Virtual learning is a distant memory. Yet one apparently temporary COVID-19 measure conspicuously remains in effect: revised grading policy.
The junior class at Walls has an average GPA of 3.93, a number school counselor Kathryn Moore called “very high.” She also noted that the median GPA was over a 4.0. That means that well over half the class had a GPA above 4.0 at the start of the 2022-23 school year. This number will likely only increase, as juniors take on more AP classes, which are graded on a 5.0 scale.
“Anyone would objectively say that a 4.0 isan excellent GPA, right? That’s an A,” Ms. Moore said. “GPAs are hugely inflated.”
Though grade inflation is by no means new, it has become particularly prevalent in recent years, with many more lenient DCPS grading policies remaining in place as vestiges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the most notable pandemic changes was a raise in the minimum score a student could receive for submitting an assignment from zero to 63 percent. The DCPS grading policy states that students must receive no less than a 63 percent on any submitted assignment that shows “student input, response, effort, or attempt at the task, however minimal it may be.”
Another major revision to the policy was the introduction of the “waiting for submission,” or WS, label for unsubmitted work. Assignments marked with a WS are scored as a 50 percent at the end of the advisory, as opposed to a zero.
“To some extent, [getting an] A is the bare minimum.”
Grade inflation makes it difficult to stand out, especially at a school like Walls where many students are already inclined toward high academic achievement. Ms. Moore cited the honors distinctions that appear on Walls transcripts in place of rankings as an example: Anyone with above a 3.8 GPA — below the junior-class average — graduates summa cum laude, the highest distinction.
In a similar vein, the National Honor Society’s minimum GPA for eligibility is 3.5, a standard the vast majority of Walls students meet. “How much of an honor is it then?” Ms. Moore asked. She clarified that the criteria for honors distinctions and the National Honor Society “were set with a different grading process” before the pandemic.
DCPS said in a statement at the beginning of the pandemic that they had “prioritized equity and rigor in [their] grading policies to ensure all students are supported academically as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic.”
Ms. Moore called the policy changes necessary to address unprecedented circumstances. “I think initially the goal was to provide flexibility, understanding of different situations around the pandemic. I think that was achieved,” she said.
But she questioned the applicability of those policies “now that things are a little bit more back to normal.”
“Sometimes, you’ve got to let students see the bad.”
In order for the grades to carry much meaning, they must reflect different levels of student understanding, physics teacher Dr. Thomas Bright said. “To most people, I would imagine A means mastery, B means mostly mastery, and C is an average student,” he said. Recently, however, it’s become harder for students to determine what the baseline should be for different levels of content mastery. If a C is no longer the grade of an “average student,” it can be difficult for students to consistently determine what each grade represents.
“To some extent, A is like the bare minimum,” Madeline Eibner-Gebhardt (‘24) said. “It’s almost as if A is like, you put in the effort, and B is like, you just did the work.”
Max Goldberg (‘24) said DCPS policies make it “difficult to get below an 88 if you’re on top of everything.”
A DCPS spokesperson said in a statement to The Rookery that its policies ensure that “grades are not a mechanism used to sort students and perpetuate opportunity gaps” or a “tool for teaching accountability of consequential lessons.” Instead, they “are a measure of a skill or knowledge of content taught” as well as “a tool to grow intrinsic motivation.”
But Jeffrey Jordan, who teaches Humanities I and IV, said students can lose motivation when they are not prepared to fail. “Sometimes, you’ve got to let students see the bad,” he said. “Hopefully, it will propel them to work even harder.”
“A lot of 63s have really saved my grade. That’s a good thing.”
The upside to the more permissive grading policy is that it can help students present an impeccable — or close to impeccable — transcript to college admissions offices, even if they feel more pressure to maintain that record. Not all students see an issue with that. “Personally, the 63 is better than a zero,” Michael McCleod (‘24) said, “and I’ve got a lot of 63s that have really saved my grade. That’s a good thing.”
“It’s definitely helped my grades so much so that I don’t have to really worry about them as much,” Malcolm Douglas (‘23) said. “I know that there’s going to be a 63 percent if I turn in the assignment, at the lowest, and then if I don’t do the work, it’ll be a WS, which is a 50 percent. So knowing [that], I’ve kind of worked the system a bit and can get by.”
Douglas also clarified that it wasn’t just “senioritis” impacting his attitude toward grades. “Once we came back from COVID after they put in those policies, I became — I wouldn’t say dependent, but I took advantage of those policies,” he said.
Another policy that students take advantage of is the ability to submit work late without harsh penalties. Students can submit work months after the due date and still receive credit. And though official DCPS policy mandates that they may not receive higher than an 86 percent for late work, students find that penalties are at the discretion of individual teachers.
“We learned pretty quickly which ones did and did not hold that policy,” said Douglas, “But still, 86, for turning it in literally months later, is not bad.”
Ironically, though, a lenient grading policy makes school more stressful for some students when getting the highest grades becomes an expectation, especially when colleges are aware of the school context that each student is coming from.
Eibner-Gebhardt said she “would worry what colleges would think,” because “if they know about grade inflation, a B might look bad to them.”
“A [single] bad grade can really mess up your entire future,” Matthew Weitzner (‘25) said.
"I’m not putting in as much effort as I should or could because of those policies.”
Even if it might make school easier, there remain significant consequences that students may or may not be aware of. “I think some of the downsides to [grade inflation] are that sometimes they can give students an inaccurate picture of where they really are in the class or in terms of mastering the material,” Ms. Moore said, adding that this was especially concerning in AP classes, where students face an outside test of their progress that may or may not align with DCPS grades.
Ms. Moore also said the policies “disadvantage students who would be straight A, top students, regardless,” because they don’t stand out as much.
Dr. Bright agreed that artificially enhancing students’ grades is not necessarily in their best interests. “There are a lot of people that used to get B’s that are now getting A’s that we can’t distinguish,” he said, “and unfortunately, teachers recognize this. Colleges recognize this. I don’t think that most students recognize this. And unfortunately [students] may have put themselves in a bad situation, thinking that everything is okay, but everybody that’s going to be looking at their B’s is going to know that that’s the old C, and they’re putting themselves in jeopardy.”
Mr. Jordan said that the pandemic-era grading policy “does not push students to excel,” and that students will face a “rude awakening” when they get to college. “It gives them a cushion and a false sense of their performance,” he said. “Colleges do not have a WS or [a] 63 percent [minimum].”
Some students do understand this. “It’s definitely hurt my work ethic,” Douglas said. “When I go to college, it’s going to hurt me because I’m not actively putting in as much effort as I should or as I could because of those policies. So when I go to college, I won’t be as prepared. I won’t have the strong work ethic that I probably could have [had] if those policies weren’t in place.”
Times have changed since March 2020, and the DCPS grading policy has “run its course,” Dr. Bright said.
Ms. Moore took a more nuanced position. “I think we have to move away from a pure pandemic mindset,” she said.