The problem with good grades

Challenging courses can boost the odds of admissions, and set students up for college success.
Howard Bell
Howard Bell
“Howard Bell has spent 25 years working in education including most recently as the CEO of Abl. At Abl, he and his team help large school districts such as Los Angeles Unified and Baltimore City Public Schools get a clear, data-driven view of course offerings, enrollment trends, staff distribution, and student goals, delving beyond district-wide averages to understand the needs of different groups of students. Abl’s nationally standardized college and career readiness measurement, sophisticated analytics, scheduling software, and professional development helps districts instantly understand the readiness of their students to take the next steps after high school. He has previously worked at Wayne State University’s TechTown Detroit entrepreneurship hub, Kaplan, and Scholastic.”

Aspiring college students are hyper-focused on grades—and with good reason.

Surveys of admissions officers have shown that high school grades are far and away the most important factor in college admissions. With the recent shift toward test-optional admissions, grades have only grown in importance. A decade ago, 56 percent of four-year colleges attributed “considerable importance” to test scores like the SAT and ACT, and about half gave the same credence to total high school grades. Today, just 5 percent of four-year colleges place such importance on test scores, but three-quarters place considerable importance on grades.

This fixation comes at a cost. Fearful that lower grades will land them in the “no” stack in admissions offices, students often steer clear of more challenging courses. But earning a high GPA in this fashion can come back to bite students if and when they get to college. I know because it happened to me.

Growing up in Atlantic City, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, partly because the profession paid the highest salary after college graduation, and partly to spite my Algebra 2 teacher, who told the class none of us were smart enough to become one. As a first-generation college student, I was less sure about the steps I needed to take to make college a reality.

Without any guidance suggesting otherwise, I focused solely on maintaining a high enough GPA to get accepted into a college with a strong engineering program. Because I always signed up for the most advanced—and hardest—math classes available to me, I consciously balanced out the rest of my schedule with easier courses. I was already juggling school with playing basketball, working after school, and being involved in student government. It seemed like a fair trade-off. After all, an A was an A, right?

Fast forward to college, where two things occurred. First, I aced my calculus class, since I was familiar with most of the material. And second, my English class smoked me. So much for my pristine high school GPA.

Sadly, high school and college students across the country are still making the same decision as I did, weighing course selection against grade outcomes. Meanwhile, most schools and districts do not have a dependable mechanism for flagging and course-correcting those who are taking the easy route. With teachers and staff largely unaware they need to intervene, these students design their schedules based on the belief that earning a B in a hard course means college admissions teams (and employers) will walk away to find students with 4.0 GPAs.

Ironically, focusing on grades at the expense of rigor not only undermines the purpose of a high school education but could actually hurt students’ odds of being admitted to—and succeeding in—college. It turns out that the story behind the GPA matters just as much as the GPA itself. Colleges look at not just the grade, but the difficulty of a class.

In California, for instance, the UC System employs a complex (and transparent) system that gives extra weight to what it considers to be honor courses, including AP courses, transferable college courses, and system-certified honors courses. This focus on rigor is not just about getting the best applicants; it’s about cultivating success once students are on campus. Data has, for decades, shown that exposure to rigorous, college-level courses in high school is tied to college success, including having a positive effect on persistence and completion rates.

School leaders have a responsibility to make sure students get the full picture when it comes to making course selection decisions. Advances in technology mean they can now use data to analyze student trajectories in real-time, determine what barriers and conditions might be factoring into scheduling decisions, and take a more active role in pointing students in the right direction. They also have to ensure the course schedule doesn’t inadvertently “shadow track” students into rigid pathways that dissuade them from pursuing rigorous coursework. Too often students are sorted in ways that exacerbate inequities and give them little choice in determining or pursuing their own aspirations.

These same principles also apply to career-focused students, who should supplement rigorous academic courses with similarly robust career and technical education. Apprenticeships, dual enrollment programs, and other career training initiatives can allow students to experience high levels of rigor that prepare them for both work and the inevitable lifelong learning requirements present in all career fields.

I learned the hard way that there is no easy route to and through college. What feels like a smart shortcut at the time is likely a detour that could lead to a roadblock or even a dead end later in the journey. Improvements in data analytics and scheduling software can help ensure today’s students do not fall victim to the mistakes I once made. With encouragement and thoughtful, data-driven academic planning, all students can realize they are just as capable of succeeding in rigorous courses as they are in less difficult ones.

It’s up to school leaders to help students make smart decisions not based on how best to earn an easy A, but on how to thrive long after high school graduation.


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