As grading system changes, an A is less of a stretch

The main entrance at Lower Merion High School.

High school students in the Lower Merion School District will be catching a bit of a break this coming year: It will be easier to ace tests, and not as easy to flunk them.

Under a new grading policy, a score of 90 will be enough for an A, down from the traditional cutoff of 92. At the other end of the measuring stick, a failing grade now will be 59 and under, instead of 64.

What's behind the grade-point pick-me-up?

Some Lower Merion parents complained that the decades-old system of eight points per letter grade - falling out of favor nationwide as districts adopt the more forgiving 10-point scale - could cast their children in an unfair comparative light when they apply for colleges and merit scholarships.

Despite little solid evidence that it made a difference, and the assurance of college officials that it didn't, the change was approved in June for the district's two high schools, Harriton and Lower Merion.

There was a perception among parents "that the eight-point scale had a disadvantage for students," said Scott Eveslage, assistant superintendent. "We're not taking a stance."

Some states, such as North Carolina, have imposed uniform grading on all their public schools, but Pennsylvania and New Jersey are mishmashes of scoring systems. Because there are so many, colleges say they look at each school's profile - including the grading scale, the difficulty of course offerings, and how students compare with their cohorts - when reviewing transcripts. Admissions officers say they also sometimes recalculate grade-point averages to make them uniform.

"There are as many scales as you can imagine," said Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. More important than scores "is the quality of education you're receiving in x institution."

Of the grading disparities, he added: "I can say for Swarthmore . . . it does not matter."

Online commenters have criticized Lower Merion's new, more liberal grade ranges as "dumbing down." But Amy Norr, the mother of a Harriton junior, and other parents see it as leveling the playing field.

"Almost every other district . . . has a 10-point scale. It just causes potential confusion in college admissions," said Norr, who was among those who began advocating for the change last fall.

"Teachers aren't going to change based on this scale," she said. "They know the kind of quality they're looking for."

In approving the new system, Lower Merion administrators also instituted minuses. Pluses already were awarded, but not an A-plus; that was added, for point scores from 97 to 100.

Echoing Norr, Eveslage said: "What a student is expected to learn isn't changing. The standards of excellence that would warrant an A isn't changing necessarily."

The "technical" change will align the district with most others in the region, including Philadelphia. In a survey of 31 public school districts and seven private schools, only three - Marple Newtown, Upper Darby, and Garnet Valley - still use eight-point letter valuations.

Garnet Valley considered switching to the 10-point scale two years ago but decided against it, reasoning that "an A is an A as far as the quality of the work, regardless of your point system," and teachers determine if a student is worthy of the top grade, said Greg Hilden, assistant principal at Garnet Valley High School.

When his former district, Unionville-Chadds Ford, switched from eight to 10 points two years ago, he said, the number of A's remained the same because "teachers know the value of A work and B work."

Norr said she was happy that Lower Merion recognized that "we were the real outlier." She said she worried that some admissions officers might not take the time to review all the school's information.

More important, she said, students could miss out on merit scholarships that give financial aid to those with the highest grades. While a Lower Merion student with a 90 would score a B-plus, a student with the same 90 would get an A in another district.

"It negatively impacts our students," she said.

However, Karin Mormando, director of undergraduate admissions at Temple University, said that while GPAs are used to determine merit aid, it's only one part of "the overall picture."

At Lower Merion, the new system won't keep students from sweating out grades. Instead of shooting for an A, some say, they'll be stressing over an A-plus.

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella