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A graph comparing the grades distributed to upperclassmen in the two academic years

The ABCs of Packer Grading

High school cliches evoke images of a divided cafeteria: jocks at one table, band geeks, gamers, theater kids, and nerds each at another. At Packer, however, few traits are confined to just one cluster of teens. The majority of students are athletic, many artistic, and as report cards have gone on to show, there is certainly nothing unique about getting good grades.

While Packer students have always had high academic performance, in recent years grades have consistently followed an upward trend, with the 2018-2019 school year having the most notable increase in grade distribution. Last year, 73% of grades distributed to upperclassmen in academic classes were either an A or an A-, a stark jump from the 50-60% range of years prior. Furthermore, 87% of grades distributed last year were a B+ or above, and only 5% fell at a B- or below. 

When 95% of grades fall between an A and a B, it raises the question of whether higher grades are actually a product of better performing students, or if Packer as an institution is following a general shift among college-preparatory schools of grade inflation.

Speaking to the trend, Upper School Math Teacher Sameer Shah said, “When I first arrived to Packer, we would send interims only if a student was earning a C- or below. Then a few years ago, the US administration said an interim should be sent if a student was earning a C or below. Now, the US administration said an interim should be sent if a student is earning a C+ or below. Each time we’ve gotten a new set of instructions like this from the administration, I think about what message that sends to kids, what message that sends to families, and what message that sends to teachers.” 

Mr. Shah is certainly not alone in questioning the implications of a raised bar for interims. Mathematics Department Head Ian Rumsey has also observed a change in attitude around grades and discusses it through what he identifies as the “friction point.”

The “friction point,” as Mr. Rumsey defines it, is the grade at which “[he] as a teacher [begins] to feel friction, that is, things that disrupt [his] day-to-day practice: emails from deans/advisors/parents, higher-than-usual number of student meetings, meetings with admins, writing reports or comments.”

Discussing how he has felt that friction point change over time and theorizing its causes, Mr. Rumsey said, “I don’t think that anyone has consciously decided to raise their averages. I think it is part of a very subtle cultural shift that puts upward pressure on grades. Essentially, it comes down to my grading. Five years ago, if I handed back a quiz with an 80 average, I might hear a little grumbling but I wouldn’t feel friction. Students would generally move on. Today, if I gave back a quiz with an 80 average, I would expect many student meetings, likely emails from advisors, deans, and/or parents. Friction. The difference is that the friction point five years ago was somewhere in the 75 range and today is probably closer to 83.”

“If I get back a B or below, I feel like I’m worse than my peers,” said Dylan Ng (‘20), alluding to a friction point similar to the one Mr. Rumsey described.  “When I get a B, I feel a lot of pressure to raise it. I’ve cried in front of my teachers and advisor because of a B before.”

In terms of how this raised friction point affects his teaching, Mr. Rumsey said, “I don’t consciously make any changes to my grading, but if I see a low average, I brace for that friction. Maybe the next time I’m grading, I subconsciously correct slightly upward to reduce the friction. Of course, every time I adjust to the new friction point, I help to move the friction point a little higher.”

“I would attribute some of [the trend in grading] to the pressure we as an institution place on college admissions, which has empowered students to push back and bring questions of final grades into conversations about courses,” said an anonymous Upper School history teacher. “I have heard more students ask about what they need to get an A.”  

The increased standard has motivated many students to increase their grades, but has also had potentially adverse effects on student attitudes towards learning, particularly in harder classes, in which the distribution may stray from Packer’s norm.

“Teaching in accelerated classes, any time students are in the B range it seems they feel like they’re failing the class,” noted Dr. Alice Lurain, Upper School Science Teacher. “I do my best to try and encourage them to think of learning as a process and to feel good about the progress that they’ve made, but I find it increasingly difficult to convey that message effectively in a climate where anything less than an A is a failure.” 

Affirming the problem Dr. Lurain identified, Dylan said, “It’s extremely frustrating when I meet with a teacher and ask how I can improve my grade and they want me to just focus on how much I’ve learned and not the grade. But it’s hard to do that, because Packer has made me feel like the grade I see on my report card is more important than what I’ve actually learned.”

“I find myself being a lot more accepting of receiving a lower grade if the class is taught by a more established teacher, particularly in a class that’s held in a higher regard within Packer,” said Sebastian Allais (‘20), also noting that “There are definitely classes where Packer students expect an A.” 

While Dylan and Sebastian speak to two different issues, both of their points indicate a much larger trend emerging among Packer students. When anything less than perfect puts you in the minority, it becomes harder to create a learning environment in which students can be motivated by more than their grades.

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