A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean - for High School Students

Tamar Lewin, a New York Times reporter, discussed the issue of what an “A” means if everyone gets one.  To some, an “A” is supposed to mean total mastery of the subject and to others, exceptional work.  Princeton University’s definition of an “A” limits it to no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades. 

In some schools, too many students are getting A’s.  If everyone in the class gets an “A” (or too many students get one) how will graduate schools and employers distuinguish between candidates.  Ms. Lewin's article was addressing a problem that many academics are wrestling with on college campuses today. 

However, this has been a problem in high school for many years as well.  When the New York Times covered graduations this past June with the story How Many Graduates Does It Take to Be No. 1?, they led with a story of Jericho High School’s seven valadictorians.  But Jericho High was nothing compared to Stratford High School outside of Houston, Texas which had 30 valedictorians (which was 6.5% of the graduating class).  The article also quotes William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, who indicated that he was aware of schools with more than 100 valedictorians.  Several years back, the Washington Post had a story about Robinson Secondary School which had 41 students at the top of their class.  High school administrators have their reasons for increasing the number of top students, they feel it reduces pressure and competition and that it’s a more equitable way to reward hard working students.  Critics say it leaves graduates unprepared for life after graduation.

Nothing said here will change the hearts and minds of high schools principals and colleges professors around the country.  However, high school students should take note that there are ways of distinguishing themselves through community service and leadership.  These activities can show others that you are more than just your grades.  It will also help you learn more about the world outside of the academic community and that will be useful for life after school.  So yes, grades are important, but don’t limit yourself to grades alone, keep an eye on the big picture.