Work is getting tougher for Rebecca Dixon and her staff.
As Northwestern University's associate provost for enrollment, Ms. Dixon sees student after student applying to college with a lofty high school grade point average (GPA). Figuring out who the outstanding students really are has become much more difficult.
"You begin to wonder how everyone can get a straight-A average," says Dixon from her office in Evanston, Ill.
GPAs around the country are climbing as high schools change their standards. The old bell curve, where most students got grades between a B and a D, has cracked. Now, most grades appear on a rising slope, with more students bunched near the top.
As a result, many educators say, students are getting a less meaningful measure of their performance. Colleges are relying less on grades, looking instead at indicators like standardized test scores and personal essays to make admissions decisions.
A recent report by the College Board, which administers the SAT, reveals the extent of high school grade inflation. This year, 37 percent of the graduating seniors who took the SAT college aptitude test boasted A-plus, A, or A-minus GPAs. A decade ago, only 28 percent of the seniors had such high grades.
Students taking the American College Test, a standardized test similar to the SAT, show a similar trend. Of the graduating seniors taking the ACT last year, 32 percent had GPAs of 3.5 or higher - equaling a B-plus or above - on a 4.0 scale, twice as many as in 1970. The percentage of students in the C, D, and F range fell, an ACT study shows.
Are students just getting smarter? Not according to their standardized test scores. While high school grades were improving, SAT and ACT scores were falling, report the two testing services.
Grades are likely rising because of the messages parents, principals, and school boards are sending teachers, says Gretchen Rigol, the College Board's director for admissions and guidance services. Often they have the attitude that students who show up to class, do their homework, and don't make trouble deserve at least a B, she says.
"Sometimes it's easier for the teacher to give higher grades and to get the parents off their back," says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who often works with students.
But students don't necessarily think getting good grades is so easy. "If you get an A, you've got to earn it," says Vicente Partida, a junior at New Trier High School on Chicago's North Shore. Some pupils tell teachers that they deserve better grades, but the teachers don't cave in, he says.
Grading practices vary widely, depending on the community. Some schools, for example, give extra points for grades earned in honors classes, says Seppy Basili, director of pre-college programs for Kaplan Educational Centers in New York. As a result, seniors can graduate with GPAs close to 4.5 on a scale where an A, in theory, equals 4.0, he says.
This grade inflation leads many colleges to rely more heavily on the SAT and ACT standardized exams, Mr. Basili adds.
"We find it difficult to distinguish really superior, hard-working students when no one seems to be getting anything lower than a B-plus at some prestigious high schools," says Virginia Carey, dean of admissions at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "The unfortunate consequence is that we then tend to lean more heavily on other discriminators such as the SAT."
Schools also try other tactics to pick out the best students. Northwestern University looks at factors including difficulty and variety of coursework, class rankings, and whether grades improved over time, Dixon says.
And the engineering school at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, compares grades based on how well other students from the same school performed once they were in the university, says Gerry Schneider, associate dean of engineering for undergraduate studies.
Class ranking is another indicator used by schools. But even rankings are becoming blurred as some high schools start lumping their graduates into large percentile groupings, says William Fierke, registrar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Last year the university began requiring a personal essay to help distinguish applicants.
Many high schools work hard to maintain high standards, says Judy Garvey, director of guidance for Westborough High School near Boston. Westborough doesn't give grades for elective courses like band, she says. And it keeps parents informed during the year so they understand the grades their children bring home.
Despite the trouble grade inflation is causing admissions officers, educators don't always agree on whether it hurts students, Basili says. Some say good grades spur students to stay in school and keep trying. Others, like Mr. Butterworth, say better grades encourage laziness and lack of respect for quality work.
"When they enter the real world, they're going to get knocked," he says. Employers hiring workers straight out of high school are starting to give their own tests to make sure graduates can do the job, he says.
John Gorleski, a health teacher at Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago, says people worry too much about grades. "I've never felt grades are an accurate measure of what kids learn." When a teacher is reading 50 student essays, some of the grades are bound to be subjective, he says. Mr. Gorleski and two other Highland Park teachers decided last year not to put grades on most papers and tests. Instead, they use comments to let students know how they can improve. Students evaluate their own work, which is used to help determine their final grade.
"I got tired of arguing with kids," Gorleski says. Students tell him the new system reduces stress and makes class more fun. "During the course of the semester," he says, "I didn't receive a single parent call about a grade. And that's unusual."