The Deerfield curriculum, comprised of five areas of study—English, history, math, science and foreign languages— seems to create a balanced system in which students can improve their overall skill sets in preparation for college level education and beyond.
But students who excel in math or science classes have an unfair advantage over those who excel in humanities. In math and science, students can attain grades in the high 90s or even 100 on a test or assignment, while grades in English or history often seem to be capped around 93. Since many Deerfield students are competing for spots at top colleges, this phenomenon creates a tangible disadvantage in GPA statistics for students who are stronger in humanities and weaker in math and science. This grade gap, however, is only a minor facet of the issues within the DA grading system.
One of the problems is school-wide grade compression and inflation. In the winter term of this school year, 60% of grades were between 87 and 92, and 10% of grades were between 92 and 93.
These statistics create a situation in which students have difficulty distinguishing themselves from their peers. Students are led to fight for fractions of points, in some cases negotiating with teachers for a grade they may not have earned. It seems unhealthy to foster an environment that pushes students to compete within a five-point compact scale.
Many historical components have contributed to our currently skewed grading system. As the college admissions process, and consequently Deerfield students, has become increasingly more competitive, fewer students tolerate grades in the C range. It seems hard to believe looking at Deerfield today, but in the recent past, C’s were considered acceptable passing grades at our school.
There have been beneficial changes to the academic system. Today students enjoy more options in their academic ventures. Test corrections, multiple drafts of papers and extra-help sessions contribute both to greater understanding and success on the students’ part as teachers further aid their efforts.
Tracking (e.g. honors, accelerated) allows students to either play to their strengths for the sake of a more competitive GPA or assume the risk of being one of the weaker students in the class. The choice is up to the students.
Academic Dean Peter Warsaw explained that grade inflation and compression is a complex issue not unique to Deerfield—many of our peer schools have seen this trend as well. Fifty years ago, a Deerfield student would be one of 2,000 applicants to a college, while today schools regularly see 30,000-40,000 applicants. Grade inflation reform calls for a conversation not just about grading, but also about what we value in an education, taking into account the pressures of college admission. There is no simple solution.
The current administration inherited the existing system, Mr. Warsaw said: the Curriculum Committee is examining some of its more negative components. The Committee, throughout the year, has explored many aspects of the grading system, and ultimately, they have decided the issue is one that should be addressed.
It seems to me that meaningful change will only take place with some very gradual developments. There remain many questions as to exactly how and when transition could take place. As Deerfield grading has developed into such a complex system, its transformation is likely to be just as complicated.