While the COVID-19 pandemic may have led to a new academic schedule this year, one thing has remained the same: Deerfield’s practice of grade compression. Grade compression is the contraction of the range in which a considerable percentage of students’ grades fall. At Deerfield, grades typically fall between the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, rather than extending from zero to hundred.
Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs & Strategy Dr. Ivory Hills said, “We definitely have grade compression.”
He explained, “There was an extensive grade discussion [6-7 years ago under a different academic dean] and the articulation at that point was that the school median should be around 89 and that grades in the 90s should be reserved for excellent work.”
“It was really a perception of maintaining the integrity of our grading system so that when colleges saw our grades, they would think there was some stratification or distribution among our students,” Dr. Hills added.
Based on the published college profiles of The Hotchkiss School and Choate Rosemary Hall, there is a visible difference between the grade distribution of Deerfield Academy and those schools.
At Choate, 15.04% of the class of ’21 last school year had a 4.30-4.0 GPA which, on their scale, is equivalent to a 93% and above. Additionally, at Hotchkiss, over 40% of the class of ’21 had a 93% and above last school year. At Deerfield, however, only 6% of the class of ’21 had a 93% or above average last school year. (All data are taken directly from each school’s respective official school profiles for this year)
In response to seeing this data, Student Body President Chijioke Achebe ’21 said, “I would hope that when students look at this they feel a little bit better. I certainly do. I had never seen this. I think it shows we are being held to a higher standard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
One student remarked, “I’ve also seen the extreme differences in stats between DA and other schools in our league. It’s kind of infuriating.” Many students also pointed out that they perceive a “lack of uniformity” in grading, especially when the subjects are more humanities-oriented, and emphasized the need for a “standardized guideline.”
However, this discrepancy has been a cause of concern for some students who believe that the grading system at Deerfield Academy needs to be reevaluated. According to the results of a recent survey sent out to students by the Scroll, when asked whether the grading system at Deerfield needs to be changed in some way, 63.7% of respondents said “yes,” 22.6% said “I’m not sure,” and 13.7% said “no.” Among those who responded that it needed to be changed, a common belief was that due to grade compression, a single point “holds so much weight.”
Another student proposed that participation may need to hold greater weight, while others recommended widening the range of grades given to students. In addition to calling for a more established standard of grading within departments, one student suggested a new, non-numerical grading scale with “no precise equivalent” to letter grades.
Dr. Hills, however, noted the inherent difficulty and complications of modifying the current system. “In the past, we have talked about changing our grading system, but just moving from system A to system B leads to confusion,” he said. “If the school radically changes their grading system, it would take [colleges] a while to figure out what’s going on.”
This alteration, he added, would lead to further—and possibly unfavorable—changes in the review of applicants. “[Admissions Offices] are immediately going to spend more time looking at ACT and SAT scores,” he said. “I think that might even be a worse measure of what a student is capable of.”
Based on the anonymous survey results, a prominent concern among respondents was that Deerfield’s grade compression will put them at a disadvantage compared to other schools during the college admissions process. A student said in the survey, “It’s frustrating that colleges might not understand how our grading system works.” Another commented, “I do believe it can be harmful in terms of college admissions.”
However, Dr. Hills said, “As it relates to college admission, I’m not worried about it at all.” He added, “I think colleges are very internally calibrated to what a Deerfield grade means in a Deerfield context.” The Deerfield-specific grading calibration is linked to page 3 of the school profile, which is what college admissions officers look at when evaluating Deerfield students.
When asked about personal experiences with grade compression at Deerfield, many students responded that grade compression at Deerfield has had significant effects on their mental health. One student said, “Grades have made me a lot more insecure to participate in discussions where I feel less intelligent to speak up because of a previous grade.”
Another student addressed its toll on their sense of accomplishment, commenting, “When I hear about kids from other schools getting higher grades and putting in half of the work I do, it tears me down.” A student voiced a similar sentiment, saying, “I was at the top of my class at my old school and my work was much worse than it is here. Here, I am getting lower grades and it pushes me to stay up later and be really hard on myself. I have lost so much sleep anxiously trying to perfect a paper when perfection can’t be reached here.”
Echoing the previous student, one student stated how their experiences with grade compression have pervaded various aspects of their psychological health. They said, “As someone who is academically oriented, these experiences have really changed, and for the worse, my motivation to do well in school, my trust in my teachers, my self-perception/self-confidence, and quite frankly my outlook on my future.”
Some students, however, mentioned that grade compression has not significantly affected their well-being. One respondent said, “Personally, I don’t care too much about grades, rather the learning.”
Dr. Hills shared words of encouragement for students experiencing the negatives of grade compression. “Numerical grades are a very poor measure of what someone’s capacity really can be. They are a snapshot in time,” he said. “To finish first, you must first finish…You don’t have to feel like you’re the shining star, you just have to have a plan and keep at it.” Finally, he expressed his ultimate goal for students, saying, “Really, at Deerfield what I want and what your teachers want is just for you to fall in love with learning.”
The varying outlooks on the grading system at Deerfield points to the need for further conversations among all members of the Deerfield community. While multiple teaching faculty members were contacted, none were willing to comment on-record about this topic except Dr. Hills. Dr. Hills expressed his willingness for open communication, saying, “If I can be of any help to any student or any group of students, just tell me where to be.”