Away with GPAs

There are days that I, and I’m sure many of my classmates, will check PowerSchool obsessively waiting for a teacher to put in a specific grade. Even as I scroll through, barely looking at anything except that grade, I see my Grade Point Average (GPA) looming above my quarter grades. Represented in PowerSchool by four digits and four stars, a wave of overwhelming disappointment washes over me each time I see it. This number holds a certain power over my life in its ability to remind me of each of my weakest grades from the past four years, while also encapsulating all my hopes for college admissions.

A GPA is not the summation of who we are as students, although it can often feel that way. It’s also not the most important thing on your transcript; it’s simply one number used to summarize your academic performance. But it’s not the perfect summary tool. It doesn’t show your strengths, weaknesses, the rigor of your classes, or whether you’ve improved over time. GPAs are a long standing tool used to compare students to each other and to measure their overall academic performance, but they hide a lot. It’s also highly subjective depending on your school’s grading and reporting policies.

A summary statistic that so poorly represents the student is useless, and the stress they cause is damaging. Therefore, I believe that the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD), and any other school district interested in their students’ well being, should no longer track and report GPAs.

When I first decided to write this article, I planned to write about why our GPAs should be weighted. I began to build my argument based on two classic arguments for weighted GPAs: the first was that we should make our GPAs as similar as possible to the way colleges would view them, the second was that your GPA should show the difficulty of the classes you’d taken to more fairly demonstrate your successes. 

I started by talking to Tara Scholder, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) admissions counsellor for the Seacoast area. During our conversation I realized two very important things, the first was that each college has their own system for weighting GPAs and they’ll reweight your GPA according to what they believe is important, so there’s no point in trying to weight GPAs the same way they do. The second thing I realized was that they believe your transcript, which includes the grades from every class you took during high school, is a more accurate indicator of your success. 

Your GPA takes all of the information on your transcript and tries to put it neatly in a box, but your transcript will show your improvement over time, the difficulty of the classes you took, and your strengths, which will probably be more relevant if you’re applying to a specific program. Using all of a student’s grades to understand their academic career will give you a more accurate and balanced impression of their performance.

Heather Machanoff, a school counselor at ORHS, explained that the biggest use for a GPA is to help students get into college. Within ORHS, GPAs are used for the internal class ranking, honor roll, and organizations like National Honor Society (NHS). Machanoff said, “it’s not even on our radar, as far as our office, in terms of meeting with students. It’s not anything that’s ever really talked about unless they come in for an insurance discount or to send stuff to a scholarship or some kind of program that’s asking for it.” She also said that it could help students judge their fit at various colleges, but I’ve found that it can be hard to judge where your GPA falls on the college’s scale when you don’t know how they weight it. If the counselling department doesn’t actually use GPAs, and they don’t actually give you an idea of where you’ll be able to get into college, GPAs don’t have any significant added benefits.

A weighted GPA means that classes will factor differently into your GPA depending on their difficulty. For example, if an A in a typical class is worth 4.0, an A in an AP class might be worth 5.0. While colleges often re-weight your GPA to create a standardized summary statistic, it’s important to recognize that most college admissions counselors acknowledge that your GPA doesn’t show everything about you. They also understand that every school has a different way of reporting student grades and GPAs. To compensate for this they will re-weight your GPA so that it matches the system of reporting they use. 

When you see the GPA that the college presents, it probably won’t match the reporting system that your school uses, so it won’t actually tell you where your GPA falls compared to the average. For example, Tara Scholder, the Seacoast area admissions counselor at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), explained that UNH re-calculates GPA to include only the core classes and to weight Advanced Placement (AP) classes a full point higher and honors classes half of a point higher. However, Oyster River includes all classes that students take and doesn’t weight them. This means that the 3.5 that UNH reported on their website as the average GPA for enrolling students is completely different from a 3.5 at Oyster River. The biggest benefit of having a GPA is knowing where you fall compared to a college’s average, which should give you an idea of how likely you are to get in; yet, your GPA doesn’t actually tell you where you fall when colleges re-weight it to follow their own system.

Scholder explained that they consider students within the context of their school. She said, “we do not compare students, in terms of admissions decisions, across (high) schools.” Even though they create the standard to consider students’ GPAs, Scholder said, “it gives me a first, initial impression of a student. But we do dig deeper and look at the transcript, because there’s a lot that can be behind a GPA.” She explained that at the end of the day, the decision depends more on the student’s transcript than their GPA. 

When I was trying to determine which colleges were worth applying to and which were “matches,” “reaches,” or “safeties,” their average GPAs were stuck in the front of my head. I was terrified that they wouldn’t look beyond my GPA to see the classes that I’d taken and the individual grades I’d gotten in those classes. The more I toured schools and spoke to admissions counselors and our school counselors, the more I began to realize that this was a largely unfounded fear, and that your GPA says very little about you.

If college admissions counselors and school counselors recognize that your GPA doesn’t show everything about a student, why do we continue to use them? Machanoff said, “people have a really hard time separating the number from the learning. So if we took that GPA away I feel like people would still be calculating it on their own in a way. I think that we think that that’s just what we’re supposed to be doing, that’s just how we measure things.” 

While discussing the downsides to having GPAs, Machanoff said the issue isn’t the GPA, it’s the mindset our society has around education. She said she believes that as long as numbers are used to measure success, the issues we’ve found with GPAs will persist. Machanoff mentioned that competency based grading is meant to drive a shift away from this mentality. But I believe that the biggest issue with the GPA is that it perpetuates the idea that you’re either good at school or you’re not, while individual grades show a more complete picture. GPAs don’t allow students to have strong subjects and subjects that you struggle with. This makes even less sense when you remember that not every student is going to use high level math or writing for the rest of their lives. So why is it included in the summary of their academic career? Considering individual course grades allows the student to be human; they can fail, succeed, and grow over the course of their four years.

Scholder and Machanoff both considered a student’s transcript to be a better indicator of their academic performance than their GPA. Scholder said, “the overall GPA might be quite modest because once you get a lot of Cs and Ds on your transcript your freshman year, it’s really hard to bring those up because you’re looking at an average. So the GPA for those students might be quite modest, but when you look at the transcript you see they’re getting all As and Bs in their junior and senior year, and that’s much more important to us.”

 While your grades matter freshman year, they don’t necessarily portray what you’re like as a student when you’re a senior. Stephanie Evans (‘20) spoke to the effect that this has had on her. She said, “I think it increases stress personally because I messed up freshman year, I really messed up, which is something that is shown through my GPA and it’s not gonna go away no matter how many As I get in my junior or senior year.”

Evans continued on the topic, “obviously people change from when they’re fourteen to when they’re eighteen. I know colleges see that, but it’s stressful to think that one mistake you make freshman year can cause you not to get in somewhere.”  Why is it that when we want to consider a student as they are today, we start with a summary statistic that views their performance over the past four years equally and allows for very little growth?

GPAs attempt to sum up your entire education with one number, but they end up hiding the person. Machanoff said, “everybody has strengths and weaknesses, so just because you have that GPA doesn’t mean you’re really, really great in all areas. You might be really, really great at social studies and English, okay at math, and maybe science is your struggle area. But you still have a respectable GPA.” GPAs can create the illusion that if a student isn’t successful in all subjects, they’re a bad student or stupid. If a student believes that they’re not capable of succeeding, they might give up on school as a whole.

On the flip side of this, in my experience, students who strive for a high GPA will often take classes they know they can be successful in rather than classes they find challenging and engaging to maintain their GPA. This encourages students to do less meaningful work for the sake of a better grade rather than hard work in a topic they find engaging. 

Machanoff believes that to encourage students to work for learning rather than for grades we need to change the way we think about education. She said that this new mindset was part of what they hoped to achieve at the middle school through competency based grading. She said, “I think it’s much larger than just getting rid of the GPA. It’s a mind shift in how we view education and how we view what education should be.” However, by removing GPAs, we would encourage students to look beyond a single number when they judge their academic successes. They would be able to see their current performance in individual classes without the average of their past grades hovering over them. 

Machanoff pointed out that it would be difficult to get rid of GPAs when some people feel strongly that we should continue to have them. She said, “when you look at things like education, people are referencing their own experiences. ‘When I was in high school we had a GPA and it wasn’t a problem,’ or ‘we had honor roll, what’s the matter with that.’ They think in isolation of their own experience sometimes without taking into account that society is changing, students are changing.”

While I understand where people are coming from when they’re frustrated with change, I don’t see what added benefit that GPAs have. They cause more student stress than they’re worth and don’t allow students to recover from their weaker grades. As long as GPAs exist, students will use them as a convenient measure of their performance during high school and, in some cases, their ability to succeed in the future. Students who want to keep GPAs might believe that the pressure that comes from them is a positive influence, but I suspect that if they went without them, they would feel differently.

GPAs do little more than provide a standard metric to compare students’ performances, causing needless stress, especially with PowerSchool, where students find their GPA at the top of the screen every time they check their grades. Education isn’t meant to be a competition, it’s a valuable opportunity. But when students are provided a single measure that they can use to compare themselves to their peers, they’ll use it. “If you have the skills you need, does it matter how you compare to the person sitting next to you?” said Machanoff.

Machanoff was right. If the purpose of education is to provide the skills to succeed in the real world, there’s no reason that every student should have to succeed in every class they take. Your weaknesses in one area shouldn’t make your successes count for less so that you can be conveniently summed up in a single number.