For high school seniors, GPA is not always on target

September 27, 2004|by ROSE RENNEKAMP

In Lake Wobegon, the mythical Minnesota town created by storyteller Garrison Keillor, all children are "above average." If you look at the grade- point average of U.S. high school students over time, you'll notice that scores gradually have been creeping upward - like ivy on an old school administration building. More students than ever are receiving grades that indicate they are "above average."

Parents in Lake Wobegon might be proud, but they'd probably be shocked if their "above-average" student went off to college and struggled to succeed.

Wouldn't you think that a student with a high school GPA of more than 3.0 would be ready to tackle college-level courses? Unfortunately, that isn't necessarily the case. ACT scores for the class of 2004 show that students who had a high school GPA between 3.0 and 3.49 scored lower than the national average on the ACT Assessment, suggesting that these students may struggle in their first year of college.


The culprit? Grade inflation. ACT research shows that between 1991 and 2003, the average high school GPA went up more than 6 percent. But when you look at a more objective barometer - ACT scores - they didn't indicate a similar increase in academic achievement.

Grade inflation can result in a tough reality check for students when they get to college. A man I know successfully hid a learning disorder throughout high school. In fact, he graduated in the top third of his class, most likely because he is a natural salesman and was able to sell his teachers on the idea that he "deserved" a good grade because he worked hard and turned his homework in on time. But when he got to college and tried to get through a math class, he struggled. Even after two attempts in the remedial class, he got so frustrated that he dropped out.

What can students and parents do to make sure they are prepared for college? The best thing for students to do is take the toughest college prep course schedule available at their school and study hard in classes. Don't allow your student to sign up for classes with teachers known to give "easy As." Have them sign up to study with teachers who really push students to do their best. Many admissions counselors will tell you that they'd rather see a B in an honors class than an A in a class that doesn't challenge the student.

You also need to pay attention to test scores. Students who get As in classes by turning in homework on time, participating in discussions, and working well in teams, but regularly gets lower scores on tests, may not be learning as much as the A would lead you to believe.

Many schools give their sophomores standardized achievement tests such as the PLAN Assessment. If you look over these results carefully, they can show you very clearly where students are having trouble, and how well they're expected to do on the college admissions exam if they continue on the same track.

Students also may take the ACT - either a practice test or the real thing - as early as possible in their junior years to see what kind of scores they earn. If a student scores 24 or above in science, 22 or above in math, and 18 or above in English, that means the student is basically "college-ready" and should be able to earn a C or better in an entry-level college biology, algebra and English class. Students who score below those benchmarks run the risk of coming into college unprepared.

Students who don't reach the benchmarks should take extra coursework, study outside of class and even get tutoring in areas that need improvement. While the GPA can show how hard students have worked, it doesn't always reflect readiness for college.

Rose Rennekamp is the vice president of communications for ACT. Have a question you want answered in a future column? Send an e-mail to

The Herald-Mail Articles