The GPA game

In an attempt to quantify educational success, most colleges assign some numeric weight to letter grades. Most are weighted on a 4.0 scale. Now, it has been well documented that this indicator has been on the rise for years… which poses a few interesting questions. Are students getting smarter, is the curriculum getting easier, or are higher grades simply being given out more often for equivalent work? Embedded in those questions are other questions: how has GPA importance changed, how have professors’ attitudes changed, how has education itself changed? Aside from all of those questions one might ultimately ask… is the GPA even a useful quantification?

Now, answering that question – as a college student, with an assigned GPA – I may be slightly biased. The best I can do is try not to be. I claim that the GPA is a practically useless number in almost every regard, and here is why:

Someone looking at only your GPA has no information about grade distribution. Perhaps you were a poor mathematician, but in attempt to be a well-rounded English major you took mathematics class anyway. Doing poorly in that subset of discretionary classes is not immediately obvious by looking at your GPA alone. And how important is it? It is ambiguous (at least to me) if you should be penalized for refusing to study as narrowly as a 4.0 English major. Even the “Major GPA” can be manipulated through lenient instructor selection or lower level courses.

Realizing that a transcript is often supplementary to any GPA, one can still make the case that too much relevant information is unavailable. What type of work the course involved, how assignments were weighted, grading trends of the professor. None of these are available to someone looking at a GPA, with or without a transcript. The roles that so many variables play in a student’s eventual GPA are condensed into a mostly information-less number. What is worse, it that this number is used to benchmark students. (It would likely a better benchmark of instructor or institutional trends.)

This has been a cause for concern for me since well before college. I knew many highly ranked (high GPA) students that were capable only of “regurgitation” – no original thought. They were poor problem solvers, but good test-takers. I am beginning to see that the issue does not vanish at the end of high school. As I look at the data across institutions, years, and majors – it seems painfully obvious to me that the GPA is not useful for comparing students. Yet it lingers, it stresses, it represents information it does not contain.

There needs to be an alternative for comparing student “progress”. I give the GPA a C-.

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