Are UM freshmen getting smarter? Depends how you make the grade

3.9 grade-point reflects changes at high schools

October 30, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The statistic leading off this fall's annual letter from the University of Maryland president to 200,000 alumni, trustees and state leaders is eye-catching: The mean high school grade-point average for incoming UM freshmen, the president reports, "has jumped from 3.5 to 3.9 in just five years."

Because a 4.0 GPA represents an "A" average, the 3.9 figure means that the typical student arrives in College Park with nearly perfect grades, right?

Well, no, not exactly.

Left unmentioned in the use of the 3.9 figure, which UM has also advertised in other contexts, is that half of its students now come from high schools that give extra weight to grades in advanced-placement classes or other honors courses.

Many schools now use a scale as high as six or seven points to reflect A's in advanced classes, and many students arrive at college with GPAs well over 4.0.

The university's aggressive use of the 3.9 average to reflect the caliber of its incoming students has raised the eyebrows - and the ire - of some officials at rival schools.

Although some other colleges also use weighted grades in calculating their average freshman GPA, few emphasize that figure as much as UM does.

Critics say it is misleading to use the 3.9 number without explaining that it is not calculated on a 4.0 scale, as many people unaware of the move toward weighted GPAs might assume.

"If you just take an unthinking average of all [incoming student GPAs], you get a very high number," said Wesley P. Jordan, the dean of admissions at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public college that often competes with College Park for the state's better students. "It's a marketing ploy that has no basis in reality."

UM officials say they see nothing wrong in using GPAs as they are reported on high school transcripts and say it would be time-consuming to recalibrate them on a 4.0 scale for the freshman class average.

They dismissed the possibility that the recipients of the Sept. 17 letter from President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. could mistake the 3.9 average as being on a 4.0 scale.

No misunderstanding

"I'm not aware that anyone had expressed that concern," said UM spokesman George Cathcart. "Our alumni want to know how our students are doing, and this is one of the numbers we use. ... I think people understand what this number is."

The debate over how colleges should report the average high school GPAs of their incoming freshmen is just one aspect of the growing uncertainty among admissions departments about how much emphasis to place on high school grades.

As grading approaches vary more widely among high schools - with some weighting grades in honors classes and others showing signs of grade inflation - some admissions officers say they have started paying less attention to GPAs and more to class rank and entrance-exam scores.

For similar reasons, admissions officers are also wary about giving out average high school GPA figures to prospective students, for fear of intimidating them with numbers that might be misleading.

Barbara Gill, UM's director of admissions, said her office avoids using such figures when speaking to applicants.

"It's not valuable to say you need a 3.9, which is what some students think," said Gill. "It's impressive [sounding], but more troubling is that it's frightening to some students."

The university is more willing, she added, to promote the 3.9 figure "in places where we want to show people who are not prospective applicants how the university has changed."

In addition to the president's annual letter, the average GPA for this year's entering class - sometimes given as 3.87 - is also included on a UM Web site link to a recent front-page article about the university in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

UM officials said use of the 3.9 figure in the president's letter was intended only to show that the school's incoming classes have improved over the past five years - an improvement also reflected in rising SAT scores.

Because the school's method of calculating the average GPA has been consistent in recent years, they said, the comparison with the 3.5 average from 1998 is valid.

Also valid, they said, is the college's comparison, in other contexts, of the current GPA with the 3.0 average of the entering class from 10 years ago.

"My understanding is that we're using the same scales over time," said Cathcart.

Changing input

But officials at other schools said the GPA comparison might not be valid because the number of high schools using weighted GPAs has shot up in recent years, as has the number of students taking advanced placement classes.

Those changes could explain part of the increased GPA boasted by UM, they said.

"If the average GPAs in high schools have gone up, then that would raise the average GPAs of [incoming freshmen] without an increase in the ability of students," said St. Mary's Jordan.

"It's a bogus argument."

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