Thursday, February 10, 2011

Test Scores Soar Here, But the Grades Aren't So Easy

Test Scores Soar Here, But the Grades Aren't So Easy
February 6, 2011
by Emily Alpert

Savannah Sparkman was used to automatically getting As for doing her schoolwork. She was stunned to see her grades sink after she transferred to Kearny High School of International Business.

"I put in all my effort and got Bs and Cs," said Sparkman, who moved from Japan as a junior. "I thought I was doing something wrong. Then I found out the average was Bs and Cs."

Teens swear there are no easy As at this school. And the numbers back them up.

Good grades are common at San Diego schools with high test scores. But not at the School of International Business, one of four small, themed schools carved out of Kearny High. It has some of the highest test scores in San Diego Unified. But its students aren't swimming in As and Bs.

Grades and tests don't always line up neatly for each individual. A teen might work hard in class and blow off state tests. But comparing grades and scores across whole schools helps reveal the gulf between grading at different schools. An A is not an A is not an A. earlier examined grades at the Met, a small school accused of grade changing. Grades there are tops, but test scores are not. International Business is at the opposite extreme, a school with top scores and surprisingly low grades.

How teachers grade students differs so much from school to school that it is nearly impossible to decipher what grades really mean. Scholars say even when teachers have the same set of marks, they often calculate grades differently. For instance, the Met allows students to improve their grades over time by doing more work, even months after a class ends. Less than a mile away at International Business, the only way a student can improve an old grade is to retake a failed class.

Grades may be slippery, but they can decide teens' futures. Tougher grading at schools like International Business could better prime students for tough colleges, but also hurt their chances to get in if colleges just don't know the difference. The school has tried to ensure that its grades mean something.

But its kids have to compete in a world where grades can mean anything.


Mike Little warns his accounting class that if they leave their balance sheets unbalanced, they'll get an F — maybe a D if he feels nice. He knocks off points if students round to the wrong penny or forget to bring their calculators...

"I'm very intolerant of things that would be bad for business," Little said. "If you work in a bank and your computer program rips people off, you get sued."

Principal Ana Diaz-Booz jokes that she braces for phone calls from parents and kids pleading to get out of Little's class when each semester starts. But tough grades are a point of pride for her school.

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