With their heads bent, hiding something in their laps, students are rapidly punching buttons—but it’s not a cell phone they’re using
– it’s a calculator. At Stuyvesant, many students are plagued with the belief that numbers define the future that lies ahead of them, constantly crunching the numbers to assess their GPA down to the hundredth of a point. At a school where admission is solely based on an exam grade on the Specialized High School Admissions Exam, one can expect that from the minute a new student walks into the school, academic class grades dominate his or her life. Number grades are given out twice a semester, and a basic E, S, N, U grade is distributed for the first marking period of each semester. Although this approach is what Stuyvesant has implemented for more than 40 years, it is not the only grading system out there, and many believe it might not be the best way to go. The recent cheating scandal involving 71 juniors last June has brought the flaws of grading policies into the spotlight. In response to this, the use of letter grades has been considered, which may eliminate many of the problems associated with the current system.
Numerical grades at Stuyvesant are separated into distinct categories. Grades go up by intervals of five up to 85. Grades then ascend from 85 to 88 and then increase consecutively from 90 to 100. Contrary to this, letter grades range from an F to an A+, covering a variety of numerical grades. The New York City Department of Education has set specific guidelines to follow in the case that a school should select to use letter grades as its policy; each letter grade has an assigned value. An “A+”, for example, is the equivalent of a 98. A “B-“, on the other hand, is an 83 when converted. Letter grades thus cover a broader range of numbers, and provide a method of grading that is less specific than numeric grading.
Because of these simpler standards, letter grades can decrease the anxiety students experience over their GPA. Grades are based on a unified system, and can be seen as an effort to reduce the degree of competitiveness associated with number grades. “Letter grades are great because they evoke less of a negative connotation versus number grades. For example, a B looks better than a 83 on paper,” sophomore Emily Lee said.
“Letter grades can provide more self-esteem and confidence to students who maybe feel inferior to those a point higher than them,” sophomore Wei Hou Wu said. In addition to these points, some students see letter grades as a better method because they reduce the pressure students feel in a rather competitive environment and place the focus of school back to learning instead of trying to inch a grade up half a point. Lee said, “Letter grades take off some of the stress we feel; we don’t need to push as hard to increase our grades. If we feel comfortable within the letter we’re in, it feels like a safe zone of sorts.”
Still, opponents of this view find that reduced pressure is not always beneficial to a student. “Letter grades make it even harder for a student to move up a grade—the range is too huge to see progress,” sophomore Iris Zhao said. In other cases, letter grades can be viewed as inaccurate measures of effort and performance in school. “If I had to choose, I guess the number grades are a little less annoying because they actually reflect the exact grade or average you received on a year’s course of work,” said Olivia Deng, a junior from Trinity High School, one of the premier private schools in the nation. Trinity, along with many other private and Catholic schools, opt to use letter grading systems for their students because their small student bodies (about 110 students per grade) allow letter grades to be a clear enough indication of individuality. On the other hand, with a school like Stuyvesant that has 800 students competing for admission to a limited amount of colleges, it can be difficult to stand out academically. Deng highlighted a potential problem with using the letter grades system within a larger student body. “In Trinity, giving out more general grades isn’t a big deal, but when hundreds of students are competing for the same spots, a decimal difference can make a huge impact regarding college acceptances,” Deng said.
Although a student’s transcript average is a major component of his or her acceptance into college, a school’s grading system does not play a large role for many colleges and universities. In terms of admission, most college counselors consider which type of grading a school utilizes as an unnecessary factor for determining a student’s worth. “We have no preference if schools use letter or number grades. The size of the class has nothing to do with it either,” said Elizabeth Morris, an admissions officer from NYU. Admission tends to be more or less holistic, stemming from extra-curriculars, academics, and personality as a whole. Ivy League schools, such as Princeton, Harvard, and Yale emphasize these qualities in their applicants.
For example, according to Mark Dunn, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Yale University Office of Undergraduate Admissions, “Yale does not have any preference for number grades versus letter grades. Our evaluation process involves a holistic analysis of each applicant’s academic accomplishments in the specific context of his or her high school. Yale looks for students who have consistently taken a broad range of challenging courses and done well, regardless of the grading systems their schools employ.”
Still, some colleges would prefer numbers in regards to Stuyvesant. Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University, said, “As a rule, we prefer number grades over letter grades, independent of the size of the student body or other factors. We find number grades allow us to make some useful distinctions among even smart, accomplished students. Anything that provides more information rather than less is of interest to us as we evaluate the many pieces of information we use in making admissions decisions.” In that sense, number grading can be considered more organized and easier to compare when dealing with large bodies of students.
Letter grades may not represent the ideal utopia of grading systems, but many say it’s a step in the right direction for Stuyvesant. Both types of grading have their setbacks and obstacles, and it appears that the student body may not be able to reach a consensus about the way grading at Stuyvesant could satisfy everyone’s views and opinions. For now, all that can be hoped for is that our current grading system is formally evaluated, in order to make Stuyvesant a better place to learn and prevent anything like our recent scandal from occurring ever again.