Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making the Grade: Self-Worth, Status, and Mini-Vans

What comes to mind when you think of grades or GPA? As someone who only finished the GPA stage of her education journey a couple of years ago, I find myself immensely relieved that I no longer have to spend numerous hours worrying about whether or not I make the grade. I would also be remiss if I did not, at least on some level, acknowledge that I do miss the bursts of motivation, all-nighter writing sessions and so on, that accompanied my desire to make the grade. My ambition, though, for wanting to make the grade may be different than my friends, neighbors, or fellow colleagues. The question follows then, what do grades symbolize? Why do certain students find their entire self-worth/intelligence defined by the letters or numerical averages on a piece of paper? Who cares more about grades/test scores? Is merit distributed equitably for all students with high GPAs?

USA Today's Mary Beth Marklein draws attention to the fact that many U.S. universities and colleges are no longer looking at GPAs for admission. Parents, however, find the GPA to be an important marker of their child's intelligence. GPA/honor-student status is also a designator of elevated social class--bumper stickers for parents' mini-vans/sedans and flair for moms' purses or rear-view mirrors.

Prior to learning the statuses associated with high GPA, I would argue particularly those of class and whiteness, would grades have any meaning to students? The importance of GPA is learned and, for this reason, we should always be cautious of how a constructed concept may influence people/students of different social, economic, and historical locations.  

Is merit distributed equitably for all students with high GPAs? Differences in a school's geographical location (i.e., inner-city, rural, or suburb), social location (i.e., public or private), and historical location (i.e., the school's federal report card or accreditation). Schools' variations influence students' merit when they get to the college's admissions board, but what about prior to that? When students from lower-socioeconomic positions achieve higher GPAs, are they granted the same level of merit as students from higher-socioeconomic positions? Even if they are, I would argue that a student from a lower-socioeconomic position might correlate self-worth/intelligence more strongly with GPA than a student from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Why? Because in addition to the countless images of college success stories in the media, their parents most probably equated academic achievement with elevated social and economic status--that is, a way to make money, to help the family, to do better than "we" did. At least that was how it was for me--a first-generation college student.

What are universities and colleges doing to address how merit is distributed during admissions? According to USA today, one method used is recalculating students' GPAs according to the challenging nature of the courses students have taken. Well, I'd be curious to know how each schools' geographical, social, historical location and possibly the number of mini-vans influence that scale.

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