Do grades matter? Let me say with enthusiasm, yes! And with equal enthusiasm, no!
In order to dissect this oxymoronic answer, let me first speak from the perspective of college admissions. Grades don’t matter as much as you might think. That’s because colleges have several problems relying on grades to make admissions decisions. First, grades are ridiculously inflated across the country. In Alabama where I live, the average ACT score is a full point below the national average, but according to the self-reported section of that test, our average g.p.a. is 3.1 (a B). If the letter grade of “C” were truly accurate, reflecting the “average”, our g.p.a. should be somewhere in the 1.8-2.0 range. It’s no different in other states. The effect, quite frankly, is that colleges cannot trust grades as accurate reflections of achievement or abilities.
The second problem colleges have is that grading varies wildly from school to school. A typical state university may get 10,000 applications from 2,000 different high schools. Among the 2000 may be elite private, urban public, public magnet, rural, Catholic, Christian, Jewish, and evangelical Christian schools. Each has a different mission, caters to a different demographic, comes from a community with a different expectation, and aims for different outcomes. The net result is that a “4.0 g.p.a”, for example, simply doesn’t mean the same thing from school to school. As an example, in one large public school in Montgomery last year, there were 17 students who graduated with perfect 4.0 averages. In the 21 years I’ve been associated with our school, there has only been one student who has graduated with a 4.0. Colleges know that grade point averages don’t allow them to make “apples to apples” comparisons of applicants from different schools.
Finally, even within the SAME high school, grade point averages do not reliably compare students. A student who takes an honors and A.P. curriculum for four years may have a lower grade point average than a student who has taken less demanding classes.
As a result, colleges don't rely heavily on high school grades for college entrance. Rather, they are far more trusting of national standardized tests, either the SAT or the ACT, precisely because they compare students by the same measuring stick. To the extent that grades matter at all, some schools compare test scores to g.p.a. to determine work habits (a high test score with mediocre grades reveals something about character), while many of the elite colleges ask for a student’s class rank (which helps them contextualize a student’s grade point by comparing it to their school’s peers). Grades mean little on their own.
You may be thinking, “But don’t some scholarships require a certain grade point average”? Yes, but look carefully at the criteria. Typically, the top scholarships will say something like “minimum 32 on the ACT and 3.5+ grade point average”. Roughly 20% of those attending college have 3.5+ high school grade points, but less than 1% score a 32+ on the ACT. The true discriminator for academic scholarships is almost always the test score, not the grade point average.
If all that is true, what is the best strategy for positioning students for college entrance? Quite simply, students should take the most difficult and challenging set of courses that with hard work, they are able to earn a “C” or better in. As a former principal, I used to hear parents say “I don’t want my son/daughter to take _________ (fill in the demanding class) because it will hurt his/her grade point average. “ Nothing could be more wrong-headed! Yes, sometimes parents may judge it’s not in their child's best interest to take all the tough classes because of the stress of juggling them with his or her other commitments (are the priorities right?), but if the intent is to produce a higher grade point average so as to put their child in better stead with college admission counselors, it’s simply misguided for two reasons:
First, being stretched for four years by demanding classes will yield higher test scores, which, as I have argued, is the criteria that matters most.
Second, schools like Notre Dame and other elite schools are beginning to ask school counselors this question as part of the application process:
“On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the most demanding curriculum available at your school and 1 being the easiest, rate the difficulty level of the student’s curriculum”.
What colleges now realize is that the student's choice of courses, especially in his junior and senior year when there are more electives, is often a better predictor of college success than even the grades the student may earn in those courses. It’s better to get a “C” in A.P. Physics or Calculus than it is to make an A or B in lesser science or math electives, regardless of the impact on the grade point average.
What, then, is the point of striving for a good grade? Aha!--this is precisely where grades really DO matter—to the extent that they represent how hard a student is striving! For sure, students will always see grades as an end in themselves. That’s OK. But as adults, we need to value grades not in themselves, but as feedback to us as to how hard our child is working. If we have a very bright child who coasts through classes with a “B”, we should be very upset with our child. If we have a child who truly struggles but does his homework every night, attends after school tutorials, and pays attention in class, then we should take evident pride in our child, even if he fails from time to time and his report card is littered with “D’s”. I recommend that the parents of these hard working, less able children take their child to dinner to celebrate their “success” and their pride in their child’s effort, even before report cards come out.
In the end, grades are carrots. Good teachers understand this, and forever dangle the carrots a little further beyond what students think they're able to achieve, so as to stretch them to achieve even more. As parents, our expectation for our children should not be for a certain set of grades, but for consistent effort. We want our children to learn to work hard, and we want them to attend a school which is courageous enough to tell them the truth about how hard they are working, even if they sometimes earn less than stellar grades. If they learn to work hard, then the grades—and college admissions—will take care of themselves.