Grade Point Averages Research Paper Starter

Grade Point Averages

(Research Starters)

This article discusses the cumulative grade point average or GPA, which is a criterion measure of students' overall academic performance. Cumulative GPA is also a statistically significant predictor of high school students' future performance, academic achievement, and success in postsecondary education. GPAs are used by high schools to determine students' eligibility for coursework and various incentives; colleges and universities use them to determine applicant's eligibility for admission. However, GPAs are norm-referenced within schools, and are therefore relative measurements, the significance of which can vary across schools, districts, and states. Since the 1980s there has been a rise in high school graduates' GPAs, though this rise has not been linked to actual achievement, leaving high schools open to charges of grade inflation.

Keywords Academic Standing; Class Rank; Class Standing; College Admission Profiles; College Eligibility; Criterion Measure; Eligibility Index; Five-Point Grading Scale; Four-Point Grading Scale; Grade Inflation; Grade Point Average; Norm-Referenced; Predictive Validity; Self-Efficacy; Underprediction; Weighted Grade Point Averages



The cumulative high school grade point average (GPA) is a measurement of students' relative academic ability and overall academic performance. GPAs are scored by assigning point values to letter grades using either a four- or five-point system. In the four point system typically used in the United States, A=4; B=3; C=2; D=1; and F=0. On the five-point scale A=5; B=4; C=3; D=2; and F=0. To calculate a GPA, the point value of each letter grade is multiplied by the number of credits earned for the respective course. These products are added, then divided by the total number of credits earned. The final quotient is then rounded off to one decimal place. On a four-point system, 4.0 is normally the highest possible GPA; on the five point system, 5.0 is normally the highest possible GPA (Gatta, 1973; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007; Woodruff & Ziomek, 2004a).

To factor in the added difficulty of advanced classes, schools may use weighted GPAs. Students taking honors classes or advanced placement classes may earn between .5 or 1.0 bonus points on their letter grades. Alternatively, weighting may subtract points for certain elective classes like physical education. Students who have plusses or minuses appended to their letter grades may also have points added or subtracted. With weighting, students can earn GPAs above 4.0 and 5.0 on the respective 4-point and 5-point grading systems. Quantitative bonus point calculations of high school GPAs are used in determining class rank for graduating seniors and can have a significant impact on college admissions (Levy & Riordan, 1994; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007; Rutledge, 1991; Sadler & Tai, 2007).


Course Loads

Since the 1980s, the GPAs of U.S. high school students have gradually risen. At the same time, the proportion of high school students taking college preparatory classes and the proportion who aspire to graduate from college have constantly increased (Conley, 2006; Professional Media Group LLC, 2004). Data reveal that high school graduates from the year 2000 took more challenging courses, completed more course credits, and earned higher GPAs than graduates in the year 1990 (Aspen Publishers Inc., 2004; Carr, 2005).

Grade Inflation

Studies show that high school GPAs inflated between 1991 and 2003 without a concomitant increase in achievement. Depending on the subject area, the average amount of grade inflation over this thirteen-year period varied from 0.20 to 0.26 points on the 4-point grade scale (Woodruff & Ziomek, 2004a). A related study based on a nationally representative sample of 26,000 high school graduates similarly found that the average GPA was approximately a third of a letter grade higher in 2005 than in 1990 (Shettle et al., 2007). The same study revealed that the GPAs of four different racial groups—white, African American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander—all increased between 1990 and 2005. Judy Kowarsky (1994) found that the GPAs of all ethnic groups except the Latino group graduating from California public high schools improved between 1986 and 1996.

Grading Standards

Differences in grading standards among U.S. public high schools were also documented between 1998 and 2002 (Woodruff & Ziomek, 2004b). Because of these differences, it is difficult to compare grades and GPAs across not only schools, but also districts and states. And although high schools have traditionally used students' grades and GPAs for comparative ranking purposes, the number of high schools that do not rank students has been increasing (Levy & Riordan, 1994).



GPAs measure high school students' scholastic ability, achievement, and performance. Reeves (2006) makes the point that letter grades on report cards are the only source of information about the needs of lower-performing students. He concludes that, in most districts, students' report cards provide school leaders with very little information helpful to the lower-performing group of students whose academic performance lags behind that of their peers. He compared the performance differences of over 35,000 students in a midwestern school system. He found that the percent of proficient students in the lowest-achieving group of students was 3% in math, 12% in science, 28 % in reading, and 34% in social studies, whereas the percent of proficient students in the highest-achieving group of students was 21% in math, 39% in science, 53% in reading, and 69% in social studies. Figure 1, which is modified from Reeves (2006), shows that when the GPAs of the lowest-achieving and highest-achieving students are compared, the difference between the two groups is minimal—about .14 points.

Figure 1: Grade Point Average

Comparison of the grade point averages of the lowest and highest achieving groups of students. The difference is minimal and relatively indistinguishable (modified from Reeves, 2006).


Secondary schools as well as colleges and universities use GPAs to judge students' academic ability. High schools use students' GPAs for many different purposes, like determining eligibility for advanced courses or incentives like preferred parking spaces (Editorial Projects in Education Inc., 1999). As students finish high school, their GPAs can be used during the college admissions process.

Determining College Eligibility

GPAs indicate students' high school academic performances and are statistically significant predictors of high school students' future performance and success in higher education (Gabriel, 2005). College and university admissions departments, therefore, use GPAs in addition to other considerations like standardized test scores and students' high school courses to determine applicants' eligibility for admission.

Colleges and universities typically require students to meet or exceed a minimum GPA standard, though these standards can vary from school to school (California Postsecondary Education Commission, 2005; Gayles, 2006). For example, some schools may consider an applicant to have demonstrated sufficient academic aptitude by earning a C average or 2.0 GPA on a four-point scale (Eno, McLaughlin, Brozovsky, & Sheldon, 1998; Hebel, 2007). On the other hand, more competitive schools may require applicants to have earned a 3.5 GPA, or A/B average. Admissions officers may additionally consider applicants' class rankings (Center for Statistics, 1986; Rutledge, 1991).

GPAs are supplemented with standardized test scores, too. Like GPAs, most schools require their applicants to meet or exceed minimum SAT or ACT scores, and may also take into account any advanced placement test scores (Cowen & Fiori, 1991; Gayles, 2006). Meeting these minimum requirements does not guarantee admission, however. Students are also expected to demonstrate their seriousness and academic aptitude by completing a rigorous a high school curricula including college preparatory courses and subject requirements (Eno, McLaughlin, Brozovsky, & Sheldon, 1998; Hebel, 2007; Kowarsky, 1994).

Finally, admissions officers realize that college success is about more than just grades. High school students who are involved in athletics, student government, arts programs, or volunteer activities demonstrate that they possess personal qualities that will make them engaged and dynamic college students. Correspondingly, students who are involved in extracurricular activities tend to have higher GPAs and higher academic rankings. Admissions officers, therefore, frequently look at extracurricular activities and any non-academic honors, like service and leadership awards, to determine applicants' eligibility for admission (Center for Statistics, 1986; Hebel, 2007).

Besides determining eligibility for admission, all of these factors can also be used to determine applicants' eligibility for college scholarships. Depending on the type of scholarship, applicants may be required to have earned a minimum high school GPA, for example a 3.0. Students may also be required to maintain a minimum college GPA in order to retain their scholarships.

Prediction of Academic Success

Though colleges almost universally use high school GPAs to measure students' achievement and predict their academic success, experts disagree on how closely high school GPAs correlate to college GPAs (Hebel, 2007; Reese & Dunn, 2008).

Christopher Erik Mattson (2007), for instance, concludes that students' high school GPAs are the single pre-college variable that most accurately predicts their college GPAs. Another study finds that high school GPAs have the highest correlation with college freshman GPAs, and are the strongest predictor of moderate first-year achievement, exceeding the predictability of ACT scores (Zwick & Schlemer, 2004; Noble & Sawyer, 2004). Research also shows that, although academic ability is the most significant explanatory variable in studies on student learning, high school GPAs are also a significant control for academic aptitude and college grades (Grove, Wasserman, & Grodner, 2006).

Others, however, contend that predictive validity is improved by supplementing a student's GPA with other information concerning his or her pre-college achievements. Factoring in college entrance exam scores in addition to high school GPA, for instance, increases the predictability of overall college freshman GPA to a small but significant amount for all gender and ethnic subgroups (Cowen & Fiori, 1991). Likewise, one study found a direct link between high school students' mathematics coursework and their preparation for postsecondary education (Eno, McLaughlin, Brozovsky, & Sheldon, 1998). And even accounting for variations in college grading systems, another study showed that high school students who had one or more honors or advanced placement courses in science performed better and earned higher grades in an introductory college science course than those who had not taken advanced courses (Sadler and Tai, 2007). Another study found that at more demanding colleges, ACT scores are better predictors of...

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