Kali Deem’s academic future was on the line. A College of Wooster recruiter wanted to know about the classes she is taking at Wadsworth High School, her participation in sports and extracurricular activities and what she found inspiring.
But he didn’t ask about her grades.
As the college admissions process begins in earnest, Deem and thousands of other high school seniors are learning the grades they have been working to improve are still important, but to educators, those grades are nuanced and difficult if not impossible to compare.
So as area schools reveal fall-term grades in the next few days, parents and students need to know that an A or B in science is just part of the equation. Results of standardized tests like the ACT don’t tell the whole story, either.
Sports, participation in clubs, volunteer work, leadership skills and how they spend their spare time can also influence their future, even in elementary school. And some of the factors are out of their control, including the academic rigor and reputation of their school.
Students not going to college must be aware that employers also may have an interest in grades, but character, punctuality and certification for trades might make the difference.
In elementary grades, some pupils don’t even get letter grades. Instead their parents hear descriptions of how they’re doing, such as “meeting expectations” or “needs work.” Also important are high-stakes tests for children as young as 9, to determine whether they will move up the academic ladder.
Trying to make sense of it all are parents who experienced a vastly different education environment that might have led them to believe — falsely — that good grades were all that mattered.
The education game is not played on an even field.
A student can score 91 on a test in one district and get an A while a student in a neighboring district finds a 91 only brings a B.
Further complicating the mix is not every class is the same. One school might have a regular ninth-grade science class and also offer advanced ninth-grade science with a different, more rigorous curriculum. Additionally, an A in the advanced placement science class might be worth 5 points on the grading scale in one school but only 4 for the same class a few miles away. So when a student says she has a 3.7 grade-point average, it cannot be easily compared to another student in another school.
T. David Garcia, associate vice president for enrollment management at Kent State, says his department translates into a revised GPA the points from advanced placement and other rigorous classes and also takes into account the strength and reputation of the schools.
For him, the GPA is king.
“The No. 1 predictor of student success in college will be the courses they have taken in high school and the grades in those courses,” he said.
Additionally, while encouraging extracurricular activities, he warns about excess.
“Students will get so involved in extracurricular activities that it impacts their high school performance, which does not send a positive message to colleges and universities,” he said.
By the time students apply to colleges, they have taken the SAT or the ACT. Because those tests are standardized across the country, they level the playing field more than grades.
Good grades and a good test score will be all a student needs to get into many colleges. But if they are seeking a prestigious school or if they have deficient grades or test scores, their experiences and all the other things they do can make a difference.
Diane Raybuck, University of Akron’s director of admissions, said students on the borderline of the school’s standards might still get in if they can show social skills and work ethics that are suitable to an environment more difficult than they might expect.
“They don’t realize that they can’t sort of sit out the first month and enjoy themselves and then hit it in October. They can’t catch up,” she said.
The College of Wooster, which receives 5,600 applications for 560 spots, insists on superior scores.
W. Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment, says a student who got good grades but didn’t take the toughest classes, might have trouble getting accepted.
“Slackers need not apply,” he said.
On the other hand, students with blemishes on their transcripts still have a chance if they can explain the poor performance in an essay or interview. Illness or a relative’s death are examples, he said.
David Yokley, the interviewer for Deem, found no blemishes on her record in their October talk.
He was pleased with her 29 on the ACT, which she hopes to raise to a 30 when she takes the test again. He noted she played high school tennis and encouraged her to play for the Scots, saying she might be surprised that she can compete in Division III collegiate sports.
Overall, he was OK with her list of extracurricular activities but did say she could have had more.
They both parted, thinking she has a chance to study in Wooster. That decision will come later.
She and her mother didn’t accept his invitation for lunch. They were on their way to the University of Mount Union.
Sorting out excellence
With 25 years experience as a collegiate football coach, Jim Tressel has assessed the academic futures of thousands of potential college students.
Now as vice president for student success at the University of Akron, he encourages broad experience in addition to good grades.
“It was true when we were in school,” Tressel said while attending an event for prospective students on the football field inside UA’s Stile Field House. “Just think back to the people who were admitted into the academies; it wasn’t just their GPA, it was all the things they did in their community, everything they did in their school, everything they did on their campus, all the things that made them a whole person. I think they are extremely important.”
Attending the same UA function was Riquan Jennings, 17, a GlenOak senior and wide receiver on the football team.
He hopes to play in college, but after receiving a 17 on the ACT — borderline for college admission — he knows it’s time to improve.
Asked about his grades, he said he has received “B’s and C’s but I’m trying to get A’s now.”
His reasons are simple. “The love of football. I love football so much.”
His father, Rick, said he insists grades are most important. He moved the family from another district because Riquan had a group of friends that the father didn’t like.
Matthew Hammond, 16, a sophomore at Kent Roosevelt, admitted he has been afraid that extracurricular activities could hurt his grades. He’s in the National Honor Society.
However, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s glad he joined the Latin club.
“I think Latin is one of the best languages you can take in high school,” he said.
Don’t get mad
Bad grades are no reason for parents to get upset, multiple educators insisted.
“By the time you see the grade, the performance event is over, so yelling or creating negative emotions is not productive. It does not move the children forward,” said Matthew Deevers, senior research associate for the Summit Education Initiative, a local research organization.
Deevers and SEI Executive Director Derran K. Wimer said parents should respond constructively.
“I think parents reflect on their own experience and use that as their primary source of information with their own children,” Wimer said. “If [a poor grade] has been their own experience then that will be what they share with their kids: ‘I‘m not good at math so you won’t be good at math.’ Those types of conversations are not helpful.”
The key, they said, is to look forward to progress rather than backward to failure.
“I think that’s the beauty of school. Every year is a new start, a rebirth and so the teachers each year have higher expectations for your kids,” Wimer said. “So if you are asking: ‘Is there an opportunity for a student to break the previous mold that he has set for himself?’ I think, yes there is.”
Never give up
Educators contacted for this story generally fell into the “never-give-up” philosophy.
Walter Davis, superintendent of Woodridge schools, said he rarely finds a “C” acceptable, but it can happen. “If [a parent] can demonstrate or at least have the understanding that your child did the best they could or left no stone unturned and you really feel you exhausted all the possibilities, then that’s the time,” he said.
He also expects his teachers to be invested in the success of lagging students, taking personal responsibility for helping them perform.
“I want our teachers to say: ‘Johnny got a C? How does Johnny feel about that? Did Johnny do the best he could do?’ If all of those are affirmative then, ‘OK, Johnny got a C,’ ” he said.
Wimer, a former superintendent for Berea schools, said he likes the idea of telling students any grade is written in pencil.
He would tell a student, “let’s look at this. You’re not done and I’m not done. I haven’t put it in ink yet. I want your best work and this is not your best work.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.